03/17/2020
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computer keyboard with one key depicting an icon of a person who is blind, walking with a long cane

With COVID-19 (coronavirus) in the news, organizations like AFB are taking steps to flatten the curve. From shifting events from live to virtual, and shutting down schools, to restricting approved business travel, everyone is now looking to make more training materials available online. As we move our interactions to the digital space, it is important we bring the same inclusive lens to our decision-making as we do when planning face-to-face interactions that use technology.

“Agencies are closing temporarily, and people are going to have to work from home,” says Dr. Rachael Sessler Trinkowsky, Technology Training and Vocational Coordinator at the Lighthouse for the Blind of the Palm Beaches, Florida. “But it doesn't have to stop services. People aren't going to stop needing training. That's just critical. And if people are stuck at home, they're going to need a connection to the outside world.”

Stay tuned: AFB will be offering a free, accessible webinar on this topic soon, presented by Dr. Sessler Trinkowsky.

Matthew Janusauskas, AFB’s Director of Technology and Consulting Services, added, “It’s important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What we’re striving for is flexible, inclusive design, where one solution fits one user.”

Here are five things to think about to make sure your online education, training opportunities, and other services are fully inclusive of people who are blind or low vision.

1. Choose accessible platforms.

As Tanner Gers noted in his recent blog post on the importance of building a workplace culture of accessibility, “How would you do your job and remain competitive if you couldn’t access the tools you use every day?” If you purchase a piece of software that is inaccessible, or unusable with assistive tech, then you’ve just made it impossible to hire an assistive technology (AT) user for the job. Similarly, if you choose an online tool with inaccessible controls, you’ve just made it difficult for roughly 20-25% of the population to take advantage of your educational content.

“There are many solutions available for remote teaching, accessible remote control, and screen sharing for instructors and end users,” says Dr. Sessler Trinkowsky, “but there are pros and cons to each.” There are also limits to which software and operating systems each are compatible with, as well as which options are accessible to teachers who use AT software, which she will explore further in her upcoming webinar.

AFB uses Zoom, which offers keyboard controls for most functions. Google Hangouts is another good option, and includes the option to “auto-caption” (more on that in a minute!). Important considerations in selecting a tool are shortcut keys, accessible chat windows, and robust help resources.

Apply that same critical lens to your conference apps. These days, people’s smartphones have all of their preferred access technology built right in—screen reader, magnification, voice recognition—so if you can make the conference materials available in an accessible, app-friendly format, you’ve done half the work. Conference apps are also really useful because you can connect them to your calendar, and the resources are available wherever you have an internet connection.

2. Budget for captions.

An accessible platform is only the first step—you need to make your content inclusive, as well. There’s simply no excuse not to offer captions for viewers who are deaf, hard of hearing, or temporarily in a situation that makes it hard to hear. Captions are also useful for people for whom English is a second language.

Live captions are more challenging and auto-captioning is far from perfect, but it is improving by the day. Google Hangouts offer auto-captions while StreamText can be integrated with other services. Streamer is another option for captioning and transcripts, and it’s currently free for one month for new users. (There is usually a fee for these cloud-based software solutions.) Microsoft Translator is free and can be used on various operating systems and smart devices. It can also be used to translate for participants who speak in different languages. Please note that auto-caption features should not replace live captioners or translators when needed.

If you are pre-recording your content, you can also hire humans to caption it after the fact. (AFB is grateful to our long-time partners at Bridge Multimedia for their captioning services.) These captions will be of much higher quality, and can serve as a good starting point for your transcript.

3. Think through audio description.

Audio description is a process by which short verbal descriptions of key visual aspects such as the setting, the participants, their actions and facial expressions, are provided to add context to non-visual users. These audio descriptions are inserted into pauses within a video's dialogue and are essential to inclusion for people without vision.

Think strategically about your presentation or lesson plan to minimize the need for audio description. If you are using a video in your session, try listening to it without watching it. Does it still make sense? What information is missing, that was only conveyed visually? That's what you need to audio-describe.

Janusauskas said, “We find sometimes that there is still a big disconnect because our clients may have chosen a good, accessible platform like Zoom, but don’t realize that there’s currently no technical way to render screen-sharing, such as a slideshow presentation, accessibly—you’re sharing an image of the screen, so those images need to be described by the person giving the presentation.”

You can also think ahead and provide accessible versions of the presentation, which leads us to tip #4.

4. Give presenters tips!

Train your presenters on how to make their presentations accessible. It takes much longer to remediate documents that are not accessible. The best workflow is to consider concepts of universal design and accessibility in the planning stages of any digital content:

  • Teach presenters how to create effective “alt text” for images, including infographics, photos, figures, and clip art.
  • Make them familiar with the accessibility features of your chosen platform, so they can help attendees.
  • Require them to provide accessible materials in advance.
  • Review the slides for contrast issues. The Colour Contrast Analyser from the Paciello Group is one of several free tools available for checking color contrast based on WCAG 2.1 compliance.
  • Make sure the fonts are readable! We recommend keeping font size at least 14pt, and using sans-serif fonts such as Verdana or Arial which are easier to view.
  • Avoid ALL CAPS—they can be difficult to read for people with low vision, and will be read incorrectly by screen readers.
  • Remind presenters to reference each slide number as they move through the presentation. This will allow a user with a screen reader to more easily follow along.

Before you begin to put a presentation together using a tool such as PowerPoint or Google Slides, plan for accessibility. It is best to use the standard slide templates. Those objects will be accessible. Creating custom slides is not recommended unless the presenter is familiar with how to add accessible objects and content. Sticking with the standard templates helps people who are less familiar with accessibility and universal design keep their content accessible.

Include a slide number on each slide located in a consistent spot such as the bottom right corner. Note that if you are converting to a format other than PowerPoint (in order to provide an alternate format to participants), the page numbers available from PowerPoint footers will not be visible and are artifacts in PDF files. Page numbers can be added manually and most screen readers have keyboard commands to hear information on the location within a document.

Train presenters on how to keep remote attendees engaged and included. You don't want to invest time and energy into making your presentations information-packed, digital, and accessible and then have everyone multitask their way through them.

Dr. L. Penny Rosenblum, AFB’s Director of Research, has had extensive experience using tools such as Zoom to present to college students and other groups. She notes, “When you’re sharing your screen, you want to keep your audience engaged. Consider building into your presentation quotes, videos, audio clips, and images. But at the same time, be aware that all of your audience needs access to these enhancements. It takes some extra time to plan your presentation, but in the end you’ll be enhancing the experience for all participants, not just those with visual impairments.”

5. Transcribe it afterward.

You did it! But you’re not done. You will increase your reach if you archive your content in inclusive formats, too. This is your opportunity to clean up the inevitable errors in live captions, and also improve your content’s discoverability through search engine optimization. Make a complete transcript available whenever you provide archived or on-demand versions of webinars, conference sessions, or classes.

Third-party services will often create transcripts from the live captioning services provided. If not, those captions can be used to manually create a transcript. It is also possible to save transcripts when using Microsoft Translator. These can be edited for accuracy.

Conclusion

As we take action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing, the solutions and strategies that people with disabilities have already honed over the years can be a valuable resource. Consult with leaders from the disability community in your planning. They have a great deal of experience in making websites, virtual conferences, apps, and eLearning inclusive and user-friendly for people with vision, hearing, learning, and dexterity disabilities.

To be effective in your online outreach, plan for inclusivity and access from the beginning. If you’re currently trying to ramp up your online offerings and struggling to figure it all out, please reach out to AFB Consulting. We are here to help, and are thinking of all of you during these challenging times.

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