. How to Create Accessible Digital Events, Part 2 | Successful Meetings

How to Create Accessible Digital Events, Part 2

Samantha Evans of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals provides specific ways every meeting planner can ensure their virtual or hybrid event is welcoming to all.

The growth of digital and hybrid events this year has removed some barriers that attendees with physical disabilities might have faced at in-person events. But while digital events provide a new level of accessibility — outlined in a recent episode of Eventful: The Podcast for Meeting Professionals — they also present new challenges for some attendees, which meeting planners should address.

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To delve deeper into creating accessible digital events, we spoke with Samantha Evans, CAE, certification manager for the International Association of Accessibility Professionals, and an accessibility advocate and specialist in certification and credentials. In this episode, she outlines why planners need to think about their events’ accessibility from the earliest planning stages, while selecting a platform provider, making staffing decisions and more. In this in-depth conversation, Evans provides actionable steps every meeting planner should take to ensure all attendees feel welcome.
 
Listen to the in-depth conversation in our latest episode of Eventful: The Podcast for Meeting Professionals, and remember to subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

Transcript


Loren Edelstein
Hello and welcome to Eventful, the Podcast for Meeting Professionals. I'm your host Loren Edelstein with Northstar Meetings Group. Eventful the Podcast is our way of inviting you to join some of the interesting conversations we have with people in our business about topics that really should be on your radar. I look forward to hearing what you think and please be sure to subscribe.

Sarah J.F. Braley
The rapid growth of digital and hybrid events this year has helped to remove some barriers that attendees with physical disabilities may have faced at in-person events. But while digital events can provide a new level of accessibility — outlined in a recent episode of Eventful: The Podcast for Meeting Professionals — they can also present new challenges for some attendees, which meeting planners should work to address. 

To delve deeper into the topic of creating accessible digital events, we spoke with Samantha Evans, CAE certification manager for the international association of accessibility professionals and accessibility advocate and specialist in certification and credentials. In this episode, she outlines why it is essential to think about your event’s accessibility in the earliest planning stages, from selecting a platform provider to making staffing decisions. In this in-depth conversation, she provides actionable steps every meeting planner should take to ensure every attendee feels welcome.

How has the meetings landscape changed for the disabled attendee in 2020? 

Samantha Evans
Sarah, I think it's really interesting and we're really excited about the opportunity to have digital virtual or hybrid events, because that allows for people that encounter challenges with travel for a lot of reasons to engage and become an attendee and an active member. So, digital events offer a lot of great opportunities. 

But we have the same considerations to take into, take into our planning needs that we would have for physical space events when visit a facility or a space or a site visit. And that has to do with digital accessibility and whether or not a person who uses assistive technology or relies on technology to relay what others might take in with their sight or hearing whether or not those platforms allow that person to engage.

And before they can even engage with the meeting, can they get to the registration page and say, I want to come to your event. 

Sarah J.F. Braley
And these are things that planners are possibly not realizing that they need to think about. 

Samantha Evans
They are because if you haven't worked in the world of accessibility, making things accessible to people, no matter what their technology choices or preferences are.

Sarah J.F. Braley
So, what are the challenges with the digital platforms that people are choosing? I mean, you and I are talking on Zoom right now — does it have what it needs? 

Samantha Evans
Zoom is one of the more accessible platforms. When we talk about accessibility, we have to talk about what is the assistive technology? What does that mean? You don't have to be a technology specialist to understand it. It means that people use. Things like computers to read content to them from what's presented on the screen or the computer or their mobile device, or they rely on captions to relay what's displayed in audio terms. And also what's visually displayed and audio descriptions.

But all computer products, apps and platforms are not created equally. Zoom is one of the platforms that is relatively accessible. You can use it with a keyboard. You don't have to have a mouse. You don't have to have vision. There are keyboard shortcuts to do everything in zoom with the exception of some polling options. But it's accessible for somebody, for example, for someone who's blind, who uses a screen reader to engage with digital content.

But not all websites and CMS’s, or platforms or registration tools are accessible. So that means that somebody with a disability that uses assistive technology would have to go get a sighted person or somebody that can use the mouse to do the actual input and engagement.

Assessing whether or not your platform is accessible means the vendor needs to be able to tell you whether or not they meet the web content accessibility guidelines, WCAG.

These are the guidelines for digital information and communication technologies that have been established for about 25 years. It's what ADA refers to. If you talk to people in 508 compliant for technology, WCAG is the standard that people refer to, and it has levels A, AA and AAA about how usable and accessible digital content is.

So, your vendor should be able to answer we're accessible or compliant to WCAG AA. Or single 
A or AAA, or if they scratch their head and say, I don't know what you're talking about. I'll have to get back to you then. That's likely going to be what the salesperson says, but they need to be able to tell you, because if you have a DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion — statement for your organization or your customer, and they intend to be equitable for people with disabilities, the digital technologies they use must be accessible.

So, the first piece is to ask your vendor or your considered vendors, are they accessible? Can people who use assistive technologies use their product. Whether or not they know enough to answer correctly is a different story. 

That's a bigger conversation, but the questions that you would ask is can somebody use a keyboard to navigate everything in your product? Can they navigate the meeting rooms and the breakout rooms and the networking opportunity? Can they use a keyboard to do all of that versus a mouse? Do all of your meeting rooms provide the opportunity for captions? And can we provide live captions because artificial intelligence is great, but captions need to be equitable.

Sarah J.F. Braley
So there are technologies available that can show you who is speaking? 

Samantha Evans
It's not a technology, it's a human, it's an actual cart captionist that has what looks like a in courtroom reporting. You might've seen a stenographer with 12 keys. Fingers rapidly flying. That's the same thing. The cart captioning identifies the speaker punctuation grammar, and sounds so that what's relating captions is equitable in text for what's being displayed on the screen.

Sarah J.F. Braley
So it's an extra person that you need to have on your team. 

Samantha Evans
For every room, for every session. Which is why all of the planning goes back to concept site visit and tools and resources. So captions are one thing that we always think about people always think they automatically say, you know, we want to be inclusive. Nobody wants to be excluding people. 

So, things that come to mind: First are blind people who use assistive technology, deaf people, or hard of hearing people who use captions and sign language interpreters. And the other thing to consider is sign language interpreters and captions are not interchangeable. Not everybody who's deaf uses sign language.

But here's your thing to ask your vendor: Does your platform allow us to pin or highlight a sign language interpreter along with the speakers, presenters or slides in every room? At a size where the viewer can watch the sign language displayed in an appropriate level, so they can discern what's happening with the hands and the spoken translations.

Sarah J.F. Braley
And I also read that they need to be able to read the lips of the sign language interpreter. 

Samantha Evans
Well, a lot of people who are deaf and hard of hearing read lips, a lot of people who are losing, hearing, read lips. But the challenge, when you look at digital presentations is when you have a panel of maybe eight or nine people speaking, those boxes get really, really small.

And that means the faces get really, really small. And that means the lips get really, really small. Not all sign language interpreters use they don't all use lips to have related. They may only sign and use their facial expressions to relay the intent or the intensity or the emotion and what's being spoken.

So, if you have attendees who read lips, then they need to be able to see visually, clearly the face of the speakers. And so, a lot of digital platforms have like a max of four they can display at any one time. Sometimes those four speakers have to get ousted for a sign-language interpreter, because the platforms don't allow for the accessibility of a sign-language interpreter to be included. 

The other thing about captions is that they have to be accurate, which artificial, even human captioning is not perfect, but it's better than artificial intelligence. But it also has to match what's being spoken in a timely manner. No more than a three second delay from what is spoken to what displays in the cab. Okay. So just consider, if you were to turn your volume off on most events and read the captions. If it's a minute late for what's being spoken, then you're trying to watch the text and see what's happening on the screen. If they're not synced, they're not synchronized. 

Sarah J.F. Braley
So that produces a very different experience for anybody that relies on captions, especially if you're changing slides at the same time, so that if you're jumping from one thought to the next you're going to be behind what's going on. 

Samantha Evans
So we have to consider asking your vendor for your platform. Are you accessible? Can people who use assistive technology engage? Can you use a keyboard? Does it require mouse does require vision to see? Or do you have to click? If you have to click, that means you have to use a mouse and you can't use a keyboard or other assistive tech, do they support student interpreters? Do they support captions and do they support live captions in every room? There are a lot of great platforms, but many of them do not provide for closed captions in breakout rooms. 

So yes, there are many things, many platforms that do include captions, whether or not they're accurate and useful captions is another story.

That can be really daunting. You're thinking, “Oh my gosh. I've never thought about these things.” Every day's a great day to start considering accessibility and inclusion. So, in the accessibility world, we talk about accessibility should be baked right in if you're making blueberry muffins and you don't put the blueberries in your muffin mix, when you get them out, if you're trying to cramp blueberries into the muffins, after the fact, you kind of destroy the muffins and they're not really blueberry muffins anymore. So, you need to build accessibility into your concept and your planning, including your platforms and designs. 

But then we got to talk about registration: You've made your best efforts or you're already under contract. Some platforms will allow you to add captioning in for an additional cost. But if you have a DEI statement about diversity, equity and inclusion, that says people of all abilities or disabled people, then you need to bake that into your, your meeting, planning and events, 

Sarah J.F. Braley
What is a DEI statement?

Samantha Evans
Diversity equity and inclusion. It’s become a really hot topic in 2020, because we've started to recognize verbally out loud and upfront the systemic oppression and the lack of equity and lack of inclusion for a variety of groups of people. We most often hear racial, gender, orientation as well as age and ethnicity and religious inclusion, but disabled people are one of those categories and disability requires some assistive technology. 

Sometimes it's low tech. Sometimes it's high tech. But DEI statements, if you have one, should also apply to how you plan your events and meetings to be inclusive for people with disabilities.

Sarah J.F. Braley
This brings up a question that I had that you've partially answered before: A planner who is used to doing physical events hasn't really thought of as they make this swing in 2020. So, ADA covers all of this, right? The Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Samantha Evans
So, we used to talk about ADA compliance for meetings. We knew to have doors that were propped open and make sure there's elevator access. There's accessible parking. We knew about these things in events, table setups, and not having, you know, tablecloths that draped or chairs and tables too close together for people who use wheelchairs or scooters.

We know about all of those things in event planning for fiscal space, but we have to consider the same in digital accessibility for virtual events and hybrid events. 

Sarah J.F. Braley
So, let's talk about the registration page, the registration process, all of us are, you know, sighted and able, we just go to the page and click where we need to, we fill in the boxes. What does this mean for somebody who needs to use assistive technology. 

Samantha Evans
So, what needs to happen on a registration page is that you need to be able to use a keyboard and use your tab keys to go from topic area at the top, your URL to what your first area of input is. It won't go to your text fields with your descriptions, but it should go to the first few form field box checkbox radio selection box, where you're supposed to input something or engage with the page.

If it doesn't highlight. And also for people who have sight in visual acuity, you should also see a label that pops up and displays on the webpage. This is what an assistive technology tool would read to the person using AT. So, if there's not a label that displays on that form field, it's supposed to be your name or your credit card, the person using it, isn't going to know what they're expected to input.

So we've already got a challenge there. There are lots of really great tools that are kind of freebies that are offered to help you do an assessment, to look at your webpages and determine if they're accessible. And a lot of that is underlying code. Some of it you can fix, if you have access to the backend of CSS or your product support team does to make sure that form field labels are labeled.

Any kind of image that's decorative in nature, or if it displays something that's supposed to tell the story has to have alternative text with it so that whatever you're displaying visually can be relayed to somebody who doesn't use their eyes to take in information. 

The challenge is if you use your tab key on your computer or your arrows and you can't get to those form fields at all, then somebody who uses AT, can't get to those form fields at all. They can't start to try to register. 

Sarah J.F. Braley
And this covers both someone who can't navigate without the assistive tools, but also somebody who can't see them or who can't hear what's being spoken to them from the page, and we're also talking about like dropdown menus. 

Samantha Evans
And so if you've never used or, or listened to, or watch someone use a screen reader consider all the things that you take in visually that you scroll through visually on dropdown menus, they have to listen to every single one of those words.

If you're an AT user, you're used to that, you're like, “yeah, yeah, I live in Delaware.” So I'm just going to get to the de de de de Delaware. So the listen to it and understand that. But there are some. Elements when you include all those drop-downs or matrices or drag and drop elements.

A lot of that when it gets to interactive mode, some of that content is not coded for accessibility, which means it's not going to be usable. So a quick usability test of your platform asking your vendor, if it's not your product is accessible. Using a product like web AIM Wave is a free resource to look at tools.

Web AIM Wave is a great tool to look at a webpage and get a quick glance at an overview of accessibility. It'll tell you anything. That's a big red flag. And it it'll tell you what it means, what the challenge is and how to fix it. 

If pages aren't coded correctly, you can't get to those elements to interact with the page. 

Sarah J.F. Braley
So, we're talking, having the form, the field and right above it, it says, first name, last name, address, and without those labels, a person can't make their way through the form. 

Samantha Evans
Right. They could, they could guess because it gets like, Oh, I see one, two, three in order before address, that's probably my name.

You learn if you're an AT user people learn what to expect and what not to expect and how they might circumvent what they think is supposed to be there. But that's a lot of, there's a lot of cognitive load to put on a person who wants to spend their money and time with you, right? 

Sarah J.F. Braley
Somebody who's willing to come to your event online, you don't want to make them have a hard time getting through all of this. Right? 

Samantha Evans
We're not even talking about the platform we're just talking about. want to go, I want to be part of this. You've made your case. I want to do this. What are we part of this? Oh, wait, I can't do it. Yeah, what's the next thing.

That's the problem on the, on the registration page. Well, I think it's more of an opportunity for quality engagement and that's being clear to state explicitly what you include for accessibility and inclusion: “We provide captions in every breakout room. We are using a platform that is accessible for assistive technology users. We have the ability to provide sign language interpreter, or we're already doing it.” 

So, what are you, what do you already include? What's baked into your meeting planning so that people know if they're reading, they're going to say, okay, great, let's see what they offer, then let me tell them, tell them what I need and find out how far in advance I have to register to try to get the accommodation so that I can engage.

So clearly state what you offer. What in your planning, have you already included that you've already made part of what your event is? When you're thinking about sign language interpreters at a virtual event, if you don't have them in every room as a default, then your candidates or your attendees have to really take a lot of thought into which track do they want to go to? What if they changed their mind? How did they coordinate?

Because it's not a person walking with them down the hallway from Ballroom A to Meeting Room Dogwood. So, if you have the capacity to include sig-language interpreters, and you know, that is something that you would have provided at your event then instead of contracting with a sign language, interpreter service, which come in a pair for 45 minutes each because they have to trade off and have breaks, you could just have sign language interpreters in each of your rooms, and you could clearly state that on your event registration page. 

So, if you don't have it all built in, then what do you do? You need to clearly state what accommodations you're able to provide.

Sarah J.F. Braley
So somebody fills out the registration and says, I need a sign language interpreter. Do you, you're required to provide that right? 

Samantha Evans
As a reasonable accommodation, yes.

Sarah J.F. Braley
So, are planners ready to do that? Because that's a cost. 

Samantha Evans
It is. And that's why accessibility has to be part of your budgeting and planning, right from the beginning. And considering what the differences in digital and hybrid events is where that planning component about accessibility is really important because your budget can take a really big hit if you haven't planned for it.

But when you look at the trade-offs of, “I don't have a food and beverage minimum, I don't have room rental. I'm not contracting with a huge A/V company to do, audio, mixer, sound, boards, and screens in every room.” You have the capacity to build in that accessibility function into your event, because you would have had it for one thing at your live event.

So, whether or not meetings are doing it, my guess is probably no. I've spent several weekends recently working with terribly stressed-out event planners going, “We don't have captioners or sign language interpreters, and it's Friday afternoon. And our meeting starts on Monday.” That's when those of us that work in the community, like, “who do we know that we know it was readily, has a lot of flex that we can help them with them?”

So what do you put on your accommodations requested registration? What are the accommodations you can guarantee? And by what date do you need to give notice as an attendee requesting those accommodations to ensure that the meeting planner can get those accommodations?

Sarah J.F. Braley
Is there an average amount of time that they need?

Samantha Evans
Right now, captioning lists are just scrambling to try to meet all the need with all the digital and virtual events. So, yeah. A minimum, the very least is two weeks, but the likelihood of being able to contract with a captioning team in two weeks is low.

If you're not providing captioning in all of your sessions and somebody requires captions and you need to contract with the captioner, which means you've got to write a contract, secure person, do your tech run through, make sure they're available.

Sign-language interpreters, contract with them, make sure they can work within the platform that you've presumably have a way for the sign language interpreter to be displayed on the screen, do a tech run through with your interpreters. Make sure they're available in pairs as needed to work with either each room or an attending and follow them around.

But the other thing to consider is that we have to be able to provide accessible digital media to attendees. So, if somebody can't see the screen or can't see, well on the screen or what's displayed on the screen is a compressed image that's blurry and can't be enlarged, then we have to provide our content in an accessible media format.

Speakers who have proprietary information are not going to share their personal source documents because they don't want it to be taken from copyright and edited whether for attribution or not. So, most speakers aren't going to give their content away in their source file. But the other thing to consider is we can't force people to use our Office product of choice for documents.

So, the reason portable document formats, PDFs, are available, is because I don't have to have PowerPoint to read a PDF slides. If you don't have an office suite product and you're somebody sends you a PowerPoint file, you might not be able to open those files to look at them. 

Sarah J.F. Braley
So do PDFs work well enough with text? Or do you need to keep that in some sort of text format because can the PDFs be read well? 

Samantha Evans
If they're made accessible, yes. So this is where either someone on your, your speakers should present their content in an accessible format. If they don't know how to do that, that means you have to request the speaker content in advance, and either somebody on your team makes them accessible.

Or you have a partner to, to remediate the content, to make it an accessible document. So there are great checkers and Microsoft and Apple and Google, and Adobe to check your documents, to see if they're accessible. A lot of that can be done on your own or in your team, but an accessible version of a document in an electronic document is going to take some time to have that remediated depending on how complex it is and depending on how intricate text tables might be, that are there in the document. 

But we try to in the accessibility world, not force people to use a technology because it's what we use. We let them use whatever technology they have at hand available or whatever resources that are available.

Sarah J.F. Braley
Now, are there contract issues to be aware of?

Samantha Evans
The contract terms with interpreters and captioning services are usually not intricate in nature. They're a service provider. You want to make sure your service level agreement terms are, you know, you will provide this and if you don't then what, you know, service level agreement terms. But the biggest challenge right now is timeliness. You can attempt to reach out to a caption service provider three days before an event. But be aware the same way with any other service emergency late service subscriptions do have upcharges.

A lot of large events are including sign-language interpreters as a default as part of their inclusion efforts. So the contracts aren't complicated. I’ve seen contract terms for both sig-language interpreters, and for caption service providers. And they're not anything dicey.  

So what I think would be really important if we're talking about inclusion and being thoughtful about your registration process is list out the accommodations you are able to secure and provide upon request. Versus asking the person with a disability to disclose their disability and say, I need these things.

The thoughtfulness and the care and concern that that relays just think about it. If you were to read an event and say, “wow, they've really thought about all the things I need, food and beverage. And we do in person they've thought about not just dietary restrictions, but they've thought about religious considerations and, and other health concerns or just food preferences. I don't have to say this is a medical need.” So being thoughtful about what you can provide as an accommodation also shows your attendees, that you have thought about inclusion, and you're not relying on them to display all the things that you should do for you.

Sarah J.F. Braley
They can come in and it's already taken care of.

Samantha Evans
If we're thoughtful and kind, and in our intentions, we, we shouldn't require a person to tell us what they need, because we will have already thought about what will be needed and allow them to select from our list of considerations.

But we do need to say will the challenge with digital events, if people sign up at the last minute, you know, literally at the last minute, so we can, you can say, and under ADA guidelines, reasonable accommodation also includes a reasonable time to acquire the services. So, if it's not included, you might say “these accommodations requests must be submitted two weeks prior to the date of the event” and put the date of when that requirement is to ensure we can provide these accommodations.

That's fine. I don't think anybody who uses accommodations as a regular basis would be surprised to read that there's a timeframe because they understand what it takes to get those services. 

Sarah J.F. Braley
Great. I think we're going to stop here for now and we'll move on to a different topic in another podcast. I want to thank you, Sam, so much for giving us all this insight. It's really terrific. You've given us a website to go to with more information. So I will read out what that is. https://www.accessibilityassociation.org/northstarmeetings. 

Samantha Evans
And that webpage is a deep dive into what to consider as a meeting planner for accessible events. 

Sarah J.F. Braley
Great. Thank you so much for your time. 

Samantha Evans
I'm so glad we had time to talk a little bit more about opening that digital door to inclusive events and meetings online. 

Sarah J.F. Braley
Thank you very much. Talk to you soon. Bye-bye.