I can’t attend most events in person because of my disability, and I’m not alone. I’ve lost out on career opportunities including work meetings and conferences. I’ve lost out on opportunities for personal growth and connection. I’ve had to drop out of school committees and be less involved in my kid’s school because I couldn’t physically attend meetings in person. I’ve pushed myself to participate in some meetings and events that have caused long term damage to my physical health.
If event hosts care about accessibility, they can offer video-streaming or videoconferencing as an option. That way, people with disabilities like me can attend and participate even when we can’t physically be in the room. Virtual participation doesn’t just provide access to people with disabilities including some chronic illnesses, but it also provides access to travelers, care givers, and people who can’t afford to travel to your event.Unfortunately, many refuse to allow virtual participation even it’s when requested well in advance. When I ask and am refused the option to participate virtually, I get the message that that neither I nor accessibility are important to the event organizers. It is difficult for me to ask for this accommodation, and when I’m turned down, I become less likely to ask again in the future.
Preparing for virtual participation is the most inclusive approach to events. Advertise that the option is available. And if possible, record events so they can be watched at a later date in case someone is too ill or otherwise unable to watch during the event.
Willingness to provide a virtual participation option is the first step, but there are some pitfalls to be aware of and small changes that make all the difference.
- Have a point person for everyone attending virtually to connect with for questions and troubleshooting, and be sure to share their contact information. I’ve attended many virtual events where I couldn’t hear, see, or even get onto the event. Because I had no point person to assist, there was nothing to do but be embarrassed when people spoke to me but I couldn’t hear them.
- Ensure you have a strong internet connection.
- Have each person joining the call mute their microphones when not speaking to eliminate distracting background noise.
- Buy the proper equipment if you can afford it. There are many types of technology that can be purchased to make video streaming and conferences work well, including special microphones for large spaces, separate microphones for speakers, screens to project the images of those calling in, and equipment to help with room acoustics.
- Provide live captioning so people who are conferencing in can follow along. This is also an accessibility best practice to provide for everyone in the meeting room.
- Make sure that everyone speaks loudly and enunciates. At many meetings I’ve attended, people start to speak quietly and I can’t understand what they are saying. Like the Mic!
- Make sure that the camera is zoomed in on the people speaking. Have a camera on an event focused on a large room. I’ve participated in events where the speakers were far away and couldn’t be seen.
- Check in after the event with people who participated virtually for feedback on how to improve. I am always so grateful when any effort is made to allow me to participate that it’s difficult to bring up things that can be done to make it better. I don’t want to be considered ungrateful. But what’s the point, if it doesn’t work?
- Leave the point person without resources to ensure that if problems come up during the event, they can be quickly resolved.
- Just expect a laptop to work in a big room. This is not a good option, especially when there are multiple people speaking.
- Put the video in the back of the room. It’s not fun to look at everyone’s backs and for no one to be able to see me unless they turn around.
- Show a slide presentation on a screen that is not also shared with those attending virtually.
- Ignore the people attending virtually. I’ve videoconferenced into meetings where someone set up a laptop in the corner for me and people said hi to me at the beginning of the meeting, but then ignored me for the rest of it. Someone did try to be more inclusive of me by typing in the chat box from time to time, asking me if I wanted to add something to the conversation. You could have the point person be responsible for getting the attention of the room if someone calling in has something to say. But it’s awful trying to get the attention of the room and ending up interrupting someone. It just made me stop trying to contribute. If the event is live-streamed and questions are taken, find a way for people watching from home to send questions in.
- Disclose that people are calling in because they are disabled or chronically ill. That’s no one’s business. It’s much more inclusive to normalize calling in. It’s been uncomfortable in particular meetings when a host has pointed out that I’m only being allowed to participate by video conference because of my disability.