9 Ways to Make Your Online Video Meetings Accessible

When it first hit, the pandemic was a curse.

For everyone, of course. But I’m talking about it being a curse in a different way for me as a deaf person.

You know. With a mask-mask here. And a mask-mask there. Here a mask, there a mask. Everywhere a mask-mask.

Sorry. Got carried away there for a minute channeling “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” lyrics.

I’m not Supergirl. I don’t have X-ray vision. I can’t read lips through masks. Since March 2020, I have never seen a clear mask. Just a clear face shield. I don’t know how easy or hard it is to lipread with something around the face. People have reported problems with clear masks fogging up or reflecting light to make it hard to see.

As a lipreader, I look at the whole face. Not just the lips.

Besides, it’s hard enough to read lips. On average, lipreaders catch one-third of what is said.

That’s a lot of work in filling the gaps. Here’s a video on what it’s like to read lips that shows how this works.

Anyway, the pandemic turned out to be a big boon!

How the Pandemic Changed a Deaf Person’s Life

I’ve been a remote worker since 2005. Thanks to the pandemic, I’ve felt more included as a remote worker than I have felt included in any other part of my life before COVID-19.

And it’s largely thanks to captioned video platforms. They make meetings more accessible.

Back in the days when I worked in the corporate world, this is what an in-person meeting was like. I pay attention to where to sit by looking for the ideal location where I can see everyone. (I still do.)

Meeting starts. I look at the speaker. Someone chimes in. But who? I don’t have the ability to tell which direction the speaker is coming from. So, my eyes dart around like they’re watching a tennis match.

I locate the speaker. Oh, but wait. The speaker finished and someone else piped up. I find this person faster.

Uh oh. The person is a mumbler who doesn’t enunciate well enough for me to read lips. This creates a conversation gap. Now I’m missing a part of the conversation that can’t be filled in by other speakers.

And often, I’ll miss words in what someone says. Thus, I can only see part of the painted picture. And those white spaces on the picture contain gaps that can’t be filled.

I’ve had my share of meetings where I’d struggle to lipread one or two attendees. So, imagine a conversation of six people and taking out one or two hard-to-understand people. Then you only catch what three people say. And, there will still be gaps.

That’s a lot of missed information.

9 Ways to Ensure Your Video Calls and Meetings Are Inclusive

That said, here are nine things to ensure your online meetings and webinars are inclusive.

1. Invite accommodation submissions

Some people don’t like to say “accommodations” because some feel it stigmatizes them. It shouldn’t. Everyone needs accommodations at some point in their lives and it’s not always related to a disability.

Nonetheless, when sending out the invite or publishing the webinar, ask: “What is your preference for meeting communications? What is the best method for us to use when communicating with you in real-time?”

Notice it doesn’t say “accommodations.” Another way is to note something like this: “Please let us know what accommodations or resources to provide to ensure everyone can participate.”

There are subtle things about this sentence. For one, it’s not asking. Instead, it’s telling. And it’s not saying “you.”

So, a colleague notices someone who uses American Sign Language (ASL) has been invited to the meeting. That colleague could very well let the host know to provide an ASL interpreter. Maybe the person who uses ASL will too. That’s the beauty of the sentence. It invites anyone to inform the host of the required support.

If someone asks for a sign language interpreter or human captioners, then reply asking who they want to use. You may have a company you use. However, you want to give the attendee the opportunity to have a say in it.

You could possibly say, “Who do you recommend for interpreting or captioning? We have an agency we work with if you don’t have a recommendation.” This way if the person doesn’t have a preference, they know they’re covered. If you leave off the latter sentence, they may feel like the onus is on them to provide a name.

When sending or publishing the meeting information, mention the accessibility options you are providing. So, if you have automatic captions, mention them. You save the person the stress of asking for it. Or, if they need human captions, they know they’ll need to bring it up. You’re also saving a step of them asking if it’s human or automatic captions.

2. Send an agenda before the meeting and a summary after

Create and send an agenda as far in advance as possible before the meeting. This helps deaf people like me have context and follow the order of the meeting. This helps those with anxiety so they can plan and know what to expect. This helps the introverts think about the things they want to ask or share.

I cannot take notes during the meetings. It’s frustrating. When there’s an important item that affects me, I try to commit it to memory. But, it’s hard. My memory is like a sieve when it comes to meetings and conversations. I remember bits and pieces. I expend so much energy listening that it leaves room for little else.

Hence, follow up after the meeting with a summary and action items. List who is responsible for which item. This isn’t just for accessibility. It’s good practice when it comes to meetings. People may have missed they’re responsible for something. Or they’re not sure what their action item is. Sending out a write-up will ensure everyone is on the same page.

3. Offer options for communicating

Once in a while, I feel trapped in an online video meeting or presentation. That’s because the host limits the options for communicating. Some turn off the chatbox or the platform doesn’t have it. When this happens, it feels like wearing shackles.

Granted, some want to eliminate distractions during a presentation. An active conversation in the chatbox can do that. That’s why it’s important for a video platform to offer different chatbox features. Some allow you to turn off chat notifications to prevent distractions.

Another option is to provide a sign language interpreter. Ensure the interpreter shows up at all times, at least for those who follow the interpreter.

A platform may have a question and answer (Q&A) feature. It works similarly to the chatbox except it’s formatted for attendees to ask questions. Sometimes I want to share something that doesn’t belong in the Q&A.

In some cases, only the host and speakers can see the Q&A. You may want to share something with the attendees.

Another valuable feature is the ability to raise your hand. I like this feature because it lets the host know I’d like to speak. I won’t have to worry about interrupting someone. I have a fear of doing that or picking a bad time to speak up.

The raise hand feature also prevents two or more people from talking over each other. This can be a problem for captions and interpreters. Raise hand also keeps the conversation moving at a good pace without overwhelming captioners or interpreters.

Calling on someone will also help identify the speaker. Although, we do need to get in the habit of opening with “This is [name] speaking.” I’m still training myself to remember! Not everyone can see the names or who is speaking for different reasons. End your statement with a “Thank you” or “I’m done speaking.” It eases the transition from one speaker to another.

To ensure your video event is inclusive, offer at least two communication options. Some people may not want to talk on audio or video while others do. Some are uncomfortable speaking up and would rather type in their thoughts. Some may not speak.

It helps to mention the communication choices during the opening or housekeeping part of the meeting. People may not be familiar with the platform and its available features.

4. Ensure the meeting has captions

With captions being built in the major meeting platforms, no one should have to ask for captions anymore. You may have to turn it on. Every time I host a meeting on one platform, I have to turn on the captions. The same goes for attending.

It may sound simple for someone to ask for captions. But it’s not. In fact, I just read another deaf person’s story about attending a meeting and being too exhausted to ask about captions. Been there. Done that. We don’t want to be stigmatized or viewed differently for asking for accommodations even though it’s a human right.

Yes, you can request captions anonymously on one platform. But if you’re in a job interview or meeting a prospective client, it won’t be anonymous. And so many people with disabilities looking for jobs are stressed by these barriers fearing it puts them at a disadvantage. It’s illegal, but it’s hard to prove discrimination.

Just make it a habit. Turn on the captions. Every time. Bonus points if you put in the meeting invite that there will be captions. You save us the trouble of reaching out to ask. And that means one less email or call for you.

5. Optimize your video setup

At times, I run into someone whose face appears at the bottom of the video. Sometimes their mouths would go off-screen. Generally, I’ll ask them to adjust the camera to put their face in the middle of the screen.

Other times, their face is obscured by captions. Thanks to interactive captions, you can move the captions to view their lips. Still, I prefer captions below the lips because I catch more of what’s said than when the captions move up top. I’ve polled many audiences on their preference for captions on the bottom or top. It turns out 99 percent of the time, people choose the bottom.

I have only one simple rule when it comes to lighting. Never, ever put the light behind you. That’s because it puts a shadow over the person’s face or hurts the viewer’s eyes. Try playing with lighting on the side or in front of you.

Of course, ensure you’re working in a quiet environment. Some people struggle to hear someone who is in a noisy setting. The occasional dog barking, cat meowing, or toddler babbling makes for a good laugh and it’s perfectly OK.

And opt for a simple background. I have a room divider that I put up behind me when I don’t use a virtual background. The divider is a solid neutral color. Some people may be distracted by multi-colored patterns.

6. Pay attention to human factors

Do you do housekeeping at the start of a virtual meeting or event?

Housekeeping means covering things that have nothing to do with the topic at hand, such as going over the process for the online meeting to ensure its success.

Here’s an example from a virtual video meetup. The host asked everyone to say our names each time we spoke. And to please not talk over each other.

Why do this? Saying our name each time we speak helps those who don’t see the video or have it turned off know who is speaking. Having one person speak at a time makes it easier for the captioner or interpreter to stay on track and identify the speaker. In the past, I kept forgetting to say my name when I spoke. And yet, when the host educates us at the start of the meeting, I tend to remember better.

Some of you may wonder why I don’t have “Provide a visual description of yourself” when on camera or speaking in person. Initially, I did. However, it’s not my opinion that matters. It’s people who are blind or low vision whose feedback matters. And many don’t like visual self-descriptions. It became ingrained in the accessibility community by well-meaning supporters. If you can find a way to ask if people want it, do it.

It’s more important to do what the people affected prefer. It is possible to over-caption a video. When this happens, it takes away from the action on the screen. Similarly, having everyone self-describe takes away from the conversation, but some people still prefer it according to this LinkedIn conversation. It’s another Schrodinger’s a11y cat situation. (This means what makes something accessible for some may break it for others. Two simple examples: dark vs. light mode and captions vs. transcripts.)

Every platform has unique features, but here’s what to cover:

  • Show how to turn on the captions.
  • Describe features such as Q&A, raise hand, and chatbox.
  • Remind attendees to say their name first.
  • Speak slower and say when you’re done speaking.
  • Keep it to one speaker at a time.
  • Describe visuals.
  • Say what’s in the chat box.
  • Discourage walking or rocking while on video.

Previously, I had “Ask everyone to display their names and pronouns.” I removed it after Sara Kobilka educated me.

During our training discussion, our fabulous facilitator, Lyndon Cudlitz suggested that it is not the place of a person organizing an event to out someone who may not be comfortable sharing their pronouns. Rather, he suggested encouraging people to share their pronouns IF they feel comfortable and modeling this by sharing your own.

Assign someone to monitor the chat for questions. This ensures no one’s comments or questions fall through the cracks.

These tips also work well when there are human captioners and sign language interpreters. Speakers who have sign language interpreters will want to pause longer between slides every 10 to 15 minutes. This can give the interpreters an opportunity to switch. This way they won’t miss one word of what you say.

Also, make it a habit to speak slower and pause. This helps with network delays, captioning, and interpreting. Before starting the meeting, confirm the captioning works and the interpreter is ready to go.

Here’s a great tip for inclusive meetings from Wendy Durica: At the start of a meeting, ask:

“Is there anything I (the host) can do to make this experience better for anyone? Please let me know now by speaking up, typing in the chat, or reaching out privately to me. I’ll start the meeting in two minutes.”

7. Allow video meetings to be camera-optional

The captions, reading lips, and my bionic ear aka cochlear implant help me listen better. Now, sometimes people don’t have their cameras on while speaking.

And that’s OK. Let me explain why. Actually, I’ll let others tell you why.

A person with low vision says that having the camera on is awkward because she views the screen closely. As a result, the video shows only a forehead or a nose. I had a video meeting with a blind colleague. We discussed video calls from our perspective. I asked him if he was OK with the camera on.

Although he said yes, he explained he prefers it off. He likes to pace while on calls. And he didn’t want to have to worry about camera placement.

During our conversation, he rocked back and forth in his chair. I survived it, but typically I would have to hide the view. Motion and reading lips do not go together. It upsets the vestibular system. In other words, it makes me dizzy.

Additionally, two people with Tourette’s Syndrome share their perspectives. Kelly Dip, CPACC prefers no camera. She explains that people can misinterpret facial expressions and body language. It gets worse when someone is nervous. It can also lead to challenges in communicating verbally.

Luke Manton says he turns on the camera so people can see the difference between a tic and what he says.

And Ren Tyler drove home the need to allow for camera-optional.

“Being on camera for some people triggers clinical anxiety. That goes well beyond mere discomfort. It’s usually rooted in feeling a lack of control. For some people, being on camera feels intrusive and unnerving. Even invasive and threatening. They feel exposed in ways they don’t in person. (Although some are uncomfortable any which way.) That’s not even taking into account a meeting being recorded.

“Disclosing it invites stigma. Being told to ‘get over it’ doesn’t help. It even worsens the anxiety. Making sure the person can’t see themselves doesn’t change it because other people can still see them.

“So now what co-workers see is a person suffering from some level of panic that they are trying to keep under control. They’re seeing someone having difficulty concentrating or participating well because of it.”

Of course, I don’t want someone experiencing any of these to turn on the camera for me. I’m happy to rely on the captions. If the captions don’t do a good job, then what we do depends on the scenario and variables.

Some people have their cameras off because they’re on their phones. It’s hard to hold it still. Or they can’t position the camera properly to ensure their faces are in the middle of it. Or the person needs to move around a lot, which can be distracting for some and make lipreaders nauseous. Movers, please keep your cameras off until you speak. Then, don’t move much while speaking.

If it’s a one-on-one meeting, then we could switch to another communication method that works better. If it still needs a live discussion, I’ll use the video platform with the captions. The person can use the chatbox for anything I miss.

If we’re in a meeting, then someone might be willing to take notes. One time I attended a huge online gathering to celebrate someone’s birthday. This was before Zoom captions.

Someone took it upon herself to send updates on what people were talking about in the chatbox. I loved it! I didn’t have to ask for it. She just did it. Thank you, Stella Da Silva! I’ll never forget you for doing this.

Be aware of people who have these challenges with cameras. Also, be aware of lipreaders. Avoid making cameras-on mandatory.

Be respectful. Be kind. Be flexible.

8. Describe visuals

Some people may join meetings by listening. They may be in a situation where they can’t watch the video. Or they may be blind or have low vision. Help these folks by describing visual elements that are relevant. Also, read what’s said in the chat box in case someone has it closed.

People may not be able to access their chat box. Or they keep it closed to prevent distractions. You don’t have to read everything word for word. Sometimes the chat box goes flying while I’m presenting. I miss a lot of the comments.

For times when I’m looking at the chat box and there are a lot of comments, I’ll look for patterns and summarize them. I share any unique comments word for word.

9. Mute when not speaking

Background noise and even typing on the keyboard can bother or distract some people. It’s best to always use mute when not speaking. This also helps people who rely on speaker view. This is when the current speaker shows up in a larger window. This allows lipreaders to have a better view of their lips.

I’ve attended meetings where the speaker view kept changing when there was only one speaker. The video platform picks up background sounds and switches the speaker view. It takes a moment to return back to the actual speaker. I have to work harder to listen even with captions and lipreading. But when the video switches from person to person to person in seconds, it throws me off and I don’t absorb what someone says.

Special Note About Camera-Off

There’s a trend happening. It’s not good or bad. It’s one that folks need to be aware of to keep a few things in mind.

Lately, more people have had their cameras off. Even folks who often have their cameras on. Believe it or not, this isn’t a request to ask them to turn on the cameras.

Instead, I’m asking folks to be aware of this. I depend on the camera to read lips. By themselves, automatic captions — aka autocraptions — can only help so much.

Check out this image (select to view larger) from a Zoom meeting that shows “Speaker” on the screen. This is the current speaker (me) who has the camera off. And below that are the captions that say: “Both the mail. I am showing. Pm people to show the problem with that.”

Screenshot from Zoom video showing "Speaker" text and nonsense automatic captions.

This is what I really said: “This is Meryl. I’m showing the off-camera speaker to show the problems with it.”

OK, granted. I have a different kind of accent that hails from nowhere. Still, this is the kind of confusion I experience with camera-off captions.

So, those who have their camera off, please know that lipreaders like me aren’t always able to grasp what was said from the captions alone.

Someone asked what about reasonable accommodations for a human captioner. First, I don’t know who is going to talk with the camera off. You can’t have a human captioner on standby just in case. Second, lipreading and automatic captions are faster than human captions with no lipreading. I’m also self-employed.

What is the compromise for camera-off?

How can we work around this? Two ways:

1. If your camera is off, please turn on the captions and watch what they do while you’re speaking. Or check the transcription when you’re done speaking. If it’s accurate, awesome. If it’s not, let us know what you said.

Obviously, this isn’t possible for everyone as screen readers can’t read the captions or transcription on Zoom … yet.

2. Sum up what you said in the chatbox.

A note for sign language interpreters

There’s another group that needs to be aware of this. Sign language interpreters who are voicing for a signer. I know the interpreters keep their cameras off to spotlight the signer.

I get that. Just know that it creates an accessibility problem for lipreaders who depend on automatic captions to listen. I’ve had a few meetings lately where I missed what the signer said because the autocraptions failed.

Isn’t it more important we catch what the signer says than for the interpreter to stay behind the scenes with camera-off?

Listening to others is important. But when I rely on autocraptions alone, it takes away my ability to comprehend what someone says. It’s as bad as an in-person meeting where I miss words, especially from people hard to lipread.

The Road to a More Accessible World

Because I’ve been a remote worker since 2005, I’ve hardly had any face-to-face meetings. Mostly on the volunteering side and socially, of course. Social settings are harder because it’s usually noisy. It’s usually loud enough that I have to rely on lipreading alone without my bionic ear. My cochlear implant can’t make out the voices of the person talking. However, it notably improves lipreading accuracy.

All that changed with the advent of captioned video meetings.

There are fewer overlapping conversations. And everyone is captioned including the mumblers. While automatic captions aren’t perfect, I’m catching more than I did in face-to-face meetings. Automatic captions have one advantage over human captions. They’re faster.

One of the most valuable tools is the speaker view feature. This puts the person speaking front and center on the screen. No more vertigo from searching for the speakers. The person simply pops up on my screen.

Anyway, I catch a lot more of what hard-to-lipread people say in a captioned video conversation. I’ve attended a lot of captioned conferences, events, and meetups. Although I get concentration fatigue after attending two or three speakers’ sessions, I ran into the same problem with in-person conferences. And often I’d encounter a speaker or a panelist whose lips I can’t read.

In person, I’d struggle with lipreading the accents of people who hail from other countries. Isn’t that awful? We learn so much from people who live in other parts of the world. Thanks to captioned video calls, I can listen to them better than in person.

I’ve attended a thousand times more meetings in the last six months than I have since becoming a full-time remote worker in 2005.

Nonetheless, these meetings all have a purpose and I get a nice bonus of getting my social fix. It feels like I’m in the room with people. It’s better because of the captions and no noisy environments unlike in restaurants today.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic changed meetings for me. And now I prefer video meetings to in-person meetings.

You can download SAP inclusive meeting cards, which provide tips for making meetings inclusive.

Ensure Your Meetings and Marketing Are Accessible

Many companies have diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. However, they need help with creating accessible meetings and marketing. You can level up your diversity, equity, and inclusion with my help. I can educate your employees by speaking or providing training on accessible meetings and marketing. Contact me or get to know me.

Image credit: Pixabay 16061941

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