15 Tips for Creating Accessible Gatherings and Anti-Ableist Spaces

Often when I leave my apartment, my accessibility needs become an instant obstacle. I plan around — and stress about — things like my ability to open a door while navigating a scooter through it, my ability to eat at a restaurant, and my ability to get into and move around buildings.

I know that I will inevitably be excluded from things that other people have easy access to and my life will be made more inconvenient and difficult because of it. I once spent an hour trapped in a Washington, DC metro station because the elevator was turned off – not broken, just off. I had a week-long work retreat where I couldn’t eat any of the provided food and had to order and pay for my own delivery even though I was assured they would be able to accommodate me. I have missed out on concerts, pride parades, family weddings, funerals, and more because the event plans simply failed to include people like me.

So when I recently made plans to visit queer couple friends and they actually provided me with a range of accessibility information without prompting I felt seen, validated, and valued as a whole person. I want to live in a world where disabled people get to experience that feeling often at all sorts of events ranging from small social gatherings to large public events. That will not happen unless abled people make the effort to learn, proactively plan, and communicate about accessibility.

This list of considerations is just a starting point, a resource to remind us to listen, learn, and try. It’s not about perfection — it’s about showing up with open hearts and open minds.

1. Ask about language and needs

Just as some LGBTQ people regularly use the word queer and some find it offensive, disabled people have different language preferences as well. Some people prefer to be called disabled and some prefer people with a disability. Some people will still say handicapped and while I would say that is outdated and offensive, if a friend tells you they prefer to be called handicapped then you should follow their lead. If you’re planning a large event such as a pride celebration it’s best to reach out to a local disability non-profit to get guidance on the local preferences in your community. It’s also okay to specifically ask about the accessibility needs of your guests or local community. For example, when I got married I included access needs as one of the questions on my RSVP form.

2. Ensure physical access

Can everyone get inside the building, into the bathrooms, into the places where food is? Are there wheelchair accessible ramps, elevators, and wide doorways? Preferably the ramp will not be in a side alley next to the dumpster. If the answer to these things is no because you’re planning something at your house then the best option is to communicate. For example, let folks know how many steps there are to reach the bathroom and the front door. If the answer to these things is no and you are planning a larger public event then you should find a different venue.

3. Confirm accessible parking and transit

Are there accessible parking spaces and is there enough space to unload a mobility device like a wheelchair or scooter? Can you reserve a spot in your driveway for a guest with mobility difficulty? Is it transit accessible, or is it next to the metro station that doesn’t have an elevator and only has stairs and escalators?

4. Welcome service animals

Understand that service animals are medically necessary and often life saving. They need to be welcome and will need a rest area to take breaks and use the bathroom. Service animals do not need a registration or certification. That is a myth. Service dogs do need to be trained to do specific tasks to assist one disabled person with their disability, but that doesn’t need to be through any special program.

5. Accommodate diverse communication preferences

Offer assistive listening devices, captions and/or ASL and Braille for attendees as often as possible. For example, use live captions for video meetings. Respect and accommodate diverse communication preferences, such as written communication or alternative communication methods. Use visual and auditory alerts for important announcements. Use clear and visible signage with large fonts and high contrast for easy navigation. Consider using the dyslexia-friendly font in any designs. Verbally describe visual materials if there is a program, menu, or presentation.

6. Be COVID conscious

Many disabled people are still masking, sticking to mostly outdoor activities and getting regular vaccines. Of course, the disabled community is not a monolith and you will find anti-vaxxers who protest mask mandates too. However, people with disabilities often have underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems, placing them at higher risk of severe illness, death, or complications from COVID-19. As such, measures to prevent the spread of the virus, such as wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, testing, use air filters, and increasing air flow, are essential not only for personal safety but also for protecting the health and well-being of the disability community. Be sure to communicate the steps you will take to keep COVID at bay and consider inclusive options like outdoor dining that ensure that even immune compromised people can fully participate. Make sure these outdoor spaces are accessible as well (grass can be difficult for wheelchairs.)

7. Provide a variety of seating

Include options for seats with armrests and back support and seats that are easy to transfer into from a wheelchair. If you are planning a large event consider bringing in ergonomic seating. Reserve accessible seating areas with good sightlines for attendees who use wheelchairs or scooters because it is hard to see if you are seated and someone is standing up in front of you.

8. Allow for rest and breaks

Designate quiet areas for individuals who may need a break from noise, medical symptoms, or sensory overload.

9. Pay attention to temperature control

Many chronic illnesses and neurodivergent conditions cause temperature regulation challenges. It may not always be possible to control the temperature, but take steps to make people as comfortable as possible. Cooling stations, fans, shade, water stations, and misters can help in the heat and blankets, heat lamps, fire pits, and warming products like Hot Hands can help with cold.

10. Supply food options

Inaccessible or inadequate food options can create serious risks for individuals with allergies, sensitivities, and medical special diet needs, limiting their ability to participate fully in social gatherings, community events, and public spaces. Food is an accessibility need that’s crucial for ensuring equitable access. Provide a range of options and consider common allergens and sensitivities like tree nuts, soy, gluten, sugar, and shellfish. Labels food clearly. Consider making sure that people with food restrictions have first or exclusive access to these foods because some foods, like gluten-free and sugar-free items, can be trendy in the diet industry and may be taken by people who do not need them in the same way that someone who has Celiac or Diabetes might need these foods.

11. Plan inclusive activities

Remember that tasks or activities that may seem effortless for you can present significant challenges for others. For instance, I once participated in a work retreat where the only group social activity was a hike. I couldn’t participate because of my mobility limitations and I felt very alienated while I sat alone at the retreat center for hours and missed out on group photos and experiences. Being mindful of such differences in abilities can help ensure inclusivity in planning activities and events. If there is a large group, offering a variety of activities can help ensure there is an option for everyone.

12. Be prepared for an emergency

Have a plan in place for emergency situations and ensure it is communicated to and inclusive of the needs of all guests, including those with disabilities who are often overlooked. Ensure that first aid supplies are easily accessible and clearly labeled. For large events, have on-site medical care. Provide a secure and accessible area for attendees to store medications if needed, including medications that need to be refrigerated. If you are planning a large event be sure that safety plans for things like earthquakes, fires, and other emergencies include plans for disabled folks.

13. Train people in anti-ableism

Train any staff or helpers on ableism, disability etiquette (like do not touch or move a person’s wheelchair without asking) and how to assist guests with disabilities. Take time to learn about these things if you are hosting as well .

14. Consider sensory needs

Sensory considerations such as lighting, sound levels, and smells are an accessibility issue. These factors can profoundly impact individuals with sensory sensitivities, sensory processing disorders, autism spectrum disorder, migraines, PTSD, and various other neurodiverse conditions. Reduce scents and loud noises and use natural lighting and lamps (rather than overhead lighting) as much as possible.

15. Provide detailed information up front

It’s crucial to be mindful of these considerations and communicate about them. Communicating about accessibility enables individuals to make informed decisions about their participation and allows for the implementation of necessary accommodations or adjustments. Include accessibility statements in event information or simply send a text or email to your guests.

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Katie Reilly

Katie is a disabled queer writer, creator, and activist who spends her days fighting online misogyny, hate, and disinfo and her evening playing with her dog, designing for her Etsy, reading 5 books at once, or collecting too many kinds of tea. Find her across social media at @imkatiereilly.

Katie has written 18 articles for us.


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