This is the eighth post in our “Project Your Voice” series. In this Q&A, we sat down with Rosemarie Rossetti, an independent Leading Disability Inclusion Expert, Universal Design & Accessibility Consultant. Since a traumatic injury left her partially paralyzed 25 years ago, Rosemarie has poured her heart into making meetings and events accessible spaces for everyone.
Q: Tell us about yourself and how your company came to be.
A: In January of 1997, after leaving my full-time faculty position at Ohio State University, I started Rosetti Enterprises LLC where I was doing public speaking training and train-the-trainer programming. I was successful almost immediately, traveling all over North America as a presenter. And then my life changed in an instant.
On June 13, 1998, a year and a half after I started the business, my husband and I were celebrating our third anniversary with a bicycle ride. Suddenly, my husband heard what he thought was a gunshot. He looked up to see a 7,000-pound tree with live electric lines beginning to topple. He was yelling, “Stop! Something’s falling over there!” I could tell from the tone of his voice that something serious was happening, but I didn’t see the tree and it fell on me. I was instantly paralyzed from the waist down.
Some of my peers from the National Speaking Association visited me in the hospital and suggested that I get a tape recorder and document what was happening to me. That became my journal, and for two years I continued to record my journey. Once I was able to go home, I started getting requests to write articles or give speeches about my experience, and I eventually wrote a book entitled Take Back Your Life! In the early days after coming home, I was still too weak to do much other than sit and write, so I kept very busy. I was writing an article every single month for a woman’s magazine, so I would be thinking every day: what am I learning today? And what could other people learn from this in terms of my perspective and bringing hope and looking at the light at the end of the tunnel? When I was most frustrated and most sad, why was that happening? What was the story that created it? And how could I move on beyond that?
Q: How did that start––writing articles and speaking––to become an entire brand and turn into what you are doing now?
A: It all began with a simple view of a video. It was created in 2018 by a colleague of mine named Tracy Stuckrath, also a professional speaker, and a leading expert on food and beverage in the meetings industry. She was drawing comparisons between the food and beverage industry and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It was not something I had thought of before. Suddenly, I had another new thought––no one was talking about accommodations and accessibility in the meetings and events space. Who better than me to do it? I had been speaking in a wheelchair for years, and I knew firsthand the frustrations of stages that aren’t wheelchair accessible, worrying about whether I can get in and out of the doorways, finding a place for my chair to roll so I can get something to eat, trying to reach food from high banquet tables, and the complications of networking with everyone standing above me, making it hard to have a good conversation.
I thought to myself “this could be a new topic!” I gave Tracy a call to ensure I wasn’t stepping on any toes, and she was very supportive and excited about the idea. I told my husband about it, and I also told my mastermind group––8 other members of the National Speakers Association (NSA) who have been meeting regularly for decades––and they encouraged me to get to work writing a description, objectives, and identifying the market. The local Chapter of Meetings Professionals International (MPI) seemed like a logical place to start, so I called them up, explained my new program, and asked if I could try it out on their members. They jumped at the chance, and everything has grown from there.
Q: What types of services do you offer?
A: I go wherever I am needed. Right now, I am talking with a lot of destination marketing organizations, general managers, and bed and breakfast owners. I did a webinar for retail business owners. Recently, Experience Columbus asked me to be their ambassador, so I did a training for all of their staff, some video shoots, and I wrote a few articles about places to go in Columbus that were accommodating.
My newest client is the Ohio Hotel and Lodging Association for whom I’m writing articles for their newsletter to help make their sites more accommodating.
The business has also expanded to the organizations who hire me as a consultant for their annual meetings. For example, I have also done two years of consulting with The American Association of Geographers. I also just returned from Seattle to do a site visit for the upcoming Association of American Medical Colleges meeting, and I will go back in November to serve as their accessibility consultant. As part of that consultancy, I am going to Washington, D.C. in a few weeks to do a training for all of their staff, then touring their learning center to evaluate the accessibility for people who work there.
Before I worked with both of those associations, I hadn’t thought of being a consultant for an association, but they contacted me and of course I wanted to help! I only wished I had made that connection sooner.
But I’ve never had more fun than with the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) and MPI. I love how they put a party together, and I love how they embrace and expand what I’m doing. For example, PCMA had me speak in January, and then do a tour of the convention center. It was so well-received, that they decided to do it again, but this time, they rented nine wheelchairs so the people on the tour could experience what it is like to navigate the world that way. As they were going through the hotel, they really felt how carpet can be a hindrance, how quickly elevator doors close, how heavy doors are, how hard it is to reach a breakfast item on a tall table, and the importance of being able to fit a wheelchair between table legs. People learn so much better through experiences like that than they do from sitting through a lecture.
Everything is now on the table, and I am finding that people can utilize my talents in multiple ways. It’s good, it’s like all of these railroad tracks finally converged and I am helping more people than ever.
Q: It seems like you’re getting a lot of calls from associations. That feels like progress. In this realm of meetings and events, what is the appetite for improving accessibility for all attendees?
A: The top topic at every meeting right now is diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Corporations are looking at it in terms of hiring, product development and marketing. They realize 27% of the population of the United States has accessibility needs.
I would like to see one more letter after DEI, and that’s the A, for accessibility. Diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. In the past, it never was talked about, and it is so important.
Q: When you start going to an organization’s corporate location or one of their events, how prepared do you see they are from an accessibility standpoint?
A: I can’t evaluate the current state of the industry, because I’m not traveling and speaking everywhere and seeing all of the venues, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment.
Here’s what I can tell you––I toured the new Seattle conference center that opened in January, and I was so impressed. The networking areas had chairs with armrests, as well as lower furniture, instead of bar height. I was happy that I could easily roll on the carpet, all of the restrooms had accessible stalls, and they had charging stations near both lower and higher stools. There were also lower counters throughout. They thought it through. Whoever was involved as the accessibility consultant did a marvelous job, and I think that is a great sign.
Q: Was there a person who helped mentor you throughout your career?
A: Without a doubt I would say Joan Eisenstodt. I was introduced to her by another friend, and contacted her in 2018. Initially we weren’t talking about the meetings industry. I was building a model accessible home at the time, and she and I were talking about universal design. Then in 2019, I contacted her to help prepare for an opportunity to speak at the World Education Congress.
We have since spent lots of time emailing, talking on the phone, and sending information back and forth. She has been a real rock, helping me at every turn. She has her own consulting company, and is a force to be reckoned with. Most people in the meetings industry are.
Of course, my husband and my mastermind group have also given me ideas, as well as help connect to the right people. And I have NSA friends all over the world.
Another way I like to network is by trading with other speakers––I will watch their presentation and invite them to watch mine, and we give each other feedback. Then I ask, how did you get hired? Who else should I be talking to? And now that you have seen me speak, would you mind referring me to others?
Q: What is your advice for others considering choosing a path in the industry?
A: Find out what the audience needs, and then address those needs. What are they struggling with? If you have the expertise to fill in that gap, develop a program, be great on the stage, be a wonderful communicator, and be prepared. The wheelchair experience I mentioned before took many, many hours of meetings to get ready.
Q: Is there anything you would have done differently?
A: I should have stopped things that weren’t working sooner. I was talking about things nobody needed, but I just kept trying to find new clients with the same material. Delivering good service is not as hard as marketing it to begin with.
If I had pivoted sooner, found the thing I am an expert in and am passionate about, I could have been helping people that much earlier in my career.
Q: What is your hope for the future?
A: I hope there comes a day when people like me are no longer needed to be accessibility consultants, because all of this is just standard practice. I hope that new hotels, buildings, and convention centers are designed to be fully accessible. I hope that every RFP includes accommodations for even simple things like captioning for videos. All of this should already be standard practice, but you would be surprised.
I also hope that accessibility becomes a part of the training of new professionals as they come up through the ranks.
Q: In general, what things can meetings professionals keep in mind as they plan for accessibility?
A: The first is making sure that doors stay open, so everyone can get in and out of the room. Just a simple investment in doorstops makes a huge difference for those navigating by wheelchair.
Make sure the aisles are wide enough, and that some chairs are removed on the ends so there is space for people to park, not just in the back of the room. I should be able to look around and see that you have left some space for me to place my chair.
There should also be reserved seating up front for those with visual or hearing impairments if they choose. And of course, captioning on videos.
These are all simple things that can be done to make a huge difference. And they can always reach out to me with questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Helping others is what I do. Making a significant positive difference in the lives of people with disabilities – that’s what I think about every day.
For more information about Rosemarie’s work, visit rosemariespeaks.com/meeting-event-inclusion/.
If you or anyone from your organization would like to be a contributor to the “Project Your Voice” series, please let us know at email@example.com.
More from “Project Your Voice”
[Part One] Talking About Inclusion, Diversity and Finding Your Niche with Josh Henry, SPIE
[Part Two] Talking About Connection and Responsibility with Cassie Mancera, AAOMS
[Part Three] Talking About Making a Collective Impact with Paula Eichenbrenner, AMCP Foundation
[Part Four] Talking About Growth Through Facing Down Your Fears with Yolanda Simmons Battle, AHIMA
[Part Five] Talking About Putting Mental Health First with Dana Johnston, IDSA
[Part Six] Talking About the Power of Meetings with Karen Cuviello, Projection
[Part Seven] Talking About Inspiration, Change and Inclusivity with Angie M. Gates, Events DC