Virtual Events & Accessibility: Leveraging Empathy to Widen Your Audience

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Strategy, Tech
A quick list of our top 5 tips for running an accessible virtual event

As Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2020 approaches, we all find ourselves doing double-takes towards our work, making sure we account for accessibility first in the experiences and content we create. As organizations scramble to figure out how to recreate their flagship events in the virtual realm, we need to take a second to make sure we’re not just creating compliant experiences with 508/ WCAG in mind. Everyone’s goal must be to but step far outside the box to develop the most meaningful experience possible for all users in attendance with not just an equivalent experience, but by maybe even enhancing it as well.

Here is a quick list of our top 5 tips for running an accessible virtual event to keep in mind:

Closed Captions

Users with visual impairments represent one of the biggest audiences affected by the move from in-person to virtual events. Closed captions – opposed to pre-written subtitles/transcriptions or even an AI translator – are essential for your attendees’ ability to not just be at your event, but truly enjoying the event experience and engaging in meaningful ways. Closed captions will not only show someone what is said but how it is said. For example, “words, more smart words [jovial laughter from all speakers].” It allows speakers to get their tone across to everyone, rather than just showing words and data.

Accessible Event Website

There are two steps here – we want to make sure we get all of our checkboxes checked to have a fully compliant event website where forms work as expected, and nothing is preventing you from finding out what the event is about and paying your admission fee. The second part of this is to make sure you give your users a truly enjoyable, accessible experience. Sure, all the images on the site have alt text so a user can navigate, but do they enjoy navigation and learning more about the event? Can they tell anything about your brand/mission from browsing the site? An example is an alternative text saying, “Adolescent girl sitting in reclining chair reading Drupal for Dummies book” is a safe way to get through an accessibility audit. But take it a step further by leveraging features of accessibility to let your brand shine through – “Young girl in her kindergarten class wearing a superhero cape doing the show and tell for her wide-eyed and amazed classmates all sitting on a green carpet waiting for her to turn the next page in her Drupal for Dummies book.” That is, of course, a long and exaggerated version, but you get the point.

Specific Disability Awareness

One thing we emphasize with all our clients is empathy when building/remediating for accessibility. But to know what to build to be empathetic towards, we need to audit the audience, and your virtual event should be no different. Dedicate a field in the event sign-up asking if a user has a disability to be aware that could affect their experience, and then give them the option to identify what that disability is (NOTE: make sure this is optional of course, so you don’t get into any legal hot water), as well as the toolset they currently have to navigate the web. As creators, we do our best to build and account for all types of disabilities possible. However, it’s nearly impossible to consider all of them. Before the event begins, collecting this data will be critical for your ability to account for them when building and executing the events. This also gives you lead time to account for any case that will require an extra level of accommodations (more on this in a bit).

Accessible Event Platform

This is one of the trickier ones to tackle and depends entirely on the type of event you’re putting on. Like everybody testing the waters right now, you’ll have to get creative – tossing around the idea of using Zoom webinars as a feature of the event rather than using it as the platform itself. Then build a microsite to direct attendees to the right `rooms` of the event by organic site navigation, taking some of the burdens off of the virtual engagement platforms like Zoom itself. This will aid in not just making it more accessible, but a generally more enjoyable experience.

Welcome Packets

In about half of the accessibility statements that you’ll see on the web, you’ll see language saying something like, “although we strive for WVAG 2.X AA conformance, some inconsistencies may exist.” Try as you might, this will probably still be the case for your virtual event. To help lessen the learning curve or account for parts of the experience that won’t be 101% accessible, consider virtual welcome packets that will talk a user through some of the less intuitive parts of your event experience. If necessary, you could also consider a pre-recorded call option to aid those with visual impairments or even those with cognitive impairments that might enjoy hearing the information verbally and taking their own notes in the voice of how they use their suite of accessible web tools. Possibly even explore an `optional equipment` option for those with disabilities to lease unique assistive tech to help them engage with the conference material (shameless plug for Taoti’s Conference in a box solution).

To address the elephant in the blog post…

Yes, ensuring the appropriate measures are in place to make an event accessible involves an investment. You have to engage with the right partner to make sure not only is your event’s site for information and registration is accessible, but also make sure the event platform is accessible. You’ll need a seasoned UX strategist to review workflows on how to enter/exit these virtual rooms at will – is it a frustrating experience? Is there a clear way for me to move around the conference by just using the assistive technology available to me? Through it all, try to keep in mind the return on investment as you position your event’s brand as a fully inclusive industry example for your competition. Plus, once in place, you’ll have a reusable solution for future events as this virtual solution will probably be around for the foreseeable future – more on that in a previous blog post here.