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Accessibility in Virtual Facilitation – Part 1: Accessible by design

Accessible practices in organizing and facilitating virtual events present both challenges and opportunities. In this series we offer some of our lessons learned from recent projects in which accessibility took center stage. Part one of this series is all about preparation. Preparing for an important meeting with accessibility requirements can be as important as it is daunting. While we are experts in virtual facilitation, we recommend collaborating with an expert in accessibility while planning an online event.

Written by Marika Escaravage and Patrick Valois

When our industry, like so many others, was flung into the world of virtual meetings, we welcomed the adoption of increasingly powerful online collaboration tools. For many people, this meant a steep learning curve, including how to leverage these tools to design and facilitate more accessible and inclusive online gatherings.

In early 2022, we had the chance to facilitate a series of virtual engagements for a public sector client wishing to surface the barriers to a more diverse crowd participating in their consultation processes.

Working with this client and others to produce more accessible and inclusive facilitated sessions has been ripe with lessons learned. As we strive keep improving in this realm, we hope the following lessons learned will help accelerate your journey towards more diverse, accessible, and welcoming online events. Expert resources are suggested at the end of this post. Naturally, the sessions themselves needed to be as accessible as possible and we were pleased to receive feedback indicating that this goal was largely met.

Lesson 1: Start Early

Attention to accessibility should begin well before your event does. In a world that isn’t accessible by default, doing things right takes time.

  • Expect to assemble a larger organizing and execution team than you may be used to. It may include technical support personnel, facilitators, interpreters and accessibility and communications specialists. With a larger team, communication and coordination can take more time and possibly more resources.
  • It’s also important to reach out to external contractors early to ensure their time is secured for your event(s).. For example, many of our senior facilitators fill their schedules several weeks or even months in advance.

Lesson 2: One size does not fit all

Just because two people belong to the same community or share a same diagnosis, it does not mean that they will require the same accommodations. Get to know your participants to foster active participation.

I – Ask “Who is attending?”

We ask this of our clients whenever we’re invited to facilitate a session, to cater our approach to the group and individual participants’ needs as much as possible.

As an event organizer or host, providing a clear deadline for registrations and openly requesting that participants share any accessibility needs far enough in advance will go a long way in answering this question.

  • If someone expresses the need for accommodation, it’s best to work directly with them to identify a solution they are comfortable with and that will encourage their active participation.
  • For example, if a participant is deaf or hard of hearing, don’t assume you can turn on Zoom’s automatic closed captions and call it a day. Create a space for open communication. They may request the use of American Sign Language (ASL), Quebec Sign Language (LSQ) or Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) Service. Different members of the deaf community may request different support services at the same meeting so it’s best to offer options.
  • It can be helpful to consult experts, particularly those with lived expertise, within or outside of your organization on which accessibility practices are likely to be most important or helpful in your context. This is especially important when you have multiple accommodation needs or you are unable to get individual guidance from participants on how to best support them. We are fortunate that many of our public sector clients have access to in-house specialists, but if you do not, consider consulting resources like those provided below.

II- Keep event communications accessible

Invitations, instructions, reminders, and other communications are often exchanged before someone attends an event. Ask yourself: how might we make every touchpoint with participants more accessible?

Sometimes all it takes is a simple tweak, such as ensuring the colour of your text contrasts sufficiently with its background. Other times it involves calling to relay an invitation or follow-up, instead of relying on email and websites. Keep in mind that an overwhelming amount of information can be requested from those registering for an event. It may be a good idea to remind respondents of your offer to accommodate their needs more than once.

Lesson 3: Identify the tools required for success

Technology evolves and so do the ways in which we use it. Each videoconferencing software has its features and quirks. Sometimes, enlisting the help or advice of an expert is your best bet.

I- Know your platform(s):

For the past couple of years, constant updates and advancements in online meeting technology accelerated by the pandemic have made it a bit tricky to establish best practices for the use of online collaboration tools. As challenging as it is, we’ve found that staying on top of updates and new features on Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other platforms is critical. We recommend playing around with the software as often as possible, even if you’re just scheduling a meeting for the sole purpose of testing out a few new features.

II- Consult an expert:

Our facilitators are fortunate to often collaborate with one of our virtual event producers. With a working knowledge of what different platforms are capable of and how they operate, a producer helps ensure that the technology is running smoothly. They also provide platform support to everyone before and during the meeting. Enlisting a producer in an online meeting with accessibility requirements gives the host and facilitator peace of mind knowing that if any tech issues arise for any of the participants, it will be taken care of without halting the whole event.

  • As most people have enough on their plates without keeping up with the latest tech updates, consider working with someone familiar with online meeting and collaboration tools. They can advise on how best to implement the necessary accommodations into your virtual meeting and can anticipate potential issues ahead of the event, so they don’t throw a wrench in your plans when it counts.

III – Familiarize yourself

Here are a few specific things to familiarize yourself with when considering a technological tool’s accessibility implications:

  • Do you know how the simultaneous interpretation feature works in the platform? It’s more than likely this needs to be set up ahead of time.
  • Do you know what any professional interpreters you have hired (or plan to) require in order to provide their services safely? It’s likely they will require everyone with an active speaking role to wear a headset with a microphone and to keep their cameras turned on and to speak slowly. In some cases, they have the right to refuse to stop interpreting if these requirements are not met, which could put a halt to the meeting. It may not only be a matter of quality, but also of health and safety for these professionals.
  • Do you know how to spotlight and pin participants to your screen? Being able to provide these instructions to a participant who is making use of sign language interpretation can be integral to their participation.

If you want to read more about accessibility and National AccessAbility week, check out the following link: National AccessAbility Week: May 29 to June 4, 2022 – Canada.ca

If this article made you want to learn more, please come check out Part 2.

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