As another academic year comes to a close, colleges and universities across the country are preparing for the biggest event of the year. But one consideration may not be as top of mind as it should be: accounting for graduating students and guests with disabilities by prioritizing graduation day accessibility.

Unfortunately, it’s an easy factor to overlook. But even if the students receiving diplomas have no impairments that may make enjoying the day more difficult, their family members might. That’s why prioritizing graduation day accessibility is such an important piece of planning the big day.

Fortunately, it’s not an impossible task. You just have to start planning early enough. This guide will help you make your commencement ceremonies and everything surrounding them more accessible, leveraging everything from tools like an accessible campus map to basic staff training.

The Importance of an Accessible Graduation Ceremony

Accessibility has been a hot-button topic in higher education for quite a while. It all starts with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. If you fail to follow ADA standards, then you risk significant ethical and legal challenges. Every year, more than 4,500 organizations across industries face disability-related lawsuits.

Beyond the legal considerations, failing to follow accessibility accommodations can also damage your institution’s reputation. In the social media age, even something as simple as a lack of accessible seating areas or signage can cause an uproar with significant consequences. High school students may not care about your commencement ceremony. But they’ll notice if your school appears to not care about their peers with disabilities.

But at its best, a commitment to graduation day accessibility goes far beyond ADA compliance or reputational issues. Instead, it can ensure that students and anyone else on campus with limited mobility, vision, hearing, and other disabilities can have an experience that matches their peers.

Key Accessibility Needs on Commencement Day

Graduation day accessibility is not a one-time effort, nor is it simple. Instead, it has to cover many factors, including:

  •  Your venue and parking spaces
  • Accommodations during the ceremony
  • Stage access
  • A well-trained staff

Fail to address any one of them, and your other efforts may not matter as much. Even beyond these general best practices, be prepared for more unique accommodation requests to make the ceremony successful for everyone involved. These eight concepts will help you to get started.

1. Venue Accessibility

First, and perhaps most fundamentally, you need to make sure your venue is easy to access for anyone who might want to attend graduation. That means ensuring that everything from your assembly area to the seating is easy for guests with mobility challenges or those using mobility devices to access.

Don’t forget about accessible restrooms and accessible pathways to and from your core areas that are easy to use for all of your guests. Everything about your venue should be specifically chosen and designed to make the day successful for everyone involved, regardless of disability.

2. Convenient, Accessible Parking

Graduation day accessibility efforts making it easier for students to reach the ceremony

Even before your venue, graduation day accessibility begins with your parking area. Make sure that it follows ADA parking guidelines regarding:

  1.  The number of accessible spaces within your parking lot
  2. The size of the individual spaces

To take it beyond the guidelines, digital campus maps can designate not just the parking spaces but also pick-up and drop-off spots for students and guests who cannot drive themselves. Of course, you can also have staff on hand during the big day. They can direct everyone to the right parking spaces for them and simplify the process for everyone involved.

3. Marketing and Program Accessibility

A major part of commencement is communicating about the event ahead of time. Are your communications designed to be accessible for users who might not be able to read emails or postcards? Does the marketing include crucial accessibility information that some of your guests may need to know?

The importance of optimizing your communications for full graduation day accessibility also extends to your commencement programs. They should include core accessibility information. You might even want to include a request form or phone number that allows guests with concerns or needs to directly contact the organizers.

4. Adequate Accommodations for Visual and Hearing Impairments

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25% of Americans suffer from a disability. More than 10% suffer from a hearing or visual disability alone. Therefore, making sure your ceremony is accessible to this group is not optional. If you don’t consider this part of your graduation day accessibility equation, you risk alienating a tenth of your entire audience. To prevent that, consider accommodations like a sign language interpreter or closed captioning for the video portions of your ceremony.

5. Train Staff and Volunteers

Your people matter at least as much as your site regarding accessibility. Everyone working commencement should be aware of the available accommodations. Then, they can help guests with anything from securing the right placard to finding a safe path to their seat.

This works best when you appoint a staff member familiar with compliance and best practices to oversee the training. Leave plenty of time for each volunteer and worker to learn the basics. You’ll also want to schedule a dry run to iron out any potential issues with time to spare for corrections if needed before the ceremony.

6. Ensure Stage Access

Imagine the problems that could arise if you don’t plan for all of your students to have the proper guidance, space, or ability to receive their diplomas and congratulations on stage. To prevent that from happening, find out early which of your graduating students may require special accommodations to access and cross the stage. Then, implement solutions to ensure that can happen.

Depending on the disability, this may require a lift and/or ramp for a safe path to and from the stage. In some cases, it may also mean adjusting the ceremony itself so that a graduate with disabilities doesn’t need as long of a path to receive their diploma and take their pictures as others. Check with the students directly to ensure that any solution you plan to implement makes sense for their needs.

7. Be Aware of High-Stimuli Sensitivities

Not all disabilities are visible, and your graduation day accessibility preparation must also account for these nuances. Among them are high-stimuli sensitivities, which cause those afflicted to become more sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, and more.

Accommodating this type of sensitivity takes work. After all, a large event like commencement will naturally have plenty of stimuli. But there are some potential solutions. Consider providing a separate room with livestream access for guests who may not feel comfortable in large groups as a result of this sensitivity. Ensuring your microphones are properly calibrated and that stage lights never directly interfere with your guests’ vision can also help.

8. Offer Flexible Participation Options

Even with all of the above accommodations, you will still have participants and guests who simply feel overwhelmed by attending the ceremony. For these guests, it helps to offer flexible participation options that still enable them to enjoy the big day. For example, you can:

  • Livestream the ceremony for those who are more comfortable watching it in their own space.
  • Offer a separate, smaller, and more accessible venue where guests can still view the ceremony on the big screen.
  • In some cases (and with smaller ceremonies), you can even hold a separate and more intimate ceremony for students who cannot attend otherwise.

Of course, assets like your ASL interpreter can also become paramount here. For example, when you livestream the ceremony, be sure to leave plenty of space on the video screen for the interpreter. Then, they can be easily seen by anyone watching.

Host a Graduation Ceremony That Is Accessible to All With Concept3D

Graduation day accessibility is not an optional choice. Ensuring that all your graduating students and their guests can enjoy the ceremony—one of the most important days of their lives—is vital.

Of course, getting there is also not simple. From simple ADA compliance to more complex tasks designed to go above and beyond, you’ll need to consider nuances like your venue, stage access, and even your commencement program. Treat the above as a checklist to ensure you have all the basics covered. But also offer additional room for special requests.

While the approach needs to be strategic, the right digital tools can also help you get there. Interactive campus maps, for example, can include an accessibility layer for indoor and outdoor spaces. It can display everything from the locations of accessible parking and bathrooms to safe paths for anyone with mobility issues.

The time to create a more accessible commencement experience is now. Learn more about 3D maps and start streamlining your ceremony planning by requesting a Concept3D demo today.