What if you wanted to attend networking meetings and other professional events, and you physically couldn’t get into or stay at a venue because of stairs, doors, fixed seats, and inaccessible washrooms preventing your access?
At a networking event, speaker Lauri Sue Robertson, a disability awareness consultant, gave an overview of a plethora of challenges she herself has faced trying to get into businesses, event venues, restaurants, and hotels. She teaches people who aren’t disabled, how to work with disabled and special needs clients.
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) applies only to business owners who have employees. In that case, you are responsible for training your staff in customer service for disabled persons, and you need to make certain provisions for the hiring and assistance of employees who may have disabilities.
Even business owners without employees are well served to be aware and able to accommodate clients with special needs. In Canada, at least 15% of the population lives with one or more disabilities, so chances are you will encounter clients who are affected.
Lauri emphasized that what persons with disabilities want most is independence, dignity, and to be able to make their own decisions. This means if you plan to meet a prospect or client in a public place, for example a café or restaurant, and you know they have a disability, be sure to ask them for their preferred meeting location. If they use a mobility device or have a visual impairment, you want to be sure they can safely access the venue, move around comfortably inside it, and also be able to use the washroom. If you are an event organizer, these aspects are also important and it is helpful to include mention of accessibility, or lack thereof, on your event notice and registration page.
If your client will be accompanied by a service animal, which apparently can be a dog or a wide range of other trained animals, Lori says the onus is then on the client to alert you of the fact and ensure you don’t have a fear or allergy towards their particular service animal – because apparently even rats might be companion animals! (Although currently only trained companion dogs are permitted into restaurants and cafés.)
Lori also pointed out that if your client needs to lip-read what you say, don’t exaggerate your speech or your mouth movements and don’t shout, as this makes lip-reading difficult or impossible. Speak normally, just make sure you’re looking right at the person.
I thought I was doing quite well in my general awareness of how to acknowledge and work with someone with special needs, until Lori told us that web designs are often a large hurdle in terms of accessibility. I had no idea! Websites with photos and images without a text-only alternative are difficult or even impossible for a blind person to navigate with a “screen reader”. A screen reader essentially reads out the content of the website and helps to navigate from one page or section to the next. This requires a text alternative to your web content, as well as a good document structure, e.g. with headings, lists, and other structural elements that provide meaning and facilitate keyboard navigation.
According to Lauri, so much more needs to be done to raise awareness of how, and how not to act around people with special needs or disabilities. Most importantly, she says, avoid making assumptions about what the person is able to do, or may or may not want you to do or help with. The best thing to do is ask how you can help. And don’t be offended if any assistance you offer is politely declined.
Source: Lauri Sue Robertson, www.disabilityawarenessconsultants.com