Due to COVID-19, McGill University, along with institutions across the globe, has shifted many of its classes, administrative activities, and public workshops to the online environment. While we know that in-person activities will eventually resume, it is clear that facilitating online meetings, and activities are here to stay. This is an opportunity for organizers and presenters to commit to offering an accessible experience, no matter the presentation.
- Planning Accessible Events
- Choosing a Platform
- Kicking off the Event
- Signaling Sensitive Content
- Publishing Recordings and Slides
Planning Accessible Events
There is no recipe for a perfectly accessible event, as individuals' access needs vary, and sometimes even conflict! That being said, the pointers given throughout this document will help shape your planning, and benefit all participants, not just participants with disabilities. Key to planning a truly inclusive and accessible event is to recruit (and apply!) accessibility feedback before, during, and after an event.
Question: How do you gather accessibility feedback before an event? Here are a few ideas:
Include question(s) on the registration form for participants to signal an accessibility need. This can be a checkbox of accommodations you are prepared to offer (e.g. live captioning, slides in advance, ASL interpretation), but should always include an option for participants to fill in the blanks and identify their own needs
Include an accessibility statement that lets participants know that as organizers, you are committed to organizing an accessible event, and how they can get in touch with you. Below is an example that you can adapt and use for your event
We are committed to providing a barrier-free event. If you have any accessibility needs, please let us know by [sending an email, completing a form, phoning this number, etc.]
Accessibility issues are not always predictable in advance. If any participants experience difficulty during an event, this feedback is important to receive as you may be able to act on it in the moment. You can do this by:
- Having a “point person” whose contact information you can share, and will be monitoring their emails/chats/messages during the event to respond to access issues. Ensuring this person has the power to interrupt the event, and modify the settings (e.g. co-host in Zoom). Remember to announce this person's role to participants at the beginning of the event
- Enabling a chat feature in the platform that allows participants to give real-time feedback. You need to assign someone to monitor this chat so that they can respond to the needs
- Creating a shared note-taking document (such as a OneNote notebook) that all participants can edit. This allows them to take notes, share comments, and ask for clarification from other participants. It creates a back channel that participants can use to collaboratively support each other, and enhances access. Assign a moderator to this document in case issues are shared there that can be addressed immediately
Choosing a Platform
At McGill, we have access to three main web conferencing platforms: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and WebEX. The following chart provides a simple compare and contrast, highlighting accessibility features, to help you decide which platform to use for the virtual event you are hosting. The hyperlinks lead you to webpages with more information.
Does it allow non-McGill users?
Is live captioning built in?
NO – but you can assign a closed captioner or add a 3rd party captioning service
NO – but you can assign a closed captioner
Can you record your event?
Can the chat feature be turned on/off?
Can multiple screens be shown at once (used for sign language interpreters)
YES – interpreter must be assigned as a “panelist” by the organizer
NO – other video screens will only be thumbnail sized when someone is sharing their screen
YES – individual must ‘pin’ the interpreter to their screen and change their viewing layout
As of September 2020, Zoom has added new accessibility features that allow users to pin multiple videos to the screen.
Best videoconferencing apps and software for accessibility. (8 April 2020). Retrieved from: http://bighack.org
As an event organizer, you will need to make some decisions about whether your event will be taking place synchronously (Live, fixed-time, in real-time) or asynchronously (pre-recorded).
- Can offer real-time opportunities for engagement between the participant and presenters (e.g. question and answer periods, live chats with presenters, dialogue with the audience)
- Can provide opportunities for real-time, remote engagement between participants (e.g. breakout rooms)
- Can be recorded and shared afterwards (asynchronous)
- Fixed to a certain date and time – the inflexibility can be a barrier for those who can’t join in the moment, but would still like to access the event
- Live captioning is subject to mistakes, typos and incorrect transcription (this can be corrected for recordings)
- Platform may limit attendance due to capacity
- Technical issues can cause problems for all attendees, and interrupt live events
- Recordings can be posted online and made widely available through video-sharing platforms (e.g. YouTube, Microsoft Stream)
- Video-sharing platforms allow participants to speed up/slow down the recording
- Content can be accessed at the participants’ own pace and in their own time
- Material can be viewed multiple times to support understanding, and clarity
- Transcripts and captioning can be edited and polished before finalizing the recording
- Limited engagement between presenter and participants – lack of participant feedback can be a barrier for the presenter
- Lack of live feedback
Recording Synchronous Events
Deciding whether or not to record a synchronous (live) event, and make it available to participants after the fact, is a decision you should make at the outset, and that participants need to be made aware of prior to and at the event. If you choose to record, you may offer suggestions for how participants can still participate but with a privacy setting that is comfortable for them (e.g. participants can turn off their video or pose questions in the chat rather than aloud)
You should confer with your fellow event organizers to think about the following:
- Am I looking for audience engagement?
- Recording sessions can dissuade people’s participation, as they do not want to have their questions or comments recorded. This is especially important if you’re addressing sensitive topics, or recruiting personal anecdotes
- How is my event structured?
- If you are hosting a speaker series, or a panel discussion, you may choose to record the “presentation” portion of an event, and turn the recording off for a Q&A section
- Who will have access to the recording?
- Is the recording for archival purposes? For wide distribution afterwards? These questions will influence whether or not participants feel comfortable participating in your event
Virtual meeting fatigue is real! Just as you would expect to be given a break in an in-person event, breaks are needed in virtual events. A good rule of thumb is a minimum of 10 minute break for every 2 hours of presentation. Breaks are necessary for people to attend to their health needs (e.g. go to the washroom, drink a glass of water) or other emerging needs (e.g. childcare, urgent emails) and to optimize their attention for the entirety of your event.
Staying Engaged During a Break
In the spirit of universal design, offering options for engagement is always a good practice. While silence can always be the default option, there are a few activities that you can consider offering your participants during a break:
- Play music
- Share a reflection question or journal prompt on the topic of the presentation
- Offer a self-guided meditation or mindfulness prompt
- Turn on the participant chat feature so they can connect amongst each other
- Light stretches and deep breaths
- All of the above!
Some people may want to completely disengage during the break, and that’s ok! You can offer participants to turn off their mics, cameras and audio during the break. Providing the time (e.g. in 5 minutes) that you want participants to regroup and tune back in can be helpful.
Kicking Off the Event
The following are some ideas that you can implement at the beginning of your virtual event, that help set the tone for an accessible and inclusive experience.
- Welcome the participants and open with a land acknowledgement
- Introduce yourself, your pronouns, and a verbal description of what you look like. Each subsequent presenter should be invited to describe themselves before talking
- Some platforms (e.g. Zoom) allow participants to “rename” themselves with their name and pronouns.
My name is Rachel Desjourdy and I use she/her pronouns. I am a white woman wearing colourful glasses, a teal top, with my blonde hair tied up in a messy bun.
- Some platforms (e.g. Zoom) allow participants to “rename” themselves with their name and pronouns.
- Give a quick inventory of how to use the different features of the platform (e.g. chat box, hand raising) and housekeeping items (e.g. turn mics off when not speaking, camera etiquette). Be sensitive to differences between accessing the platform on a computer versus a mobile device. You might want to test things out and write yourself a brief script to use beforehand
- Inform participants whether the event will be recorded and when/where the recording will be made available
- Inform participants how questions and comments should be shared (e.g. Q&A period at the end, live in the chat)
- Inform participants on how to access links, or other materials (e.g. email, website)
- Provide an overview of the event (e.g. visual agenda and verbal outline of the event)
- Be sure to identify planned breaks (approximate timings)
- Set the tone by inviting participants to participate in the way that feels most comfortable to them (e.g. turning your camera on/off)
The content of your event will vary widely, depending on its purpose. You might be organizing a watch-party, a panel discussion, a lecture series, or a virtual class, just to name a few different types of events. If you require specific guidance on improving accessibility for your event, you can contact the Accessibility Advisor at rachel.desjourdy [at] mcgill.ca. The following sections will outline guidelines to follow when presenting with audio-visual materials.
There are two different types of captions: closed captions, and open captions.
- Closed captioning: viewer has the ability to turn it on or off (e.g. YouTube)
- Open captioning: visible to all viewers and cannot be turned off
Captions are sometimes referred to as subtitles. These words are interchangeable if the language of the subtitles matches the language of the audio. Subtitles can also be used for translation purposes (e.g. on the news), but that is not what we are referring to here. Transcription is another word used when discussing captions. Transcription is the act of turning audio into text.
Captions can be generated two different ways: using voice-recognition technologies, or by having a human captioner live transcribe the session.
Voice Recognition Technology
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has advanced in the past couple of years, and businesses such as YouTube, Google, and Microsoft have invested in voice-recognition capabilities in their products. Voice recognition technology has the power to vastly improve accessibility for a large number of users, however, one should be aware of its strengths and limitations before making a decision.
- Lots of free or low-cost options exist, such as the built-in subtitles in PowerPoint
- Requires little to no advanced set up. Most are as easy as clicking a button to have the app start “listening” to the speaker
- Some technologies allow you to save the transcript after the session, which allows for editing and distribution after the event. This can be helpful with post-production videos that you want to post online
- Accuracy – can be less accurate than human transcription, particularly with proper nouns (e.g. names, places)
- Only one language at a time
- Depending on what technology you’re using, it may not always be shown on the screen of the presentation, but may require opening another window
- Certain accents can reduce the accuracy of the transcription
- Background noise can interfere with the transcription
- Most software does not signal when the speaker changes
- Inclusion of repetitive and redundant speech (e.g. “umm”)
- No punctuation
- Does not transcribe sound effects, or signal other sounds (e.g. music)
Captioning is also possible by having a person assigned as a captioner. These can be hired professionals, or volunteers. Do not underestimate the difficulty of live captioning if you will be assigning a non-professional, or a volunteer, to transcribe your event!
Professional services can be hired, and these services are often referred to as CART (Communication Access Real Time). The rate varies depending on the company you contract, but generally around 100-150$/hr. There is usually a minimum commitment of a couple of hours per session. The amount of notice required for an event depends of the company. Most professional services do not require the captioner to be physically present, but rather have a direct audio connection into the session (e.g. via a microphone, or a telephone call). The captions are generally projected onto a second screen for the participants.
CART (Communication Access in Real Time) Services:
The following organizations are examples of captioning services that you can contract for your event. These are listed for informational purposes only, to support you in your search process.
Sign Language Interpreters
Working with sign language interpreters is essential to ensuring the full participation of Deaf folks in your events. Sign languages, as do spoken languages, vary greatly. Before hiring a sign language interpreter, you will want to know a) the language spoken by the presenter(s) at the event, and b) the sign language understood by participants. In Quebec, there are two prominent signed languages: ASL (American Sign Language) and LSQ (Langue des signes quebecoise). A few notes:
- Most interpreters in the Montreal region can either translate spoken English to ASL or spoken French to LSQ
- Some interpreters can translate ASL to LSQ (or vice-versa). These interpreters do not need to be hearing, but do require a hearing interpreter to translate the spoken language into one of the signed languages
- Interpreters usually need to be hired in teams, with switches happening every 20 minutes or so
- If your virtual event hires interpreters, you will need to figure out how to switch between interpreter screens during the session, so that the active interpreter is viewable to participants
- ASL/LSQ interpreters are usually independent contractors, and their rate is 100-150$/hr
- Interpreters are few, and in high demand in Montreal. Be sure to book them early for your event! If the event is virtual, it is possible to hire an interpreter who is based outside of Montreal
- Hiring an interpreter without a commitment to actively engaging the Deaf community in your event can be tokenistic. Some important questions to consider are: a) how are Deaf participants finding out about your event? b) how are you clearly advertising the presence of interpreters in all event promotion?
The Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada has an online, searchable directory of members who have opted in. You can also reach out to Deaf participants for recommendations in the community.
PowerPoints, Graphics, and Images
A few tips for working with PowerPoint:
- Use an accessible PowerPoint template
- Run the Accessibility Checker, and use it to correct the accessibility issues it flags
- Share the slides with participants: in advance, or as a reference afterwards.
- Use sans-serif fonts in at least 14 pt. (e.g. Arial, Verdana, Calibri)
- Use unique slide titles (e.g. each slide has a different title, without repeats)
- Ensure adequate colour contrast
- Use this Colour Contrast Checker
- Avoid colour reliance (e.g. don’t only use colour to convey information)
- Use underlines only for hyperlinks
Even the most visually accessible PowerPoint can still cause barriers if the presenter neglects to implement some of these behaviours when presenting:
- Describe images verbally as they’re shown on the screen. Are you using cartoons, memes, pictures and/or graphs in your presentation? Make sure you are verbally highlighting the content during your presentation. This provides a live audio “alt text” for participants
- Give specific directions if you are using your cursor to point out something on the screen. You can include some verbal indicators of where someone can find the information you are referencing, instead of just “look here”. This can be as simple as “on the right-hand side of the slide, in the _____ table, you can see…”
- Explain the purpose of your visuals. Sometimes we use visuals to be humorous, ironic, or to illustrate a specific point. Not everyone can access social cues (e.g. irony), so take a minute to explain to the participants why you are including a particular image. Answer for your audience: what is the take-away from this image?
- Turn on closed captioning when presenting. PowerPoint enables presenters to turn on a subtitle function which automatically generates captions for all viewers
Videos, Podcasts, and Other Media
If you plan on using videos, podcasts, or other media during your virtual event, you will want to consider the following:
- Avoid media (e.g. videos, gifs) with flashing/strobing lights
- Choose videos that have closed captioning, and ensure that it is turned ON when you play it
- Note: YouTube uses AI to auto-caption English videos that do not have closed captions produced by the creator. These captions are not perfect and should be pre-viewed for accuracy. Prioritize videos that have captions that are not auto-generated
- How to turn on closed captioning in YouTube
- Provide transcripts for any podcasts or audio-only clips you play. Some podcasts publish their own transcripts, while others you may need to create ahead of time. These should be available to all participants before you start the audio clip
Signalling Sensitive Content
It is important to signal to your event participants that a potentially sensitive and/or triggering topic will be addressed, prior to starting that portion of the presentation/event/discussion. This signalling can be referred to as a “content warning” or a “trigger warning”. These notices are especially important when discussing topics of violence (e.g. racial, sexual and/or gendered violence), and trauma (e.g. generational, medical).
You can provide these signals to your participants via written notices, or verbal notices. From a universal design perspective, it’s always best to provide it in both modalities! Some presenters also take this opportunity to provide participants with reminders of self-care, or the options they have to engage/disengage.
Most platforms offer some form of engagement for participants such as:
- Q&A toolbar
- Polling function
- Chat box
- Participation buttons (e.g. Raise your hand, yes/no buttons)
- Microphone feature (e.g. For participants to speak up and verbally comment)
A few things to remember when using any of these virtual participation activities in your event:
- The chat feature can be distracting, or difficult to navigate for participants using screen readers. Consider turning it on/off at designated points in your session to minimize the interruptions during the event
- When responding to a question or comment in the chat, the presenter should always read the comment aloud so that all participants can follow along
- If someone submits a question or comment anonymously, be mindful to not repeat their name as you respond
- Provide multiple means of participation. For example, if you’re asking a question – you can encourage people to respond in the chat or “raise their hand” to answer verbally
There are also other ways to engage with your participants outside of the platform you are using. A few ideas:
- Note sharing: a shared document where participants can add their notes, comments and questions throughout the presentation. This can serve as a record of engagement, and can be a useful tool for all participants
- Social media: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can be used to collect feedback, host a “back chat”, and allow for participants to connect to one another during an event. You will need to use a common hashtag for your event that allows people to follow each other’s comments on social media
- When using a hashtag, capitalize the first letter of each word. This is called camelCase and helps with reading/understanding your hashtag!
CamelCase example: Instead of the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, capitalize the first letter of each word: #BlackLivesMatter.
Publishing recordings and Slides
If you have decided to make your event recordings and/or materials available after the session, be sure to do the following before publishing:
- Use the Accessibility Checker in Microsoft for all documents, and make the needed corrections
- Provide closed captions for any video content (e.g. a video recording of the session)
It’s also a best practice to include a contact for your participants to request the material in an alternate format.
Sample statement: Alternate formats are available upon request to [insert email address here]