Laptop showing 4-person video conference

A New, More Inclusive, Normal

Normalizing Virtual Events

Prior to the pandemic, virtual get-togethers primarily existed in subcultures like video gaming. Now we have live concerts on social media, virtual conferences and summits, and virtual proms and commencements. In many ways, these experiences are richer and more accessible than an in-person-only experience, particularly when they are captioned, transcribed, and archived for viewing on-demand.

Assuming we continue virtual get-togethers, the next task will be ensuring they are accessible. This includes:

  • Registration, e-mail updates, and a log-in process that are WCAG-compliant and thus compatible with assistive technology such as screen readers and screen magnifiers for blind and low vision participants.
  • Viewing tools such as video conferencing and virtual reality that are also WCAG-compliant and compatible with assistive technology such as keyboard-only interaction and equivalent devices for mobility impaired participants.
  • Live captions and space to view sign language interpreters for d/Deaf and hard of hearing participants, and captions accessible via a Braille display for deaf-blind participants.
  • Equal opportunity to “join the conversation” such as providing a standing comment section for people who can’t type during the event (such as people using a joystick, voice dictation, or on-screen keyboard) or those whose attention can’t span between listening to the event and engaging with live commentary.

While this may sound like a lot, with proper planning it is achievable. Good examples are the weekly #CripCampVirtual discussions that have proceeded the “Crip Camp” Netflix documentary and the 2020 Microsoft Ability Summit which both incorporate all of these features.

Screen capture from the virtual  Microsoft Ability Summit showing CEO Satya Nadella next to another female employee (both in different remote locations) with sign language interpreter in smaller view in bottom right corner and captions in the bottom center of the screen.
Microsoft’s 2020 Ability Summit was virtual for the first time but extremely accessible including sign language interpreters, captions, and audio descriptions of all videos shown. The content was also archived on YouTube on the Microsoft Accessibility channel.

Even when in-person events return we can still use some of the best practices from remote events such as accessible registration and archived content, as well as provide remote in-person participation through devices such as Beams. Continuing to provide remote participation will allow homebound participants social interaction and networking. It will also give options to disabled in-person participants who may at times feel overwhelmed or fatigued either mentally, such as people with ADD/ADHD and Autism, or physically, such as those with mobility challenges for whom navigating large venues is difficult.

Overall, inclusive spaces for live events is an area rich with research opportunities and innovation. I truly hope the many creative people in this space are incorporating accessibility into their next big ideas.

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