Each year in May, Knowbility invites our community to gather and share experience and knowledge in digital accessibility. For more than a decade, we've offered AccessU - a skills training conference with the purpose of supporting the professional development of digital accessibility practitioners. It has helped hundreds of web pros build or improve the skills they need to design inclusive online experiences for the millions of people with disabilities on the web.
Early in 2020, we heard about COVID 19. Along with the rest of the world, we began to make alternative plans "just in case" the spread became a global pandemic. Well, it did as you know. In just a few months we were challenged to provide this training in an entirely virtual or online setting. This post is a summary of what we learned and what may help you to ensure that your online events are fully accessible to all attendees.
AccessU is renowned for creating a rich and fully accessible experience for attendees. Staff takes great care to ensure that the classrooms, keynote talks, and all networking and social events are welcoming environments for people who rely on wheelchairs, canes, guide dogs, American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, screen readers or any of the many of the other assistive technologies or adaptive strategies used by millions of people. How to do the same for the virtual experience? We wrote about How to Create Welcoming Virtual Meetings, an intro to thinking about inclusive online gatherings. Going beyond that, to help you plan a full accessible online conferencing experience, here are our top tips:
- Choose accessible conferencing technology
- Include disabled people in planning
- Budget for inclusion (lighting, high quality video and audio equipment, live captioning, ASL, etc.)
- Clearly communicate protocols so attendees know how to navigate and ask for help
- Get creative in enriching experience beyond static webinar format
- Provide tech support to presenters
- Provide dedicated tech support to attendees
- Collect feedback along the way.
Accessible Platforms and Supporting Tech
An accessible event requires (at minimum) a platform that interfaces with live captioning technology, can be accessed with a screen reader, and logically navigated with the keyboard. This list from the Big Hack reviews the accessibility features of video conferencing apps and software. We chose Zoom for accessibility understanding that we would have to make up for some of the more robust conferencing features. Make sure the ticketing and newsletter apps and other communication systems meet accessibility guidelines. The US government maintains a guide to buying accessible technology.
Take Advantage of Lived Experience
Want to understand what platforms work best for disabled people and other factors that contribute to equal participation? Try asking. There really is no better way to accommodate diverse needs than to consult with the people who rely on such accommodation. Invite people with disabilities to serve on your event advisory board. Write a clear description of the advisory role and expectations. Post to volunteer boards at local organizations that serve people with disabilities or college student disability services offices.
Is It In the Budget?
There are tradeoffs in going all virtual for your event. You don't have to pay for physical space and furnishings, but you must consider the captioning, ASL, and other tech support needed for virtual disability inclusion. You may want to hire an external producer to be sure you are considering all aspects of accessible online events. Confirm that your producer has accessible event production experience and be crystal clear about expectations related to full digital inclusion.
This may be the most important thing to be sure to get right. Communicate clearly to your volunteers, attendees, presenters, and colleagues. We are all a bit confused about how to connect effectively. With or without disability, the tech can be overwhelming. Thoughtful planning and direct feedback from disabled people will help.
- Take your time to compose outreach messages.
- Make no assumptions about what people may know about online events
- Write in short sentences, using plain language.
- Distribute class materials in advance when possible. This is an accessibility issue.
- Bulleted lists are effective for instructions
- Open with a summary, provide details in the following text.
- Send reminders and frequent updates as protocols evolve or change.
- Be sure contact/help information is clear and easy to find.
Beyond the Talking Heads
When you are gathering in person, there are breaks, hallway conversations, networking and social events. Think about ways to introduce interactivity to your online sessions. Chat, polls, surveys, and QA sessions are useful in breaking up the monotony of the webinar screen. Four concurrent tracks were delivered for AccessU 2020. Knowbility invited notable experts and leaders from within our community to serve as track monitors. Attendees felt connected to their instructors, the tech support person, and the track monitors. Music played between sessions. Instructors were encouraged to chat with the moderator as a way to personalize the experience.
There is No Such Thing as Too Much Tech Support
Your presenters must understand and be comfortable in the online environment. Provide them with tips for lighting and for the setting in which they will speak. A virtual background has the advantage of a consistent theme but there can be issues with how they blur on the edges and render incomplete images. Be thoughtful in your choice of whether it is the best solution. Schedule time in advance with each of your speakers. Test to see that they have working cameras, mics, and that the lighting is from the front to evenly light their faces. Have presenters practice sharing their screen and advancing slides or showing video if those will be used. Video that includes a sound track requires a specific setting to share properly. If you are running concurrent sessions, provide dedicated tech support for each one.
Attendees need love too. Provide clear instructions about what your attendees can expect, how to access each session, and how to move among sessions if that is an option. Assign someone to be on call for help requests at all times. Make the tech support contact clear and easy to find. We included that information in every communication with attendees before and during AccessU. Zoom was the platform we chose because it was the most compatible for screen readers. It is not a conferencing platform (although they are working on that) and so we had to improvise how to move attendees from one session to another. If you are offering social events with breakout rooms, be sure to practice and have confidence that you know how to facilitate smooth transitions.
Virtual Conferencing is Here to Stay
While we look forward to the time we can meet again in person, it seems clear that the virtual conference offers some advantages. Many have commented on how much more affordable it is not to have to pay airfare and hotel expenses on top of conference fees. Others simply prefer not to travel. Our expectation is that AccessU will continue to have a strong virtual component when the world opens up again. Conferencing platforms are becoming more accessible and robust in their features. We will keep you posted as we learn more.