10 tips for making a presentation more accessible to those with disabilities

By making a few preparations, you can help ensure that your presentations are effective for audience members who have disabilities. Susan Harkins outlines several ways to keep their needs in mind.

Whether you're dealing with a small business group or with the public, you should be prepared to accommodate people with disabilities. Having good presentation skills and a technically sound presentation will take care of most issues. But there are a number of ways you can improve your presentation environment to include the impaired. With just a little thought and planning on your part, they can remain as autonomous as everyone else in the room.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Reserved seating

One of the easiest and most helpful things you can do is to reserve a few seats up front for the visually or hearing-impaired. Now, just how you go about letting them know probably depends on your circumstances. When possible, arrange for reserved seating beforehand. That way, there's no need to make announcements or leave signs that draw unwanted attention to the impaired. A "Reserved Seat" sign taped to the back of a chair is all you need. If advance accommodations aren't possible, include information at the registration or sign-in area or on the first page of your handout. Find some way to inform participants that reserved seats are available without drawing attention to specific individuals.

2: Lighting

A lot of presenters like a darkened room, but presentations are just as effective in full light if you prepare for a fully lit room. Frankly, a darkened room isn't the best environment for any of us, let alone those with disabilities. You don't need to have a disability to trip over someone's dark bag while slipping out for an unscheduled break. If you're dealing with the public, a well-lit room is best. Save the dark rooms for those cozy business presentations so your co-workers can roll their eyes at you, unseen.

3: Wheelchair accessibility

If you know your audience, you'll know ahead of time whether the meeting room needs to accommodate wheelchairs. If your presentation is open to the public, be prepared for that possibility. Aisles must be unobstructed and wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through. Allocate a spot for a wheelchair or two ahead of time so you don't find yourself removing or rearranging chairs on the spot -- that's an interruption for you and probably an embarrassment to your guest. Make sure whoever's staffing your registration or sign-in area can direct those in wheelchairs to a reserved spot.

If you're dealing with a large group and have arranged for a microphone to assist members of the audience during a Q&A session, make sure those in a wheelchair can get to the microphone or that the person handling the microphone can get to the wheelchair.

4: Wheelchair etiquette

A wheelchair belongs to the person in it -- it is his or her personal space. Don't lean on it when speaking to them. Don't touch it or push it, unless asked. If possible, sit in a chair when speaking to someone in a wheelchair. In a presentation environment, this courtesy probably isn't possible, but if the person remains behind to speak to you, pull up a chair.

This advice is similar for service dogs. Don't talk to them; don't pet them. Doing so will distract them from their work. It might be necessary to bring this to the attention of the audience, but you'll want to play that by ear.

5: Large fonts

When using an overhead projector, use a large font. Don't use anything smaller than 18 points. The problem is those little side notes and fine-print details that creep into your message. Detailed charts and diagrams can also be difficult to read. Keep this disability issue in mind and make allowances as needed.

6: Descriptions

During a presentation, it's common to say something like, "This diagram illustrates what I've been saying about..." A statement like this is wasted on the visually impaired. You can use diagrams, but describe them. "This food pyramid..." is much more descriptive than, "This diagram..." You can easily work these modifiers into your speech. It just takes a little insight and thought on your part.

7: Interpreters

It's unlikely that you'll be involved in a presentation with an interpreter without knowing about it ahead of time. But in the unlikely event that you do find an interpreter or transcriptionist assisting the audience, don't be distracted by their presence. Continue as you normally would. Do not start presenting to the interpreter! Continue to present to the entire audience. Disabilities aside, you should always speak to the audience. Keep pacing to a minimum and don't read from the screen.

8: Repeating questions

When someone in the audience asks a question or makes a statement, repeat it for the crowd. Those with hearing disabilities won't hear the question. In fact, only those sitting nearby will hear the question or comment. This rule will serve you well in any presentation. In addition, don't let someone's speech impairment intimidate you. If you don't understand them, ask them to repeat their question. Most people would rather repeat themselves than be misunderstood.

9: Avoiding assumptions

Don't assume that everyone can see and hear you. Begin your presentation by asking your audience whether they can. Then, allow people to move if necessary before you get underway.

10: Practicing

Find a couple of willing guinea pigs and have one wear a blindfold and the other wear earmuffs or earplugs. Run through the presentation and have them stop you when there's the least bit of confusion. Rewrite and rework until the confusion is abated. This measure may seem extreme -- and in truth, for most of you, it probably is. However, when dealing with the public, it's best to be prepared.