Lindsay Martin-Bilbrey, CMP
Lindsay is the CEO of Nifty Method Marketing & Events. A lively event professional armed with a very diverse background in the events industry and specializes in topics such as inbound and event marketing, attendee engagement, and so much more.
As meetings and events continue to take place in virtual spaces as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, accessibility is too often an afterthought. It’s essential that your virtual meetings and hybrid events are accessible for people of all walks of life.
Data from the Pew Research Center shows that disabled people are actually much less likely to use the internet, which may be in part because inaccessibility remains a serious barrier. So, let’s break down this barrier. Accessibility for virtual and hybrid events should be a priority and central to the planning process from the beginning.
Start with the program
As you’re planning your program, don't disregard disabled speakers, performers, and other talent who may be interested and available for your events. If you’re putting together a series of authors to read their work, include disabled authors. If you are organizing a comedy show, hire disabled comedians to be part of it. If you’re hosting a webinar series on insurance management, have disabled insurance experts among your speakers.
Disabled people should be present at every stage of your planning process: Invite and include them as speakers and assume that they will also be attending your virtual events. Your event should not only be available to those with disabilities but should also be representative of the diverse world we live and work in.
Pro tip: If you’re hosting smaller events tailored to a specific group of attendees, such as virtual webinars for your employees or sober community and recovery meetings to replace in-person ones, check in with that community.
Be discerning about your virtual event platform
Access needs aren’t universal, so be open to exploring different tools and technology to make sure that your attendees have no problem attending the event. (Here is a list of our some of our favorite virtual event platforms.)
If you’re hosting an event over video conferencing software like Zoom, Google Hangouts, or GoToMeeting, offer the option for attendees to dial-in by phone and participate without a computer or internet.
If everyone will have internet access, what other technology might participants need to fully participate? If the event is being held on social media (i.e., Facebook Live, Instagram Live/Stories, YouTube), do attendees need to have an account on that platform to take part? Have you looked into any accessibility issues inherent to the platform you are using?
Here is the list we ensure we've checked through during the event design stage:
- Did we factor the costs of captioning, sign language interpretation, and other potential accommodations into our budget?
- Did we ensure the platform we’re using allows for computer-based audio listening/speaking and phone-based audio listening/speaking?
- Did we make sure our events are accessible to augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) users by offering multiple ways for attendees to participate, answer questions, submit questions, and interact.
- Can we offer training sessions with event organizers/volunteers prior to the event on how to use the platform(s) the event will be hosted on?
- Do we have an accessibility point person who can assist with troubleshooting or access issues and provide contact information for them?
- Did we outline and are we prepared to share the format of the event (e.g. discussion vs. listening to a presentation, or something else) and how long it plans to run for so attendees can plan around their need to take breaks, arrive late, leave early, etc?
- Have we provided written or visual materials ahead of time to give people an idea of what to expect and the ability to plan in advance? (Be sure to use an accessible file format.)
- Are we prepared to allow attendees to send questions and comments in advance?
- Are we prepared and able to give notice about questions that participants might be asked to respond to, even icebreakers (for example, “Everyone introduce yourself and say where you’re from”)?
Ask, don’t assume
On the registration forms you create, ask what type of (accommodations) each participant needs. It’s important to understand there are different types of communication needs and different options available for the deaf and hard of hearing. If possible, contact each to learn about their needs in more detail.
“A person who is deaf or hard of hearing will have unique preferences and should be asked what works best for them.”
Start making arrangements immediately
Don’t delay when making arrangements—make it a top priority, just like you would other vital elements of your event. For instance, when you get a request for interpreters or closed captioning, search immediately as it is incredibly difficult to find qualified interpreters at the last minute.
The added cost of providing these services should NEVER be passed on to the attendee requesting the assistance. In the US, federal and state laws prohibit this in most situations.
Did you know that providing accessibility can be a tax write-off?
Another possibility is getting the services sponsored by companies that specialize in accessibility.
It’s also important to do an audit of the virtual event technology. Will it support real time closed captioning (CART) if you are not pre-recording a session or you cannot show both the speaking presenter and the sign language interpreter?
Be sure to retain professional captioning services. Proper captioning will not only convert the audio content of a presentation but will also include the name of the speaker, sound effects, and music description.
A simple, yet vital tool for accessibility is the microphone. Make sure you have proper microphones and that presenters use them. Position the microphone as close as possible to the speakers and presenters. Microphone options include:
- Headset microphones – tend to give the best results because voices don’t get lost when the speaker’s head moves.
- Lapel microphones – also good but check clothing doesn’t catch on it when the speaker moves.
- Fixed or handheld microphones – the speaker should be asked and reminded to speak directly into it.
- Multiple microphones – should be used in larger meetings/attendance to ensure everyone can be heard.
- Roving microphones – should be available and used in events where questions or comments from the floor or audience are taken.
Preparations and day of considerations
If possible, train your staff to understand the unique challenges those who are deaf or hard of hearing experience. "Participating in training provided by a person with a disability gives you unique insight into what it’s like to live with a disability. Teams learn to experience empathy, a very important, and often overlooked, skill in making customers feel welcome,” explains Melissa Greenlee, founder of deaffriendly.
Here is Nifty's accessibility checklist we use to ensure we're prepared for day of:
- Did we include detailed, step-by-step directions of how to get on the event and how to use the platform?
- Did we ensure that fonts are easy to read and text is large and has good color contrast?
- Were we mindful of jargon, slang, and assumed knowledge to be inclusive of all attendees?
- Did we use plain language?
- Did we avoid ableist and other negative language on the event website and other marketing and communication materials?
- Did we ensure all event and presenter slides are uncluttered and consider using images to help explain concepts?
- If you use images, did we include alternative text and image descriptions?
- Did we remember not to use flashing or strobing animations in a presentation or other materials you and other event organizers are creating? If we are including material that already has strobing or flashing, such as a showing of a film or television show, did we remember to remove the strobing from the original material or include a note to our technical team to skip that portion of the material?
- If we’re sharing pre-recorded video, did we describe what’s happening in the video and add captions using programs like Final Cut or Adobe Premiere, or apps like Clipomatic, Clips, Caption This, and AutCap?
- Did we hire or use a professional from our team to write captions for our pre-recorded videos, using websites like Rev, Alternative Communications Services, and ASLCaptions?
- Did we hire a professional to provide sign language interpretation; (you can find ASL interpreters using resources like the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf)?
- Did we hire a professional provide real-time captioning through vendors such as National Captioning Institute, CaptionAccess, and Streamtext, especially for webinars and other events where speakers will be interacting with attendees and answering questions in real time?
During the virtual event
Ensure that background noise is kept to a minimum and the speaker and virtual stage are well-lit
To ensure your live-stream content is accessible, you’ll need three things: live captions, live descriptions, and a good audio environment. Background noise and poor acoustics can be especially distracting for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Virtual event meeting rooms with relatively little noise work best. Deaf people access information with their eyes so be sure to have lights on the faces of those who are speaking.
Remember, they rely on ASL, interpreters, or captioning in real time (CART) when watching a presentation or speaker. Each event should be CART’ed or captioned as much as possible, and all TVs should be captioned.
Thinking about access for people who are deaf or hard of hearing or have sensory disabilities
- Make sure your audio is clear; poor audio quality can make it hard for people to access the event and/or use apps that can help reduce background noise on calls, such as Krisp.
- Have your speakers use a headset whenever possible if this is accessible to them to improve audio.
- Mute all attendees but those speaking to keep background noise to a minimum so that attendees can easily hear.
- Ask presenters speaking to say their name every time they speak, so captioners and attendees alike all know who is talking.
Thinking about access for people who are blind or visually impaired or have sensory disabilities
- Make sure the speaker’s face is well-lit and can be clearly seen.
- If there is a method that will be used to vote or flag who can speak next, make sure all participants can access the process.
- Describe live scenarios. For example, if you are presenting a live video tutorial of applying makeup, you could describe the process: “I am now pulling the rabbit out of the hat.”
- Describe any images, read any text that appears on screen, and describe anything that you gesture at as if you were explaining it to someone who isn’t in the same room as you.
Be sure to instruct those who are addressing the group to speak clearly. It is also helpful to keep statements basic and avoid adding anything unrelated to the meeting. If there are multiple speakers, instruct each to speak one at a time, so multiple voices do not have to be deciphered.
If any audience members are using a text transcription service be aware that text can lag behind so you may need to instruct speakers to pause periodically for the text to catch up.
After your virtual event
Your job isn't over until you've shared the follow up materials with all participants in the format they need. Don't forget to:
- Share materials in an accessible format.
- If your team live-tweeted the event or if a Twitter chat was part of the event, create a blog post or other easy-to-read collection of those tweets for anyone who was unable to participate live.
- Offer your attendees the opportunity to provide feedback about the event, including accessibility, to help you prepare to plan the next one.
Bringing It All Together
Remember: Accessibility is a learning process
Even for disabled people, accessibility—and doing the work to make sure your own events are accessible—is a learning process. It’s important for all of us to acknowledge that others may have access needs that differ from our own. Instead of making assumptions, offer participants easy and clear ways to request their specific access needs be met and to provide feedback after your event, which you can use as a learning experience for the next one.
Make it an inclusive, ongoing conversation around access needs in everything you’re doing virtually so that everyone, including disabled people, has a voice in what platforms are being used and how.
We can all make accessibility a priority and remain open-minded to changing our processes, learning more, and creating events that are inclusive and welcoming to all. Ready to start planning your next inclusive event? Let's chat.