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Six Tips for Accessible Meetings and Presentations. The background is a man giving a presentation to a small group of business people around a conference table.
Scissortail's Learning Nest by Kayleen Holt

Introduction

Would you invite a team member to a meeting and then lock them out of the room? Would you give a presentation in a language your audience doesn’t understand? Of course not! But whenever we hold a meeting or give a presentation without considering accessibility needs, we’re denying access to many people in the same way. 

As I continue my series of posts in honor of Disability Pride Month, I’ve been reflecting on the accessibility lessons I learned from TLDC’s AIDC21 event. Besides the information shared, I learned a great deal from helping plan the event and observing the presenters. This week, I’ll share six ways to improve access to your meetings and presentations for those with disabilities.

I’ll close out the series next week with a practical how-to guide for creating accessible PowerPoint files.

Provide the Agenda and Other Materials in Advance

At a previous job, receiving meeting invitations with only a subject line and no other information was routine. For one such (virtual) meeting, the subject line was an unfamiliar acronym. The only people on the invitation were members of my team, so it looked like yet another informal team meeting. On the day of the meeting, I was working from home and wearing my “Dog Mom” T-shirt—only to find out that the meeting was with a potential client. If I had known that ahead of time, I would have dressed professionally. I also would have researched the organization so I could speak about how we could meet their needs. Fortunately, they were also dog lovers who were working from home, so everything turned out fine.

Sending an agenda in advance is “Meeting Management 101,” yet many people neglect to do it. An agenda is not only a good way to keep your meeting on track, but it’s also an easy stress reducer for attendees. For many neurodiverse individuals, uncertainty can cause a great deal of anxiety and even physical pain. An agenda helps people stay focused and is even more important for individuals with executive function issues.

Clarifying expectations upfront will help everyone be more prepared and productive. A detailed agenda or outline is ideal for formal meetings or presentations. But for informal meetings, even a sentence or two sent with the meeting invitation can serve as an agenda.

What to Include

Address things like:

  • Who will be there?
  • What is the purpose of the meeting/presentation?
  • What are the intended outcomes/objectives?
  • How will attendees participate or contribute?
  • For virtual meetings/presentations, are participants expected to have their cameras on?
  • How do participants let you know if they have accessibility needs?
  • Will there be breaks?

Also send the slide deck or any other materials that will be referenced during the meeting or presentation. This will benefit those who use assistive technology—that is, assuming the materials are accessible. Sending materials in advance also helps in case of any technical issues on the day of the meeting.

Be Seen and Heard

Face your audience (or camera) and make sure your face is well-lit from the front. Lighting behind you can throw harsh shadows. Some people need to read your lips or see your facial expressions.

Whether you’re on a stage or using a virtual meeting tool, make sure your background is not distracting. Don’t use backgrounds with movement, which can cause motion sickness for some individuals.

In a class I audited, the instructor began by saying, “My voice carries, so I don’t think I need a mic. You all can hear me, right?” Several participants (near the front) said yes, and he carried on. As an observer, I was in the very back (near a fan), and I couldn’t hear him well at all. To make matters worse, his voice trailed off near the end of his sentences. Use a good quality microphone, even if you don’t think you need one. And be sure that you speak clearly. It’s helpful to record yourself and listen to it later, so you can identify any issues.

Repeat questions that participants ask before you answer them. Even if participants have a microphone, if their back is turned, it may be difficult for others to understand what they said. Or if the question is entered into the chat panel of a virtual meeting, you can’t assume that everyone else has read it.

Provide Captions

Captions are a relatively easy yet often overlooked tool that significantly extends the reach of your information. Besides being essential for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, captions benefit many people. I have auditory processing issues that make it hard for me to filter out background noise. Turning on captions during a movie saves my husband from answering, “What did they say?” countless times. I also use them when I want to watch a video on my phone while he’s watching something else on TV, so I can keep the sound muted. I’m not saying captions are the secret to our 25-year marriage, but they don’t hurt.

So how do you provide captions when you’re giving a live presentation or holding a meeting? Fortunately, presentation tools and meeting platforms have come a long way. The newest version of PowerPoint offers live captions, which you can turn on from the Slide Show tab. For a demonstration of this and other Microsoft accessibility features, check out Gwen Navarrette-Klapperich’s presentation from AIDC21.

screenshot of PowerPoint's subtitle settings showing "Always Use Subtitles" as checked. Other subtitle settings include spoken language, subtitle language, microphone, and caption placement.
Subtitle Settings (Shown in PowerPoint for Mac)

Most virtual meeting tools, such as Zoom and Google Meet, also provide options for live captions. It’s important to minimize crosstalk since live captions can’t keep up with multiple people speaking at once—and neither can most people.

Provide Interpreters

When I was working with TLDC to plan the Accessible and Inclusive Design Conference, one of the first questions to come up was how to make sure the event itself was accessible. As part of that effort, Scissortail sponsored interpreters through American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreting Services, and they did a fantastic job.

You might be wondering, “Why do I need ASL interpreters if I’m providing captions?” The short answer is that more options are always better. A longer answer is that many deaf people, especially those who have been deaf since birth, prefer to use sign language. ASL is an entirely different language from English with its own syntax and grammar. English is a second language to many deaf people, so reading captions is more cognitive work than watching an interpreter. However, not all deaf and hard-of-hearing people communicate in sign language. It’s also important to provide captions and make sure the speaker is visible to those who lip read.

For a long event, you will need more than one interpreter. Interpretation is a very complex job that’s taxing on the mind as well as the hands. Providing materials to the interpreters in advance will help them become familiar with terminology, especially any names and acronyms.

Describe Visual Information

Several of the AIDC21 speakers began their presentations with a visual description of themselves. This is something I had never thought of doing. I can see that it would be useful for someone who is unable to see the speaker—whether because of visual impairment or even a bad internet connection. It becomes especially important if the speaker’s physical appearance is important to the topic being discussed.

For example, if I were speaking about hidden disabilities, I would include in my physical description that I don’t use any mobility aids, and the only visual aids I use are reading glasses. From outward appearances, I appear nondisabled.

The speakers also described images they shared in their presentations, providing a spoken form of alternative text. As with alt text, these descriptions are important when the image conveys necessary information.

When you ask a question with a visual response, such as a poll question during a webinar, describe the response. For example, you can say something like, “More than half of you said you use captions at least some of the time.”

Be Flexible

No matter how well you plan for the needs of your audience, there will be some things you didn’t think of. You may need to make some ad-hoc adjustments. As Sheri Byrne-Haber said in her book, Giving a Damn About Accessibility, “perfectionism is a bad approach to accessibility.” It’s okay not to be perfect; what’s not okay is not trying.

You may also need to expand your way of thinking about some behaviors you consider rude. If someone walks out in the middle of your presentation, don’t assume they’re inconsiderate or bored. It might be time for their insulin injection. Or they might have Crohn’s and can’t wait until the next schedule bathroom break. If someone doesn’t shake your hand, they might be autistic and uncomfortable with contact. Or they might have an autoimmune disorder and extra cautious about germs. If someone doodles through your meeting, they might have ADHD and able to pay attention better if they draw.

The important thing is not to make assumptions. Diversity is one of the greatest strengths we have as human beings, so why do we expect everyone to act the same?

Diversity is one of the greatest strengths we have as human beings, so why do we expect everyone to act the same? scissortailcs.com

Summary

Some things you can do to make sure your meetings and presentations are more accessible are:

  • Provide an agenda and other materials in advance
  • Be seen and heard
  • Provide captions
  • Provide interpreters
  • Describe visual information
  • Be flexible

Want to Learn More?

If you missed AIDC21, or even if you attended but want to revisit the amazing sessions, you can watch the recordings here.

Also check out these tips for accessible presentations from the Web Accessibility Initiative.

Next week, I’ll share step-by-step instructions for creating accessible PowerPoint presentations. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss out.

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