|Photo by Daniel Ali on Unsplash|
In almost all synchronous meetings, either on-site or online, there are people who are in some way excluded. Whatever time you choose it will not suit everyone and even if the meeting is recorded the absentees can only be spectators with little or no opportunity to affect the outcome. Often there is no time to let everyone speak or the discussion is dominated by a vocal minority. In online meetings there are always participants with poor internet connections or older devices that don't support the latest versions of the software being used. A further dimension to the exclusivity of synchronous meetings is how well they offer support to participants with special needs. How well can people with hearing or sight impairments follow your webinars or conference sessions and how can we improve the experience?
An article from Drake Music, Accessibility in Video Conferencing and Remote Meetings, gives some good suggestions for making online meetings more accessible. For those with hearing difficulties, automatic subtitling is obviously the best option, but at the moment this is not available in all platforms. Zoom for example, offer the option of adding a third-party app for automatic subtitling or enabling a manual service if you have a colleague who can type very quickly. I suspect this feature will soon become default but the accuracy of speech to text apps will vary greatly depending on language. As ever they work best in English and other major languages. An interesting idea when showing slides is to share the slide preview page instead of the full screen slide. The reason for this is that your slide notes will be very useful for those who have trouble following your speech.
Another option is employing a sign language interpreter. New features in Zoom include the option to spotlight several people in the video view and so you can spotlight both the speaker and the interpreter. Taking this concept a little further how about being able to offer simultaneous interpretation into other languages? This would mean having separate voice channels and allowing participants to listen to an interpreter rather than the speaker. I don't think any platform offers this facility but it would really increase the accessibility and reach of international webinars if they could be available in different languages, as well as in sign language.
For those with sight impairment good audio is essential and that means strictly muting everyone other than the speaker to eliminate background noise. Speakers should also make sure they use a good headset or desktop microphone for best audio quality. Speaking clearly and slightly more slowly gives everyone time to follow you and any visual material must be described. In addition it is a good idea to identify yourself when you want to speak. In this context the webinar becomes more like a traditional telephone conference where the role of the chair is vital. Small breakout groups can be more spontaneous and group notes can be uploaded as audio files to a common work space.
Another approach to greater accessibility is to reduce the importance of the synchronous meeting and learning to meet and collaborate asynchronously. Here the input can be recorded in advance with good subtitling and text manuscript and discussion can be curated in a community that allows text, audio or video comments and a format that is in line with relevant accessibility requirements. Bandwidth requirements are much lower for asynchronous platforms and participants can even submit text responses from a mobile. We may be surprised at the greater response levels compared to a traditional video conference. Maybe we need to ask ourselves when we really need a synchronous meeting and how much we can achieve in other ways.
I will admit that I have not been very aware of these issues until recently and I have a lot to learn. I am keen to learn more.