How to Host More Inclusive and Accessible Virtual Meetings
Employees everywhere once hoped that the rise in remote work would lead to fewer meetings (I know I did), but research suggests that workers are now spending even more time on calls and in video meetings. Since the global pandemic, studies show an incredible 500% increase in corporate buyers of video conferencing tools like Microsoft Teams, Skype, Cisco WebEx — and, most popularly, Zoom.
But with the rise in new ways to connect, communicate, and collaborate also comes new challenges for team members with various impairments. In fact, more than 25% of employees are expected to have an impairment. As we navigate “the new normal,” companies will need to rely on well-informed communicators to increase meeting accessibility for diverse employee needs.
But before we dive into how you and your teams can better support those with varying abilities, let’s first understand what they might experience during a typical virtual call. Let’s use a couple fictional examples. Meet Joe and Alex:
Joe is a member of your team with diminishing sight. He joins your call and after a round of introductions, you hop right into the pre-determined agenda. Another team member on the call jumps in with a contribution, but Joe can’t quite identify the voice and is unable to read the name or see which attendee’s tile is highlighted while speaking. Joe is left to either guess who is speaking or interrupt to clarify and ask.
Alex has a hearing impairment and is unable to clearly hear during the call. She is constantly messaging a fellow team member to better understand the context of the discussion. The slides presented during the call are not content heavy, so Alex mostly misses a lot of the information shared verbally in your presentation.
See the opportunities for improvement? Keep reading to learn five tips to hold more accessible meetings with teammates like Joe and Alex that you can start doing today.
1. Provide materials before the meeting
Like any good meeting host, you may find that you often have materials or documents you plan to review during the call. To increase meeting accessibility, share your materials ahead of the meeting. If some attendees need to review using their assistive technologies, it’s important for them to have access and time to do so before the call. To go a step further, you can ensure your materials are accessible by using tools like Microsoft’s Accessibility Checker.
When you provide meeting documents in advance, you can help teammates like Alex in the example above. Now, Alex can review the full presentation, read accompanying presenter notes, and prepare any questions.
2. Announce yourself
Announcing yourself is a key aspect of participating in accessible virtual meetings. Simply stating your name before offering input is even helpful for those who are new, joined by phone or have trouble remembering names. But importantly, announcing yourself also helps colleagues like Joe who have visual impairments and can’t always see the speaker’s name or spotlighted video.
Ask all attendees to announce themselves before speaking. For example, “This is Marcus speaking. I would like to piggyback…” It may seem like something small, but it makes a world of difference for those who need it!
3. Read the content aloud
Reading the content aloud helps fill any gaps that assistive technologies create. During a call, meeting attendees with visual or auditory impairments may use assistive technologies, like a screen reader or sign language relay.
Screen readers convert the content and functionality of your file and convert it to digital speech. Similarly, sign language relay provides the output via a sign language interpreter. Since it may prove difficult to follow the assistive tool’s output and the shared content, it is helpful to speak all relevant content aloud. That way the screen reader or sign language relay can capture the speech.
For our fictional coworker Joe, speaking aloud would tremendously improve his experience by allowing him to hear all pertinent information. He is now able to run audio output of his assistive technology because you have read all the content out loud.
4. Use closed captioning
Closed captioning (displaying spoken text on screen) is critical for those with auditory impairments and can also help others focus as well. In our example above with Alex’s hearing impairment, closed captioning would allow her to follow the presenter’s information and participants’ comments or questions without needing to clarify as often.
Take time to explore the settings for your video conferencing software — most tools offer closed captioning. On Zoom, for example, you’ll find manual closed captioning, auto closed captioning, and third-party captioning integrations.
5. Create a plan for the chat
The virtual meeting chat function, while largely helpful for team building and participation, can cause issues for participants who use assistive technology. When the chat function is open and attendees message the group, a screen reader will speak over the meeting conversation to announce all incoming chat messages. This proves frustrating to teammates like Joe who rely on screen readers because of his diminishing sight.
So how can you help Joe while keeping the chat function alive? Create a plan! At the start of the call, ask participants to submit questions directly to the host or during a specific portion of the agenda. Or, you can create moments in the agenda where attendees share thoughts and opinions in chat. In doing so, you’ll help manage the assistive technology chatter while keeping the chat lively.
LEARNING AND IMPROVEMENT ARE A CONTINUOUS JOURNEY
Whether it’s as simple as announcing yourself or leaning on tools like closed captioning, these tips are just a starting point! If you’re looking for additional resources to improve the virtual meeting experience for all team members:
- Usability & Web Accessibility for Zoom
- Transcribing video calls: Accessibility tips when working from home
- Accessibility tips for inclusive Microsoft Teams meetings and live events
Remember: Not every team member with an impairment will disclose that to you — nor should they have to! A 2013 Deloitte study found that 61% of respondents engaged in some form of covering while at work, which can include those with varying abilities. So, the next time you host a virtual call, try these five meeting accessibility tips to make your meeting that much easier for everyone.