Equal Access: Universal Design of Conference Exhibits and Presentations

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A checklist for making conference exhibits and presentations welcoming and accessible to everyone

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

Increasing numbers of people with disabilities attend professional conferences and meetings. Most presenters and exhibitors have the goal that everyone who visits an exhibit, attends a presentation, or seeks information from a publication is able to do so. Reaching this goal, however, involves efforts at many levels. Following are a few examples:

Legal Issues

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments of 2008 prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. According to these laws, no otherwise qualified person with a disability shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity. This means that conference and meeting activities should be accessible to attendees with disabilities.

Universal Design

An approach to making facilities, information, and activities accessible to and usable by everyone is called universal design. Universal design means that rather than designing for the average user, you design for people with a broad range of characteristics such as native language, gender, racial and ethnic background, age, and disability. Make sure that presenters and exhibit staff are trained to support people with disabilities, respond to specific requests for accommodations in a timely manner, and know who to contact regarding disability-related issues. Ensure that everyone feels welcome, and can

Guidelines and Examples

Addressing the following questions provides a good starting point for making your conference exhibits, presentations, and information resources universally accessible. This content does not provide legal advice. Contact the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for information about legal mandates.

Exhibit and Presentation Facilities

Ensure physical access, comfort, and safety within an environment that is inclusive to people with a variety of abilities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, and ages.


Make sure that staff members are prepared to work with all participants. Do all staff members know how to respond to requests for disability-related accommodations provided by your organization (e.g., presentation and exhibit materials in alternate formats) and by the conference organizer (e.g., sign language interpreters)?

Information Resources and Technology

If your exhibit or presentation uses computers as information resources, ensure these systems employ accessible design, that staff members are aware of accessibility options, and systems are in place to make accommodations.

Checklist Updates

This checklist was field tested at more than twenty postsecondary institutions nationwide.5 The results of a nationwide survey to test face-validity of checklist items let to further refinement of the checklist. To increase the usefulness of this working document, send suggestions to sherylb@uw.edu.

Additional Resources

For more information about making conferences accessible, consult Planning an Accessible Conference published by SIGACCESS and written by Shari Trewin.6

For more detailed content online consult Removing Barriers: Planning Meetings That Are Accessible To All Participants7, Creating Video and Multimedia Products That Are Accessible to People with Sensory Impairments8, Working Together videos and publications9, and the Equal Access: Universal of Design Computer Labs video and publication.10

For more information about applications of universal design, consult The Center for Universal Design in Education.11 The book Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice published by Harvard Education Press shares perspectives of UD leaders nationwide. To receive a 20% discount visit the DO-IT website.12

Cited Web Resources

  1. www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/effective.html
  2. www.access-board.gov/sec508/guide/
  3. www.w3.org/WAI/
  4. www.uw.edu/doit/Video/www.html
  5. www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/admin.html
  6. www.sigaccess.org/community/accessible_conference/
  7. www.fpg.unc.edu/~ncodh/pdfs/rbmeetingguide.pdf
  8. www.uw.edu/doit/Brochures/Technology/vid_sensory.html
  9. www.uw.edu/doit/Resources/at.html
  10. www.uw.edu/doit/Video/equal.html
  11. www.uw.edu/doit/CUDE/
  12. www.uw.edu/doit/UDHE/coupon.html

About DO-IT

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) serves to increase the successful participation of individuals with disabilities in challenging academic programs such as those in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Primary funding for DO-IT is provided by the National Science Foundation, the State of Washington, and the U.S. Department of Education. DO-IT is a collaboration of UW Information Technology and the Colleges of Engineering and Education at the University of Washington.

To order free publications or newsletters use the DO-IT Publications Order Form; to order videos and training materials use the Videos, Books and Comprehensive Training Materials Order Form.

For further information, to be placed on the DO-IT mailing list, request materials in an alternate format, or to make comments or suggestions about DO-IT publications or web pages contact:

University of Washington
Box 354842
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Founder and Director: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

DO-IT Funding and Partners


This publication is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Education (Grant #P333A020044) and the National Science Foundation (Cooperative Agreement #HRD-0227995). Any questions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the federal government.

Copyright © 2012, 2009, 2007, 2005, 2004, University of Washington. Permission is granted to copy these materials for educational, noncommercial purposes provided the source is acknowledged.