Ten things to improve conference call accessibility

WFH has made video conference accessibility more critical than ever, especially for participants with disabilities. Try to avoid these pitfalls.

Man and woman on split-screen participating in zoom conference call
Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Sound

Imagine being deaf or having a significant hearing loss that makes hearing a conference call presenter difficult. Here are things you can do to avoid creating issues for your participants with hearing loss.

#1 Use good equipment and consider acoustics

Problem: A $4.50 corded headset may not produce good enough sound quality to either listen or speak.

#2 Watch out for background noise

Problem: Some background noise is incidental (dog barking, someone dropping a pan in the kitchen, sirens). Others — multitasking or putting the entire call on hold — can completely derail the presentation for everyone.

#3 Sketchy internet connections

Problem: Bad internet connections cause two issues (depending on where the internet disconnect is)

  • if it is the presenter’s internet, it’s a bad experience for everyone

4. Lack of (or bad) captioning

Problem: Live captioning for all sessions can be expensive. But captioning not only helps people with hearing loss, but it also assists people who are more visual learners with a visible track to follow to augment the soundtrack.

Vision

Imagine being blind or having significant vision loss that makes seeing a conference call presenter difficult. Here are things you can do to avoid creating issues for your participants with vision loss.

#6 Test your presentation materials for accessibility

This is not hard to do. Powerpoint, Word, and Adobe all have “check accessibility” features where they will tell you (to the extent that automated checks can) where you have forgotten alt-text or titles or other things that make use of the materials difficult for people with disabilities.

#7 Send out the accessible presentation materials in advance of the call

When you send out materials ahead of the call, the recipient can use a downloaded local copy of the materials with their assistive technology (which they have likely heavily customized). The alternative when the user does not have the materials is they have to rely on the presenter to make the presentation accessible THROUGH the conference call tool — which is frankly, close to impossible. Plus, honestly, people with disabilities hate asking if you can magnify or highlight something during the call, which disrupts things for everyone.

#8 If you are reviewing live web pages send out the URLs in advance of the call

This is the same principle as #2. If you send out URLs in advance, the recipient can load them locally, and process them with their assistive technology, and listen to it (and you) rather than trying to make sense out of what is on your screen, which might range from difficult to impossible.

#9 If you are playing a video on the call, check to see if a described audio version is required

People with significant vision loss use Descriptive Audio (aka Audio Description, and sometimes referred to as AD or DA) to understand videos that contain informational content that is not conveyed on the audio track to achieve an equivalent experience. Think of the Wizard of Oz. How would a person with significant vision loss know that the Munchkins were people of short stature or that Toto was a small terrier unless it was explicitly mentioned in a descriptive audio soundtrack?

#10 Do disability-friendly activities

Not all meeting activities are disability-friendly, especially during conferences. My personal least favorite for in-person conferences is flipcharts, stickers, and sharpies. But these activities do have their purpose. Unfortunately, I have yet to find an accessible digital equivalent — Miro, Balsamiq, Conceptboard — none of them are accessible. Basecamp and Slack are as good as it gets but don’t have the visual capabilities that other tools do. By utilizing a zoom breakout room for inherently inaccessible activities, you can pair people with disabilities with a buddy who can assist them in fully participating in the otherwise inaccessible event (Thanks Ofir Levy for helping me with my accessibility issues with the Figma activity at our recent VMware conference)

Blogger, disability advocate, nerd. Bringing the fire on ableism. A11y Architect @ VMware. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter. CS, Law, and Business background

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