Meetings Memo: Virtual Accessibility

Online events must be accessible, too. That’s something the National Federation of the Blind, in particular, knows well.

Like most organizations, the National Federation of the Blind had to quickly transition its 3,000-plus-attendee National Convention, originally scheduled to take place in July in Houston, to a virtual event due to COVID-19.

But NFB had an additional challenge that most associations don’t face: The majority of its attendees have at least a visual disability, and in some cases, both audio and visual disabilities.

“While we were used to providing accommodations to our attendees at our face-to-face meetings, hosting a virtual event for the first time created some new considerations,” says John Berggren, NFB’s executive director of operations.

To ensure that the virtual conference was accessible to all attendees, NFB took a number of steps. As with previous events, the organization asked attendees to request accommodations ahead of the meeting.

The group also made sure to choose tools that are known to be particularly good for accessibility. For instance, all convention sessions were held over Zoom. Not only does it provide closed captioning, but it also creates automatic transcripts and supports screen readers. Twenty percent of attendees joined over the phone, and Zoom allowed them to mute, unmute, and raise their hand via the dial-in-only option.

In addition to Zoom, NFB also selected a virtual event platform, created by CrowdCompass, that offered several accessibility options. Plus, they hired professional captioners who could step in as needed and recruited members to serve as Zoom hosts to monitor for any accessibility issues during the conference’s 200-plus sessions.

“We wanted to give our attendees a lot of variety to make them feel comfortable,” Berggren says. “The virtual experience was just as new to them as it was to us.”

According to Berggren, NFB is happy with the experience it provided to its more than 9,000 virtual attendees. “It wasn’t perfect, but not much is the first go-round,” he says.

For other organizations looking to create accessible virtual meetings, Berggren offers a few pieces of advice. “First is to engage your members who have specific accommodation needs and ask them what you could be doing to help make their virtual experience successful,” he says. “Then, reach out to expert organizations and ask them how you can best execute on those needs.”

But more importantly, Berggren says, associations need to start planning their virtual events with accessibility in mind. “If it’s an afterthought, it’s too late,” he says. “And it will likely be a huge lift to get the tools you’ve already selected to work for your attendees with disabilities.”

(alexsl/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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