Ensuring that your booth is accommodating to attendees with disabilities often starts at the drawing board.
More often than not, face-to-face marketers want their exhibits to be inviting and engaging for as many attendees as possible. This ambitious aim often leads to design decisions, such as including in-booth presentation theaters and eye-catching double-deck structures, that capture showgoers' interest and encourage them to linger and learn more about your company. But there is a group of attendees whose needs are often overlooked when it comes to exhibit design, and are therefore left feeling less than welcome in many booths: those with physical disabilities and sensory impairments, e.g., a total or partial loss of hearing and/or vision.
According to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation (i.e., businesses that are generally open to the public), trade show exhibits are considered public accommodations and subject to ADA requirements. So why aren't more exhibits following the letter of the law? It seems there is an industrywide misconception that exhibits are classified as "temporary structures" and therefore exempt from the ADA. This could turn out to be a very expensive misunderstanding for an exhibitor that gets sued, as Title III gives the Department of Justice the authority to obtain the maximum civil penalty of $75,000 for the first violation and a maximum of $150,000 for any subsequent violations.
Since show management often includes a clause in either the booth-space rental agreement or exhibitor handbook stating that the exhibitor is solely responsible for ensuring that its display complies with the ADA, accountability in this matter falls to us. And as marketers, why wouldn't we want to make sure that we are as sensitive and inclusive as we can be by making our booth space accommodating to anyone who wants to visit us, see our products, and talk with our staff? To that end, here are several areas where we can – or the ADA requires us to – plan accessibility into our exhibit designs.
Exhibits with raised floors (more often found outside the United States) must include ramps onto which mobility devices such as scooters or wheelchairs can roll – but cannot extend the ramp into the show-floor aisle. A standard wheelchair ramp should have a grade no steeper than 1:12, meaning there should be 12 inches of run (i.e., length) for every inch of rise (i.e., height). So if your exhibit is raised four inches, you'll need a 4-foot-long ramp. Ramps must be a minimum of 36 inches wide. If your exhibit is housed in a trailer, you'll need to either build a compliant ramp to the entry or procure a hydraulic lift to allow unrestricted access.
Per the ADA, ramps must also include handrails along both sides. And the regulations are specific to say the least: "The top of the gripping surfaces of handrails shall be 34 inches (865 mm) minimum and 38 inches (965 mm) maximum vertically above walking surfaces, stair nosings, and ramp surfaces. Handrails shall be at a consistent height."
There must be no less than 36 inches of unobstructed space between displays, fixtures, etc., and a 3-foot-square area in all corners to allow a person in a mobility device to make a 90-degree turn. (Keep in mind that placing a banner stand or potted plant in a 36-inch-wide aisle would make your exhibit noncompliant.) If this level of access isn't possible due to an exhibit's footprint, the ADA mandates that staff be available at all times to retrieve out-of-reach items.
Multilevel exhibits are the most challenging to make accessible. Unless exhibitors install an elevator, double-deck exhibits must offer the same amenities on both levels so everyone can have a similar experience regardless of their ability to climb stairs. So if your upper deck is being used for meeting-room space or hospitality, you'll need to furnish an area on the lower level with comparable features. One potential low-budget remedy: If your upper deck is being used for presentations, consider pretaping or streaming the presentations for viewing on the lower level.
Height of Exhibit Elements
Position interactive elements, including touchscreens, product displays, etc., at heights that will be accessible to booth visitors who are using mobility devices. Per the ADA, the minimum and maximum "touch point" heights, e.g., how low and high an interactive element can be placed, are 15 and 48 inches above the finished floor. And for exhibitors using bar-height (i.e., approximately 42-inch-tall) tables and counters, consider having one or two 30-inch-tall tables at which a chair can be removed to allow wheelchair or scooter access.
If your exhibit includes a theater-style presentation area, you can mark off space with no seating at the ends of the front row for those using mobility devices. Also, instruct staffers to reserve some front-row seating for those with visual impairments. Have printed copies of the presentation or demonstration script available, and include closed captions in your video presentations for those with hearing difficulties. (As noisy as some show floors are, closed captions can benefit the majority of show attendees.)
The ADA gets very specific regarding requirements for flooring, especially carpet. Regulations state that "if carpet or carpet tile is used on a ground or floor surface, then it shall be securely attached; have a firm cushion, pad, or backing, or no cushion or pad; and have a level loop, textured loop, level cut pile, or level cut/uncut pile texture." It even goes so far as to list a maximum pile thickness of .5 inches.
On a similar note, under-carpet padding can be a relief for weary feet, but too much of a good thing can raise some mobility challenges. I've heard at least one tale of a showgoer getting her scooter stuck in a combination of thick-pile carpeting and double padding, an embarrassing situation she compared to being mired in quicksand. I recommend not double-padding plush (28 oz. or higher) carpet to avoid ensnaring attendees in a similar flooring fix.
Attendees with a hearing impairment sometimes request assistance from show management in being assigned an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter or an auxiliary apparatus. If the show manager does not provide this service, it becomes the responsibility of the exhibitor, and failure to do so is a violation of the ADA. Generally, the attendee will provide show management with a list of the exhibitors he or she wishes to visit, and those exhibitors then work together to orchestrate the necessary accessibility services for the attendee. A quick internet search will list national and regional organizations that provide certified ASL interpreters.
A quick mention of etiquette: Booth visitors with hearing impairments may also read lips. In these cases, it is proper to look directly at the attendee and speak normally. Do not raise the volume of your voice unless asked.
Showgoers who have difficulty seeing or are blind are faced with navigating an unfamiliar and highly unpredictable setting. From a design perspective, make sure that your exhibit's aisles are free of obstacles and minimize the use of raised platforms, which are tripping hazards for even the able sighted. When interacting with a visually impaired attendee, identify yourself and your title, and briefly describe the layout of the exhibit. If the attendee has a service animal, do not speak to or touch it unless invited to do so.
Finally, if you're in a situation with a person with a disability on the show floor, don't be afraid to ask how you can best assist them. There's a good chance they've encountered the same or similar scenario before and know what we can do to accommodate them. By keeping our exhibits accessible to all, we're not only following the law – we're doing the right thing, period. E
CTSM, CEM, CMP, CMM
"The Booth Mom," is an independent exhibit project manager, trainer, speaker, consultant, and an Exhibitor Conference faculty member. CandyAdams@BoothMom.com