Planning Accessible Events, Conferences, and Meetings: Planning for Emergencies

Adapted from an article by June Isaacson Kailes, Disability Policy Consultant

Procedures for emergencies should be incorporated into event planning, and planners should consider the needs of everyone. Planners should expect that there will be attendees with disabilities who may need assistance in an emergency, even if no one has requested specific disability-related accommodations. Many individuals have hidden disabilities, which they may not disclose if they don’t need accommodations for routine activities.

Additionally, some people may not realize that they will need assistance in an emergency because they have never experienced one before.

Attendees may have a variety of disabilities, both apparent and hidden, that limit breathing, hearing, seeing, reading, understanding, walking, climbing, reaching, or other functions. These individuals may have difficulty or be unable to:

  • Use stairs
  • Hear alarms
  • See or read exit signs
  • Understand written or verbal instructions

There are many kinds of emergencies, and this article does not address every type, but applying the strategies outlined here will help avoid inadequate planning and response.

Considerations for Site Selection

fire alarm signal with visible light signalChoose facilities that are equipped with audible and visible (flashing light) fire alarms and a fire sprinkler system. The U.S. Fire Administration has a list of hotels and motels approved for federal travelers which can be helpful in identifying properties that have certain safety features.

Facilities that have ground floor meeting rooms with accessible paths directly to the outside can make it easier to evacuate large numbers of people, and greater numbers of individuals with disabilities may be able to evacuate independently.

A tour of an event facility should include an assessment of other features related to safety or evacuation. For example:

A facility’s emergency procedures should also be reviewed, including those related to sleeping accommodations if your event involves overnight stays.

  • What information about emergency procedures and evacuation is provided in guest rooms?

    • Are materials available in alternate formats, such as large print, if requested?
  • Are staff trained to provide verbal descriptions and directions that may be needed to orient guests with vision disabilities to the facility?
  • If the facility is equipped with evacuation devices, are staff trained and drilled on how to use them?

    • Do procedures address the potential need for repeated use of evacuation devices?
    • Do procedures address retrieval of personal mobility devices that may be left behind during assisted evacuation?

Inclusive Safety Information

Consider a variety of methods and formats to inform attendees about safety information and procedures, and include personal safety tips in event materials such as websites, apps, and programs.

Announce pertinent safety and evacuation information at the start of meetings and workshops. Remember to use specific, descriptive language and avoid directions such as “look for the nearest exit,” or “the exits are there,” which are not meaningful for individuals with vision disabilities. For example:

  • The nearest fire alarm, fire extinguisher, and automatic external defibrillator (AED) is located at the back of this room, to the left of the doors as you are facing them from inside the room; be aware that when you remove the AED from its cabinet, an alarm will sound
  • In case of a fire emergency the fire alarm makes a loud, slow whoop, and strobe lights will flash
  • If the fire alarm sounds, take the stairs marked EXIT located in the back corners of this room; go down two flights to exit on the ground level
  • If you are not able to use stairs go to the area of refuge located in front of the elevators; to reach the area of refuge exit this room through the doors in the back of the room, where you entered; turn left and follow the hallway for about 50 feet to the elevator lobby; the area of refuge is marked with signage and equipped with a two-way communication system to register a call for help; staff will be on hand to provide you with further direction and assistance
  • In case of an earthquake, duck under a table or another stable object and hold on; if no table or other stable object is available, clasp your hands and use them to cover the back of your neck; if you cannot duck, cover your head and neck with your arms, a book, or another object until the shaking stops

For more information on planning accessible meetings and inclusive events, check out our Accessible Meetings, Events, and Conferences Guide.


The contents of this newsletter were developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number 90DP0089). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this newsletter do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

© 2017 TransCen, Inc.