How to make Online Events accessible
We have to relearn how events are organized and in a way we are breaking new ground. Therefore, this guide is primarily a first step. I will gradually expand it as I gain new insights. For the readers, it should above all be a basis for developing their own ideas for accessible online events. So far we have hardly exhausted the possibilities.
- Online can be more accessible - but it doesn't have to be
- The choice of the platform
- Registration Management
- Inquire about special needs
- More work ahead
- Technical support
- Upload presentation instead of screen sharing
- Test, test, test
- implementation of the event
- Recognizability of the speakers
- Reach digitally unaffected persons
Online can be more accessible - but it doesn't have to be
Online events offer many advantages for persons with disabilities:
The demands on mobility are lower, you don't have to take the local train into the middle of nowhere only to find out that the event room is not wheelchair-accessible.
The visually impaired can easily enlarge content on the screen, but the same cannot be said of presentations in face-to-face events.
For those who are hard of hearing, the listening situation at home or in the office is almost always better than in any situation in person
If persons generally shy away from socially or cognitively challenging situations, online is often the only way for them to participate in events. This applies, for example, to chronically or mentally ill persons or to some forms of autism.
Participation in face-to-face events is a risk for persons with chronic immune disorders. This is not just about the event itself, but also about getting there and back by public transport, which drastically increases the risk of infection. This group is bigger than you think. For example, paraplegics often have small lung volumes, making them more vulnerable to respiratory diseases.
So we can open up events for persons who would not have attended face-to-face appointments.
Of course, online also has its limits. For many persons, the technology is a greater challenge than participating in a face-to-face event. It starts with the fact that a solution is supposed to run in the browser, but when the link is called up, the installation is displayed so prominently that the link "Participate via the browser" is quickly overlooked.
Unfortunately, many of the programs are not accessible - even if the providers claim the opposite. This applies, for example, to ClickMeeting, GoToMeeting or Adobe Connect. The wrong solution can therefore exclude participants.
The operation of these programs is complex: Even if the software is accessible: If you are severely visually impaired, look for the screen sharing button in a stressful situation. Or as a blind person for the possibility of setting the correct microphone. Up to now, chats are not very accessible.
In general, you should plan more time both for planning an accessible event and for the event itself: When so much technology is involved, a lot of things don’t work right away. And of course, you also have to budget for the additional money for sign language and easy-to-read translations.
As a rule of thumb, about a third more has to be scheduled, i.e. a third more time and a third more staff. Of course, the translation into simple language and sign language also costs money and must be planned accordingly.
The choice of the platform
There are a large number of different platforms for online communication. Many tools are intended for different purposes, Zoom, for example, is intended more for communication, while Teams also has integrated online collaboration options. The accessibility of the tools can always change. So instead of recommending a specific tool, here is an accessibility checklist. This list is not exhaustive, but it is a starting point. Feel free to pass this on to your potential provider. If he can't give you any information about accessibility, that's definitely not a good sign.
- Keyboard operable
- Screen reader compatible
- Essential functions Executable in the browser
- Core functions easily recognizable and operable
- For sign language or simple language: a window that can be switched on separately and that can be changed in size and position
- native smartphone app
Regardless of the information provided by the service provider, you should always check for yourself whether the answers, for example about the usability of the keyboard and screen reader, are correct. You would be amazed how many providers spread false information about their tool, partly out of ignorance, partly despite better knowledge. It makes sense to have this tested by disabled colleagues.
At conferences and similarly large formats, third-party ticket ordering systems are generally used today. Here too, of course, the solution must be as accessible as possible. Similar requirements apply here as for the communication solution itself. It must be screen reader compatible and keyboard operable. EventBrite is the best mainstream tool I've seen so far, although there's still room for improvement.
Inquire about special needs
If you want to reach persons with disabilities, you usually have to inquire about special needs. It doesn't make sense to ask about disabilities. On the one hand, this is problematic in terms of data protection law. On the other hand, the information that a person is deaf is not helpful in itself. This does not tell us whether this person prefers sign language or written language.
Instead, special needs are queried, but only if you can actually serve them. If you cannot provide sign language interpreters, you create false expectations by offering this as an option.
So ask about needs that you can serve. For example:
- do you need personal support with visual tasks?
- Do you need a sign language interpreter ?
- Do you need easy language?
- Would you like the content of the presentations in advance as a PDF?
This query should be made as a simple HTML questionnaire when registering.
More work ahead
As with all events, the most important tasks for online events also happen before the event itself.
Communicate in advance which tool will be used. The user can install it or otherwise try it out and become familiar with it if necessary. She can also check if the tool is stable on her system and with her assistive technology.
You can also send participants links to instructions in text or video format.
Define the rules: Can the participants ask questions via audio or only via chat? Are questions desired in between or only afterwards...
The speakers should be prepared early on for what is expected of them. For example, you shouldn't say the dumbest sentence that there is in presentations: "Here you see...". Either you see it or you don't see it, in both cases the statement is meaningless. It is always important that the presenter verbalizes visual information. In addition, he/she should be prepared for the fact that there may be longer delays, for example if there are latencies in the transmission of the sign language translation.
The documents will be provided in digital form before the workshop, preferably in an accessible format. At least with most communication solutions, the blind cannot access the presentation, so they cannot read the text while it is being presented.
Before and during the training, at least one person should be available to provide technical support. It should be available through an alternative channel such as telephone.
A solution such as TeamViwer would also be conceivable, because many problems can only be solved if a person can look directly at the screen and, if necessary, take control of the PC. However, this requires a lot of trust. Even with Zoom, control of the PC can be transferred to a third person.
Upload presentation instead of screen sharing
Some solutions allow uploading the presentation instead of showing it via screen sharing. This currently applies to BigBlueButton, Teams, as far as I know also to WebEx. This has the advantage that the presentation is displayed in better quality. In some solutions, such as teams, there is also the advantage that users can control the presentation independently. If the speaker has already switched to the next slide, but the visually impaired person would like to read the text on the last slide again, they can scroll back independently.
Test, test, test
The more complex the setting, the more important it is to test the event. Ideally, this allows you to anticipate and absorb potential problems. It is often too late on the day of the event.
implementation of the eventThe most important work takes place before the event. Nevertheless, there are of course a few things to consider when the event takes place.
The problem of online participation
One of the major construction sites in online communication is collaboration, for example on documents, graphics, but also participation in surveys and the like. Here it is easiest not to take a tool integrated into the communication software. Rather, you should use an external tool that the participants can access via a web browser.
Many integrated tools are designed for pure mouse use and therefore do not work for blind persons.
Experience has shown that many disabled persons do not use the information to prepare. Therefore it makes sense if the Moderator communicates the rules of the game again at the beginning. It also makes sense to give a small technical introduction to the tool. This also pleases the non-disabled participants who do not yet know the tool.
Recognizability of the speakersBeing able to see the speakers also has accessibility benefits. Among other things, persons who are hard of hearing can read more from the lips. This can significantly increase comprehensibility.
The best possible visual recognition of the speakers is therefore an advantage. The background should be as inconspicuous as possible, and the lighting should be appropriate so that the persons can be recognized easily. I would advise against distracting animated backgrounds. The background can be neutral or blurred.
The speakers should choose a good webcam, a good headset, a quiet environment with little background noise and have fast internet access. It is often sufficient enough to place the computer close to the W-LAN router in order to improve the transmission quality.
Text Transcript Plain Language and Sign Language
Transcription into plain language, sign language as well as real-time transcription from spoken to written text is a complex subject. At least as far as automatic text transcription is concerned, we are making great progress. Some tools already have this built in. However, I do not know how well this works in general and especially for the German language. But I'm pretty sure that these solutions will become so good in the foreseeable future that manual transcription will only be needed in exceptional cases. This is good for the hard of hearing, but also for those who want to document the event in writing.
The translation into simple and sign language is more difficult. There are basically two options:
- The translation is transferred using the same solution, for example via a second window.
- A second channel is offered through which the translation takes place.
In both cases, care must always be taken to ensure that Speaker and Translator are as synchronous as possible. This can be particularly difficult when two channels are used: one may have a faster transmission than the other. Or the technical solution leads to latencies.
The speakers must be briefed accordingly and, if necessary, slowed down by the moderator. The participants should also be able to report that something is wrong.
Technical solutions have a number of advantages over face-to-face events: organisers, participants and translators can be in different places. The only requirement is a good internet connection.
Participants are technically more flexible. For example, you could use a large device with a television. The screen area on some devices is now larger than a kitchen table. Alternatively, two computer screens, a screen and a tablet, and similar configurations could be used.
The role of text chat
At online events, text chats take on a similar function to conversations at the coffee table or at a buffet when there is a presence. In general, however, it is difficult for many disabled persons to follow a speaking/presenting person and the text chat at the same time. For blind persons, the voice output would overlay the speaker, the visually impaired often cannot read fast enough and others feel disturbed by the chat.
The solution is not to turn off chat, that would deprive the online event of an advantage and discourage some persons from attending. However, it makes sense if a Moderator takes up important points from the chat and the chat – possibly anonymized and cleaned – is then made available to the participants.
Reach digitally unaffected persons
A big topic is the question of how to reach persons who do not dare to use digital technology or simply do not have access to it.
One possibility would be to provide them with technology. This is possible, but very costly in terms of finance and logistics. A minimum would be notebooks, which would have to be sent back and forth, possibly also headsets, which would then have to be cleaned. You would also need devices with integrated Internet access.
An alternative would be to allow access via institutions. For example, an institution could provide a PC room with Internet access and technical support. Of course, the institution would have to be easily accessible, but that would also apply to face-to-face events. The institution could support the participants in accessing the event.
When cinema came along, attempts were initially made to transfer theater 1:1 to the screen. Only gradually did the new rules emerge for how fabrics could be designed appropriately for the medium.
The situation today is similar when it comes to the transformation from face-to-face to online events. We're still trying to use the old logic, but it doesn't work anymore. Instead, we must learn to use the new possibilities of online events. I'm sure that we're giving access to many disabled persons who we would have had difficulty in reaching, if at all, with face-to-face appointments.