Ensuring accessibility and inclusivity must be top of mind as you plan and execute virtual events. Digital accessibility is a complex subject, but understanding some basic elements is a starting point.
Meeting professionals must work with an inclusive mindset, including ensuring that their conferences and events accommodate people with disabilities. Although many meeting planners had increased their knowledge of disability inclusion best practices in a face-to-face environment, the pivot to virtual due to the pandemic requires organizations to consider how people with disabilities will experience their online meetings—and then implement processes and tools to ensure these events are accessible, inclusive, and equitable for everyone.
While virtual accessibility is complex and encompasses a variety of human, technical, and legal compliance elements, there are some first steps meeting professionals can take to better anticipate and accommodate the needs of attendees with disabilities. True digital accessibility requires more, but these steps represent a few fundamentals.
To start, clearly state on your meeting website and in other relevant materials that accommodations will be made for people with disabilities, and explain how those requests can be submitted. To ensure that teams can follow up with individuals about those requests, ask that all accommodation requests be made at least two weeks prior to the meeting. In addition, vendors that provide these accommodations should be identified in advance. Examples of accommodations include adding closed captioning, providing a sign language interpreter, or offering to send copies of slides and handouts to the attendee in advance of the meeting.
Here is a brief overview of some of the basic accommodations that should be a part of every virtual meeting:
Closed captioning. While necessary for those who are deaf or hearing impaired, this accommodation can benefit all participants since most people are visual learners. When people can read captions, they are better able to understand and remember. Plus, a transcript can be sent post-meeting, which reduces the need for attendees to take notes and serves as a great resource for future reference.
Some virtual platforms have a feature that allows the participant to enlarge the size of the captioning font. During the meeting kickoff, the moderator should give participants instructions on how to enlarge the font size.
If the group’s size is manageable, the moderator or presenter also should consider letting participants introduce themselves. This is especially important for those who are blind or visually impaired, since they may not be able to see the other participants’ faces on their screens.
Sign language interpreter. If a sign language interpreter is being used to assist participants who are deaf, provide instructions in advance of the meeting about how to pin the video of the interpreter on their screen so that they can be seen at all times.
Speakers can also help by being mindful of the needs of people with a hearing disability. For example, they should be told to face the camera lens at all times when talking so that their lips can be read by the attendees. The speaker should also be visible on a larger screen window than the participants.
Slides and handouts. Also keep in mind the accessibility of meeting materials, including slides and handouts. If people are attending who are blind or vision impaired, let speakers know in advance so that they can narrate and briefly describe the visuals and graphics on each slide during their session. When handouts are a part of the meeting, ask those with visual disabilities in what format they would like them prepared, and send them in advance of the meeting. A format example could be an original Word document in 18-point font.
Ultimately, meeting professionals should never assume what services or special accommodations people with disabilities need. Instead, listen to their requests and ask them for suggestions on what can be done to best accommodate their needs. Taking these initial steps will help people with disabilities to feel welcome and included and to participate more fully in your virtual event.
Rosemarie Rossetti, Ph.D., is a speaker, trainer, author, consultant, and president of Rossetti Enterprises, Inc. Paralyzed from the waist down after a spinal cord injury in 1998, she helps meeting professionals plan more diverse and inclusive events.