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Best Practices for Accessible Virtual Meetings and Events

In March 2020, live gatherings ground to a halt seemingly overnight, forcing business, academic, and social events to move online. Virtual sessions are nothing new, but the pandemic significantly accelerated the trend. Business meetings and corporate training adapted all-virtual or hybrid formats. Museums now keep the public engaged with online performances, art-making programs, and curator talks. Nonprofits host online fundraisers and community organizations coordinate virtual social events.

In the year since the pandemic began, the nature of virtual interaction and the challenges of engaging people remotely have been debated and analyzed. Digital accessibility and inclusion remain a critical part of that discussion. Organizations face the challenge of making virtual meetings, presentations, webinars, and conferences accessible to all attendees. In this article, we offer some best practices for creating virtual sessions that are engaging and accessible to all.

Virtual Solutions for Work, Learning, and Collaboration

Technology has provided a wide array of solutions for online events of all sizes, from virtual meeting platforms like Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Adobe Connect, to event platforms such as BigMarker, GoToWebinar, and Hopin. Within these solutions are many different options for accessibility and language support. But beyond the technology available through the platforms, there are numerous universal practices that can significantly improve the accessibility of events and ensure all attendees can understand and participate.

The list below outlines steps that can be taken to make virtual remote sessions accessible to all attendees, including those with visual or hearing impairments and people who speak a language other than English.

Best Practices for Planning Accessible Virtual Sessions

Start planning early to best understand your audience and implement appropriate accommodations.

  • Hosting a successful meeting that runs smoothly hinges on everyone’s connectivity and ability to use the selected platform. Do a dry run to introduce presenters and key participants to the technology. Make sure everyone feels comfortable and the kinks are worked out before you begin.
  • Ask attendees in advance what type of accommodations they need. Provide a deadline for submitting requests. Confirm that the requests have been received and follow up with any clarifying questions.
  • Once accommodations have been established, inform attendees about the platform you are using and what features will be available (captioning, interpreting, etc.). Note whether accommodations are provided automatically or upon request. Let people know whether the presentation will be live, pre-recorded, or both, and whether the recordings will have captions and transcripts.
  • If you plan to allow Q&A, let people know upfront so they can prepare questions.
  • Send any supporting documents or resources in advance to give attendees adequate time to review. Provide materials in an accessible file format.
  • Include visual descriptions of any images that are used in presentations. PowerPoint provides an alt text panel for every slide for this purpose.
  • Enable participation by phone to make the session accessible to those without good internet access.

Clarify Accessibility Features and Participation Guidelines

There are steps you can take at the onset of a presentation to ensure the session is accessible and runs smoothly.

  • Do an access check at the start of the presentation. Make sure everyone is aware of the accommodations available and let them know how to access the features. It helps to have an accessibility point person available who understands the platform and can be on hand to troubleshoot any issues.
  • During your access check, set guidelines for participation, such as using the raise hands or chat features. Introduce the agenda upfront so people know what to expect.
  • When establishing guidelines for participation, ask attendees to announce themselves by name each time they speak. This helps people with vision impairments follow along.
  • Ask participants to keep themselves muted when not speaking to reduce background noise.
  • To accommodate people who read lips, ensure presenters are well lit.
  • Do not use flashing or strobing videos or animations. If you absolutely must use such material, put a warning on it.

Inclusive Presentation Tips

To make the content digestible for all, present information in a clearly organized, logical manner and follow the best practices below.

  • Use plain language and keep sentences short. If you use technical language, define complicated terms.
  • Do not rely on images to tell a story. Describe graphics, spreadsheets, videos, or other visual information verbally to help blind or visually impaired individuals as well as those joining by phone. Control the speed of animations so they can be described properly.
  • Do not use color as the only method for distinguishing information in text or graphics. Avoid high contrast colors to assist those with low vision or color blindness.
  • Record the meeting so attendees can reflect back on the information presented. After the session, recordings can be transcribed and captioned into different languages and distributed.
  • When distributing recordings, consider using audio descriptions, also called visual description. Audio descriptions supplement the audio track of the video with information about actions, characters, facial expressions, and other visual content. By offering narration about key visual elements, visual descriptions provide context for people who are blind or visually impaired.

After the event, check in to ensure the accessibility measures provided met the needs of participants. If sending follow-up materials, make sure documents are accessible so everyone can read and work with the files.

Language Access — Simultaneous Interpreting

In a traditional face-to-face conference, participants convene in a meeting space while simultaneous interpreters work from booths or a technical hub. Interpreters render the dialogue from the source into the target language in real time while meeting attendees listen through headsets. Many new technologies are being introduced to allow for this functionality in a virtual session.

Zoom has become the most popular go-to platform for virtual conferences. It also offers an online solution for human simultaneous interpreting. The Zoom interpreting function enables users to offer live interpretation during a virtual event or webinar. Interpreters join the session on dedicated audio channels and interpret the dialogue into their target language. Participants can select the language of their choice or listen to the original audio. Attendees have the option to mute the original speaker while streaming the interpretation, or listen to the primary presentation at the same time at a reduced volume. Work with your language services provider (LSP) to arrange interpreters, meeting facilitation, and hosting if needed.

Download our guide to hosting events via live Zoom interpreting.

It is always a best practice to give interpreters as much information as possible in advance about the content, agenda, and format of a presentation. Any reference material, such as slides or an abstract, will help interpreters understand the context and intent. Provide the names of moderators, presenters, and other relevant individuals in advance.

As mentioned above, plan ahead. Consider all the moving pieces, including audio, video, or other follow-up materials that people may need to access in different languages. Engage your LSP in advance for items that require translation, typesetting, voiceover, or captioning.

Captioning for Language Access and Support for the Hard of Hearing

Captioning is another way to make presentations accessible to attendees who are deaf, hard of hearing, or whose primary language is not English. Live or real-time captioning entails transcribing the spoken words into the cable-news-network style text that runs along the bottom of the screen. Captions not only benefit those who need auditory or language support; they have been proven to aid clarity, boost comprehension and retention among all participants. Captions also give people on the autism spectrum a greater depth of understanding and context by providing a second input stream.

Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms support live automated captioning, though the accuracy can vary significantly. Zoom itself does not recommend its own automated captioning service for accessibility compliance. For higher quality, use a human captioner. An experienced captioner will listen to the dialogue as it is spoken and enter the text into software that feeds the captions onto the screen. Human captioning can be used to create a transcript of the meeting, which can then be translated post-event to increase access to the material for those with limited English proficiency.

Ensuring Virtual Events Are Accessible to All

Virtual meetings are not going away. Even as the pandemic subsides, organizations will still need to consider the varied needs of their audiences and take steps to ensure that all attendees can understand and participate in online sessions. By following some best practices, you can enhance the accessibility of your virtual meetings, webinars, and conferences.

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