The pandemic forced may activities online and into the virtual world. It was a steep learning curve for everyone, especially in terms of making and keeping things inclusive. While many prefer in-person conferences and learning events, there are others who prefer online participation. The pandemic has therefore given people choice through hybrid events – they can choose which one suits them best.
The anytime, anywhere availability of the internet provides flexibility for learning and for participation in conferences.
Anne Fensie reflects on her experience as a teacher, learner and conference delegate in a short piece, Inclusion Possibilities. She is unable to travel and the hybrid option is perfect, and she sees this as an issue of equity. As a person with ADHD and a sensory processing disorder it makes it difficult to focus in large venues with lots of people.
“There are many financial, logistic, physical and social barriers to attending these events in person… particularly people with disability…”
Fensie urges conference organisers to consider the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) when planning a virtual or hybrid event. That means, multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression.Her “musings“ on hybrid events are an easy read where she explains things from a user perspective. As she says, “Designing an event that benefits any person improves the experience for every person.
Ticking the accessibility boxes for conferences and events, online, hybrid and in person, is a good start. But there is another world of accessibility to consider beyond wheelchair access and captioning. And the move to hybrid conferencing has added another layer of complexity to consider. However, online attendance has advantages for people who are unable or unwilling to attend a live event.
A previous post covers the many parts of planning and inclusive online conferences, but there was one more thing to think about. First, this only works if the attendee has at least some basic digital literacy. The way that event programs are displayed on conference websites is the first step. Can everyone understand the format and how to follow it? Can they understand the topic titles and what the presentations will be about. Plain language is good, but for some people with low literacy levels, Easy English is a great help.
Managing more than one browser or screen is tricky for many people. Concurrent sessions complicate matters further. Then there are plenary rooms, break-out rooms, and hallways. Just knowing how to put something in the chat box can be a challenge. So when planning an online (or live) event, it’s good to check assumptions about both digital and general literacy of attendees.
Virtual and hybrid conferences have become more popular since the advent of the recent pandemic. But are they accessible and inclusive? A paper from Canada addresses the issues of inclusive online conferences. Using the recent Parks Accessibility Conference as a case study, the authors describe their experiences. As a Canadian event, they also had to consider two languages in their planning.
Some people with disability or impairment find online events less stressful than attending in person. They can avoid travel stresses and the regular access barriers. Others who find crowds and noise difficult, tuning in from home is a more comfortable. Consequently, conference planners need to take care to plan for easy access and inclusion.
And it should be for every conference, not just conferences with a disability component. However, this is a good place to begin and to learn from first hand experiences. The Parks Accessibility Conference is one such example.
The authors provide a list of their key strategies:
Make visual elements accessible to attendees with vision impairment
Make audio elements accessible to attendees who are Deaf or hard of hearing
Avoid overstimulation for individual who are neurodiverse or with a cognitive condition
Create ways to incorporate multi-sensory experiences remotely
Finding the right virtual conference platform.
The planners worked with presenters to help format and organise their presentations and materials. They hosted a pre-conference session with attendees to explain how to use the various features of the online platform so they knew what to expect.
The paper reads like a story, explaining every step along the way so that others might learn from their experience. There are eight recommendations for future conferences based on what they learned. Top of the list is to include people with disability from the beginning.
The objective of this paper is to share how our team planned and delivered a virtual conference that was fully bilingual and accessible to individuals with disabilities.
We incorporated closed captions, sign language interpretation, language interpretation (audio), regularly scheduled breaks, and a multi-sensory experience.
We describe our approaches to planning the conference, such as including individuals with disabilities in decision-making, selecting virtual conference platforms, captioners, and interpreters, and how we incorporated a multi-sensory experience.
The paper also summarizes feedback we received from our attendees using a post-conference evaluation survey and our team’s reflections on positive aspects of the conference and opportunities for improvement. We conclude by providing a set of practical recommendations that we feel may be helpful to others planning virtual accessible bilingual conferences in the future.
This community-based, participatory research study explores how online sessions can be designed to support complex communication access needs. The use of a community-led co-design approach resulted in a deeper understanding of the individual communication accessibility requirements, barriers, and lived experiences of persons who use AAC, within the online meeting context.
Participants (‘co-designers’) designed and took part in collaborative design sessions aimed at developing ideas for supporting communication access and inclusion throughout the process of meeting online. Through cross-community collaboration, we co-designed an open-source communication access toolkit for online meetings.
The toolkit includes accessibility guidelines with a protocol for holding accessible and inclusive online sessions; suggested accessibility features and plugins for meeting platforms; and a template for a collaborative participant notebook.
The design outcomes provide guidance to the general population on how we might ensure that online meetings of all forms are inclusive and accessible for diverse and complex communicators, as we all have a right to communicate with dignity in ways where we understand and are understood.
Captioning is an important part of making events inclusive, and more people than we realise rely them. People who are hard of hearing can capture words and names that they miss or are unfamiliar. For people who are deaf they are essential, especially if there is no-one to sign. People with English as a second language find captions helpful too.
Although most Australian venues say they have hearing loops for those who can use them, they are often not working or switched on. Or they are set to pick up all ambient sound, which makes them next to useless. So, captioning is essential if you want an inclusive event.
The image shows an additional screen for live captioning at an event. However, newer technology now supports captioning similar to that on a TV screen. This can still be done with live captioning rather than AI.
The move to hybrid events has taken the live captioner out of the room in favour of AI captioning. Zoom and Teams offer automatic captioning, which often fails to pick up the very words that people miss. For example people’s names and place names. If the listener misses the word or words, it is likely the AI captioning will too. For example, in Australia, AI captioning has no idea of how to translate Aboriginal place names.
Looks like hybrid conferences are here to stay. That means conference organisers are finding new ways of working, and maximising digital capabilities. Conferences with a high academic content usually have poster sessions. Posters are a good way for emerging academics to present and discuss their work. But how to make online conference poster sessions inclusive?
Getting the best from digital presentations is based on both process and technology. Using the most suitable digital platform is part of the story. In their article on inclusive and virtual poster sessions, the authors discuss real time and on-demand presentations. Having both options allows for time zone differences especially for international conferences.
Use combined real-time and on-demand options for sessions
Use short video or audio introductions
Utilise Zoom for breakout rooms for real-time sessions
Provide demonstrations on how to use the poster platform and how to view posters and access Zoom rooms
Give more time between notification and the presentation date to give more time to prepare and submit before the conference
The advantage of online posters is the amount and depth of feedback received by presenters. The disadvantage is the lack of opportunity to network.
People who feel uncomfortable in crowds or noisy environments will appreciate this mode of delivery. The cost of paper and print are avoided and the poster can be stored digitally. Virtual sessions allow for captioning, and Auslan interpreters. The authors list several benefits of virtual poster sessions and provide guidance for conference organisers.
From the abstract
Poster sessions are an integral part of conferences. They facilitate networking opportunities and provide a platform for researchers at every career stage to present and get feedback on their work.
In Spring 2020, we designed and implemented a no-cost and accessible, asynchronous, and synchronous virtual poster session. Here, we outline our goals for hosting an inclusive virtual poster session (VPS). We also demonstrate a “backward design” approach and our rationale for using the Padlet and Zoom platforms. At the 2021 Conference we shared lessons learned to help future poster session organisers to be accessible and inclusive.
Virtual poster sessions have great potential to improve collaborations and science communication experiences at scientific conferences and in undergraduate classrooms.
The art of audio describing has improved considerably since it was first trialled some sixteen or so years ago. Australian produced television programs signal when a program is audio described with a distinct sound. And more movies and stage shows are offering this option. Audio describing (AD) is designed for people with vision impairment, but could sighted people benefit too?
A group of researchers looked at two questions – the quality of the AD, and the additional benefit to people who are sighted. Currently, the AD process sits outside the creative process. It’s added later in a similar way to captions and subtitles. However, lack of integration can cause misunderstandings about the plot and the characters.
The research group carried out an experiment with people with vision impairment and sighted people. A short film was shown with enhanced sound effects. For example, bed spring sounds for someone sitting on a bed. Their article explains in more detail and applies the seven principles of universal design to their method.
In conclusion, the study showed that sound design – that is, non-verbal cues – can replace verbal cues in some films. The enhanced audio description was accepted by both vision impaired and sighted audiences. One sighted participant said that because the AD was integrated into the film it didn’t feel like they were listening to AD.
It’s universal design!
The article shows the potential for everyone to have an enhanced experience at the cinema and in their lounge rooms. It indicates a strong case for considering AD in the creative process and not leaving it as an afterthought. Integration of AD into the design process is another example of universal design.
Audio Description (AD) is a third person commentary added to film and television productions to make them accessible for visually impaired audiences. Traditionally, AD is added to productions after they have been completed, meaning that the creative and accessibility teams do not work together to produce the accessible version of the production.
This paper explores an alternative to traditional AD, called Enhanced Audio Description (EAD), whose methods are integrated to filmmaking workflows. EAD moves away from a focus on verbal descriptions and instead focuses on sound design strategies. In EAD the traditional third person commentary is replaced by the combination of three techniques.
The first is the addition of sound effects to provide information on actions, convey abstract scenes as well as indicate time, place, and the presence of characters. The second is the use of binaural audio (3D audio over headphones) to convey the position of characters and objects portrayed on the screen. Finally, first-person narration is used to portray feelings, gestures, colours as well as certain actions.
The application of EAD methods results in a form of accessibility that can cater for both visually impaired and sighted audiences, championing inclusive cinematic experiences. Focus groups with audiences of visually impaired and sighted people demonstrated the potential of the format to be widely enjoyed, and to be offered alongside traditional Audio Description (AD) in order to provide accessible experiences which cater for different aesthetic preferences.
The COVID lockdowns are long past and the event and conference industry is off and running. This is a good time for venue owners and event managers to find ways to be more inclusive. And that doesn’t mean asking speakers or attendees to nominate their individual requirements. So here are some guides for inclusive and accessible events.
The Zero Project guidelines are based on real experience of running conferences. The Canadian guide is detailed, and explains the development of the guidelines.
The City of Sydney Inclusive and accessible event guidelines include information on why events should be inclusive. It has information on the different types of disability people experience. It has four sections covering indoor and outdoor events and a set of checklists:
People who can’t hear well at meetings tend to avoid them. They also avoid events at restaurants and even family gatherings because it’s frustrating and tiring trying to concentrate on listening all the time. People with hearing loss tend not to disclose at meetings, which makes matters worse. When speakers announce, “Can everybody hear me?” few, if any will respond. Besides, without a microphone, nothing improves. The Ideas for Ears Protocol for meetings and events has some great tips.
Unless people with hearing loss are catered for, their voices will be left out of focus groups and community consultations. Their exclusion then becomes self-perpetuating. People with hearing loss should be able to participate in civic events and activities on the same basis as others.
Ideas for Ears in the UK actively advocates for people with hearing loss and has developed the Hearing Access Protocol for meetings and events. It provides guidance on how to run meetings so people with any hearing ability can hear and follow them. The Protocol was developed by people with hearing loss and it comes in PDF version and a short online Hearing Access booklet.
Organisers of festivals, markets and events need to think about accessibility and inclusion in their planning. Ordering an accessible Portaloo doesn’t suddenly make the event accessible. The layout of stalls and entertainment areas also need to be considered.
Lee Wilson makes a plea to organisers of festivals and markets for more inclusive thinking in his post on Linked In. He gives an overview of things to think about and that includes emergency procedures. Information should also be accessible, particularly to people who do not read English well, or have low vision. Auslan interpreters and audio describers make festivals and events enjoyable for people who are deaf or blind. There are several good resources on making events inclusive:
When there is a big televised international, national or local event, people like to talk about it afterwards. Joining in a conversation is part of belonging. But if you couldn’t see or hear the event then that sense of belonging is lost. You can’t talk about it afterwards if communication isn’t accessible.
A nicely written articleon the Danish Universal Design Hub website (use Google translate) explains how the Biden administration is being inclusive. The Biden and Harris inauguration ceremony was very different to the previous one. Everyone was invited to the Biden-Harris party:
“All parts of the day were on separate channels sign language interpreter, live text and sight interpreter. People with disabilities had the opportunity to participate in the entire event. Clothes, people, speeches and scenes were described, down to the gold strings on the orchestra’s uniforms.”
The article discusses what it means to be included in such cultural and social events. Accessible communication means more than just understanding what is being communicated. It includes.
If designs are not “born” accessible then it becomes a process of finding “work-arounds”. It can be seen in tacked-on ramps or clumsy platform lifts in buildings. Revolving doors mean another separate door for wheelchair and pram users. Special captioning apps or screenings in cinemas, and “special accommodations” at work and at school. It takes a change of culture to think inclusively and to understand its value.
While practitioners in many fields agree with the concept of inclusion for all, the organisations they work for are slow to get on board. This is because it takes a culture change to think and act inclusively. This is a key point in an article about how introducing captioning helped change the organisation’s culture.
Although the article is in the context of higher education, it provides some insights into how to drive culture change. Basically, it stems from the need to innovate. The article provides background to the project and a step by step explanation of the process to create live captioning for a live theatre performance.
Theatre performances require more than actors. Many people work behind the scenes from the scriptwriter to the curtain operator. So, many different people worked on the project. More importantly, they saw the results. At first they thought captioning would be a distraction, but in the end it became “traction”. Staff came around and saw the positive impact. The value of hands-on experience with the development and seeing the outcomes was the key to culture change.
The authors conclude that, “creating accessible environments doesn’t need to be expensive”. But it does take time, thoughtfulness and the involvement of users.
Laws and policies worldwide increasingly demand that all users have equivalent ability to interact with their environment, independent of disabilities. This includes educational and work environments as well as entertainment. Technologies have greatly facilitated the development of accessible resources and processes; however, a culture of accessible design is still not fully developed, and not all solutions are affordable, so there is still resistance. This paper outlines the steps of a team effort at a small private college to provide captioning for a live theatre production, Stepping Out, which resulted not only in rendering the performance accessible but also helped grow the culture of accessibility at the institution.