A crowd assembled to protest. The crowd is blurred. In the foreground of the picture, in focus, is a microphone.

How to Make Your Social Justice Events Accessible to the Disability Community: A Checklist

Download the checklist in this post as a printable resource!
Click here to download the checklist as a Word Document.
Click here to download the checklist as a PDF.

Since this year’s inauguration, we’ve seen a sea of protest sweep across the U.S., from spontaneous events to carefully organized marches that have been in the works for weeks. As a seasoned protest veteran, it’s exciting to see so many people engaged in taking their causes to the streets.

It’s coming at a price, though. Many of these events are leaving disability off their “diversity statements” and they’re also failing to account for disabled people who might want to participate. We have a lot at stake in the coming years and we’re eager to join our fellow citizens. We’re also tired of repeatedly asking events to foreground accessibility, rather than treating it as an afterthought, or expecting us to come in and clean up their inaccessible mess.

Real inclusive organizing should at a minimum include: Incorporating disability into your values or action statements; having disabled people on the organizing committee or board; making accessibility a priority from day one; and listening to feedback from disabled people.

I realize this is intimidating for people who may not have interacted with disability rights issues before, so here’s a starter checklist for accessibility, from your website to the day of the event.

Website Accessibility

  • Use high contrast and consider using a tool to allow users to switch from dark-on-light to light-on-dark
  • Don’t use flashing animations
  • Use alt text
  • Don’t use images to present text information
  • Use skip navigation
  • Offer a magnifying tool
  • Caption and/or transcribe video and audio content
  • Use descriptive link text (“find pictures of cute animals here” rather than “here”), as screenreader users may jump through links and need to know where they lead
  • Include a website accessibility statement, like this one from Rooted in Rights’ parent organization, Disability Rights Washington
  • Include event accessibility information prominently, with a clear access plan and contact information

Need help? Start with WebAIM and Section 508.

Creating an Access Plan

  • Vet your facilities
  • In buildings, look for: Ramps; accessible all gender restrooms; doorways of sufficient width for wheelchairs to enter; ample seating; reconfigurable spaces; bright, even light.
  • On march and parade routes, look for: Even, smooth surfaces; sufficient seating for rest breaks; accessible nearby parking; accessible all gender toilets in easy reach; accessible ground transport; cover in the event of rain.
  • Designate seating for disabled people in the front of the room or crowd and near the exits, marking space off so nondisabled attendees understand they should not sit there
  • Provide sign language interpretation for all events
  • Provide Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), as not all people who have hearing loss or who are d/Deaf use sign language to communicate, and it can provide greater access for people with auditory processing disorders
  • Consider providing loaner wheelchairs or scooters, possibly through a third party vendor who can assume liability
  • Consider offering wheelchair-accessible shuttles
  • Designate a service animal relief area
  • Designate an access team who coordinate accessibility issues throughout planning and through to the end of the event, and provide them with readily recognizable markers like shirts, vests, or hats so they’re easy to find
  • Develop a scent policy — going scent-free will enhance accessibility
  • Consider designating a quiet space or room
  • Use a public address (PA) system
  • Ensure that anyone who is speaking, including audience members, use microphones
  • Consider audio assistance, like hearing loops, for people who have hearing loss and rely on assistive technologies such as hearing aids

Need help? This ADA checklist can be a great resource, as can this guide on designing ADA-compliant events; the Autistic Self Advocacy Network is a good place to start with more inclusive access policies.

Making Your Event Policies Disability-Friendly

  • Include disabled people in your leadership, organization, scheduled speakers and panelists, imagery, and documentation
  • Include disability in your anti-harassment, anti-discrimination, and diversity policies, recognizing disability as a social and political category
  • Assume disabled people are in the room, even if they aren’t evident, and that they are stakeholders in your event
  • Include a disability orientation for all volunteers and staff
  • Include a space on your registration form for people to express access needs
  • Document your accessibility policy and efforts and make them public
  • Have a framework in place for responding to criticism and feedback from the disability community
  • Be mindful of your language:
    • Avoid words that use disability as an insult, like “crazy” or “hysterical”
    • Avoid phrases such as “wheelchair-bound” or “suffers from”
  • Pay disability consultants like you would other professionals who are providing services

Need help? Here are some examples of accessibility policies to draw upon: SXSW; NOLOSE; National Conference of State Legislatures website accessibility policy; and Convergence.

The above is a starting point for establishing a basic accessibility framework; by bringing disabled people into your planning, you’ll be able to dive much deeper and help set standards for other event organizers to live up to. Remember, disability access is an important part of social justice praxis, and it’s not enough for a space to meet basic physical standards — it should also be emotionally accessible, with an environment that explicitly welcomes and includes disabled people. Demonstrating your commitment to accessibility helps disabled people feel like we are part of the community.

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  1. CART needs to be provided for all events as it is essential for the vast majority of people with moderate to profound hearing loss. It also benefits many others who have trouble understanding spoken English in suboptimal conditions, like non-native speakers of English Probably 30 to 40% of the population benefit greatly from CART but need to know it will be provided in advance so that they will known they can understand what’s being communicated.

  2. This accessibility check list is very helpfiul.
    As a PWD( person with a disability) , advocate our first step is being invited to the table & being on the same page with everyone else… when we talk about community concerns and/or issues…. these issues as we well know concerns us “ALL” & not just some of us.

    Please send me a mailing address for a donation.

  3. I agree with Dana Mulvaney. CART is used primarily by hard of hearing people who do not understand or use ASL interpreters. The correct wording of the advisory should be: Provide sign language interpretation and Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) for all events.

  4. I shared this post on FB. A friend responded that D.C. was completely set up for the disabled and that she expects all the other major cities were too. As far as I know she is not disabled. I was going to respond to her comment but I am very interested in what the authors response to her would be.

    1. Not an author but someone who had initially thought I might go to either the DC march or one in the major city near me. So I was paying close attention to and asking about accessibility from an early point. Unfortunately, your friend was misinformed. I think some people see wheelchairs or ASL interpreters and assume all is good. DC was not “completely set up”. They did make an effort, due to the work of the WMW Disability Caucus, however, disability inclusion and access was not planned in from the start, and was not prominent on the WMW FB page or website, right up to the event (contrasting that with the WMW info for parents wanting to bring children, which was quite prominent). Whether or not an event’s organizers are trying to make something accessible, a lack of clear info in advance about accessibility, or a lack of contacts for access/accommodation in media about the event, risks deterring many PWD from attending. As you are probably aware but your friend maybe isn’t, we often need time to plan and that includes getting accurate, timely information to consider whether we can safely participate. While the efforts of the WMW Disability Caucus are appreciated, for sure, the myth that the DC march is a shining example of how to do everything right must be dispelled. It is an example of some good first steps, which need to be built on in the future. As for your friend’s extrapolation from her (erroneous) conclusion that the DC march was fully accessible, I can’t speak about all the major cities, but I can for a few. They were not. They were less accessible than the WMW/DC. I have friends who stayed home, and were pretty upset about it, because accessibility/disability inclusion was apparently not part of the planning, and organizers were reluctant to address it fully when directly asked about it in the lead up, e.g., Indianapolis.

  5. The checklist stated: “Provide sign language interpretation for all events, and consider Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) for crowded rooms where it may be hard to see an interpreter.””

    Again, this language needs to be corrected as soon as possible. CART should not be described as a service to provide only in crowded rooms. Only 1% to 2% of people with hearing loss are fluent in sign language. The majority of people with significant hearing loss acquire their hearing loss after they learned to speak and they’re not fluent in sign language, so ASL interpreters are not able to provide effective communication access for them.

    National organizations like the Hearing Loss Association of America can communicate such information about the needs of people who are hard of hearing or who lost hearing as adults. Some organizations that purport to represent all deaf and hard of hearing people actually tend to emphasize the needs of people who use sign language rather than all people with hearing loss; they may not be truly knowledgeable about the needs of oral people with hearing loss.

    Many (but not all) people who use ASL can use realtime captioning for receptive communication. When there will be two-way communication between ASL users and the public, qualified ASL interpreters are especially important to provide.

    It’s also very important to obtain the services of *certified* CART providers, preferably on-site. The National Court Reporters Association certifies realtime captioners. People who say that they provide CART but who haven’t passed the certification tests may not be able to provide accurate and fast enough communication access. I personally have seen woefully inadequate services from people who claimed that they provided CART but who had never been certified, and sometimes the services were so ineffective that they were useless and a waste of money (as well as everyone’s time who participated in getting them and mine). The website for the NCRA is http://www.ncra.org/.

  6. Do not distribute information in pdf format, or if you do make sure you offer the same information in an accessble format eg a word processing document so that the reader can easily change settings to suite their particular visual impairment.

    See also https://www.w3.org/WAI/ – not sure but doubt many social media mediums meet these guidelines.

    Also apply web accessibility standards to e-newsletters – standard should be plain text http://www.jimbyrne.co.uk/create-accessible-email/

  7. People in wheelchairs are not the only ones who need accessible routes. An accessible outdoor route for someone like me who has Multiple Chemical Sensitivities is a route that is not near any place recently treated with pesticides or chemical fertilizers, or near any place recently mulched. Other hazards I must avoid in order to attend outdoor events like the Women’s March on Washington (which was more fragrance free than any of the much smaller marches I’ve been to since) include fragrance other attendees, volunteers, and organizers wear; exhaust from combustion vehicles and generators; and tobacco smoke. It seemed like a lot of smokers decided that once the march began, it was okay to light up. Smoke makes it hard for me to breathe and stand, let alone walk. I want to participate in these rallies and marches as much as the next caring person, but I don’t know how much longer my health can stand up to it as it takes a beating every time I go. Raising awareness of the needs of people with chemical sensitivities among those planning and attending such events will help.

  8. I went to a protest at an airport & everyone was crowded standing around listening to speakers & I ended up having to sit on the floor in the middle of this chaos (since I can’t stand for extended periods of time) & risked getting trampled on– having designated seating would totally have prevented this 🙂

  9. as a super-sized person, it is also important to provide chairs that do not have arms and that are sturdy enough to hold a large person without breaking. best if the chairs are not linked together, as space may be needed between chairs. along with providing aisles that are wide enough for mobility scooters and wheelchairs, spaces that are cramped make it difficult to navigate. Chairs are essential, both for older, disabled, and larger people, all of whom may not be comfortable sitting on the ground.

  10. I’ll also note that CART can be useful for people who are less-fluent with spoken English. And you can use the CART transcript to publish rough drafts for people who couldn’t attend the event.

  11. Yes, it is true that CART transcripts can sometimes, but not always, be used as rough transcripts for people not in attendance, or even for people in attendance. That would need to be discussed with the CART provider in advance.

  12. I love this list, thank you for posting it. Really important & helpful.

    I do have to say I’m a bit disappointed that from my perspective as a person with psycho-social disabilities, I feel that it does not address the accessibility needs of people with psycho-social disabilities (apart from the suggestion for a quiet area, which is very helpful). For example, people with PTSD, trauma, or anxiety may all have accessibility needs which are not addressed here. I don’t have the time right now to explain all of these needs. So I’ll just give two examples:

    Some people can be very overwhelmed when being touched by strangers without their explicit consent or being talked to by strangers when they need to rest – which happens *all the time* at the events, rallies, protests, meetings, conferences etc. One solution to this can be the “traffic light model”: people put either a green, orange or yellow sign somewhere on their badge or their clothes (in any way that let’s you swap them easily). Green would mean “I’m happy to talk to anyone”, orange is “I’m happy to talk to people I know”, and red is “I don’t want to talk to people right now”. The touch thing could be solved with similar or other solutions. The touch thing is also relevant when thinking about seating. Often seating is so tight, that people touch you from the side or behind or when they pass by you. As some one else mentioned above, tight seating is also not inclusive of all body sizes.

    Another example, relevant eg to conferences, workshops, training, is about which kind of ice breakers or exercises you use. “Forced” introductions (e.g. going around and everyone has to introduce themselves), physical exercises that require touching other people (e.g. holding hands), exercises that force you to be the center of attention… all of these can easily make many people feel super overwhelmed, but are very commonly used.

    But like I said these are just two small examples which are the tip of the iceberg of accessibility for people with psycho-social disabilities. Then there are also the needs of neuroatypical people / people who have aspergers or autism.

    It would just be nice to see accessibility used more widely in a way that includes all types of disability, not only/primarily physical and sensory disabilities. To be clear, of course those absolutely have to be to included as well!

    I would personally also extend the list of problematic words, as sadly most people liberally use words like “insane”, “lame”, and “nuts” in addition to “crazy” and “hysterical”, often without being aware of it or being aware that it’s ableist/mentalist.

    Does the list cover all accessibility issues re intellectual disabilities? I’m not sure.

  13. Thank you so much for mentioning bathrooms-a lot of public events are not accessible for IBD patients and others with GI issues and/or ostomies because of lack of bathrooms and/or information about bathrooms. Another consideration I don’t often see mentioned is to make sure there are ENOUGH restrooms, and that they are well-stocked with TP and soap. Just having accessible bathrooms is not enough if someone with GI problems has to wait in a long line or can’t wipe or wash their hands after. Also consider providing ziplock bags in bathrooms at the event space. A lot of IBD patients can’t ‘hold it’ when they have to go, and ostomies can leak, so having bags on hand for soiled clothing can be super helpful in these instances.

  14. Another thing is if you are marching, do not put your fastest people in the very front of the march. This when done often results in the march being paced too fast for those with disabilities, and disabled people falling way behind the main group, often leaving them venerable to being picked off if something happens.

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