When the pandemic reared its ugly head and remote work exploded, many people optimistically hoped it would mean fewer virtual meetings. The assumption was that without the need for a physical presence in the office, face-to-face meetings would be replaced with more independent work and not as many collaborative sessions.
The reality, duh, turned out to be quite the opposite. Hindsight may be 20/20 but what does the new remote reality mean to employees who need accommodations?
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So Remote Yet So Near
Virtual meetings have become essential for aligning goals, discussing projects, and ensuring effective coordination, making it possible to maintain communication and collaboration in a distributed and distanced workforce. As a result, remote work has not diminished the importance of meetings, but rather transformed them into virtual spaces where professionals can work together. It’s clear that virtual meetings have solved how to bridge physical gaps. But what about communication gaps?
As the world has grown accustomed to virtual meetings, are they inadvertently leaving out participants with disabilities?
Shortcomings of Virtual Meetings for Disabled Employees
Without proper accommodations and inclusive practices, employees with disabilities may struggle to effectively communicate, understand discussions, and fully engage in virtual meetings. Here’s some of the reasons why:
- Limited or unreliable captioning
- Inadequate sign language interpretation
- Inaccessible meeting platforms
- Lack of awareness about inclusive communication practices
- Difficulty accessing visual content without proper descriptions or alternative text
- Challenges in navigating virtual meeting interfaces for individuals with motor disabilities
- Cognitive overload due to fast-paced discussions and multitasking requirements
- Communication barriers for individuals with speech impairments
- Difficulty in following multiple audio and visual streams simultaneously
- Lack of support for assistive technologies or alternative input devices
- Ineffective communication due to lack of understanding or accommodation of specific disability-related needs
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Best Practices for Making Meetings Fully Accessible
So how do we get beyond the shortcomings of technology? What are the policies needed to be put in place to get better results for those with disabilities?
By implementing best practices, organizations can make virtual meetings more inclusive and provide equal opportunities for all attendees.
Establish Accessibility Guidelines
Accessibility guidelines should include considerations for visual and hearing impairments, motor disabilities, cognitive challenges, and communication barriers. Clear communication guidelines that promote inclusive practices, such as allowing adequate time for responses and providing opportunities for individuals with communication disabilities to express themselves effectively, should also be included. By adhering to guidelines, virtual meetings can be designed with accessibility in mind from the outset.
Training and Awareness
By providing comprehensive training, employees gain a deeper understanding of accessibility challenges faced by individuals with disabilities and learn inclusive practices to mitigate these barriers. Training sessions can cover topics such as utilizing accessibility features of virtual meeting platforms, creating accessible materials and presentations, and promoting inclusive communication strategies. Through awareness initiatives, employees are sensitized to the needs and experiences of their colleagues with disabilities, fostering a culture of empathy and understanding.
Invest in a Captioning Solution
Utilize a video conferencing technology that can provide real-time captioning during meetings.
Real-time captioning eliminates the barriers created by traditional meetings, where important information may be missed or misinterpreted. By providing an accurate and immediate textual representation of spoken dialogue, video conferencing with real-time captioning empowers disabled professionals to follow conversations, contribute their insights, and actively collaborate with colleagues.
Be sure to offer a live captioning solution that is ADA compliant so important meetings get captured almost perfectly. Any captioning solution should not only work with a video conferencing platform typically used by your company but one that can adapt to platforms used by other companies. A live captioning solution like Ava works across Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams.
With an inclusive approach, businesses can foster a more equitable work environment, allowing diverse perspectives to be heard and valued, ultimately leading to enhanced productivity and innovation.
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Record All Meetings
For employees with cognitive or learning disabilities, meeting recordings are particularly advantageous. And for individuals who are Deaf, hard-of-hearing or have processing difficulties, a recorded meeting enables them to review and understand the content more thoroughly. They can replay sections that they might have not heard well, ensuring they have a complete understanding of the discussion.
Likewise, employees with visual impairments can benefit from audio descriptions or the use of assistive technologies that can provide enhanced accessibility to the recorded meetings. The availability of recorded video conference meetings promotes inclusivity and can improve overall productivity and collaboration within the workplace. Having access to a transcript generated at the end of a meeting can also benefit employees who may process information more visually rather than auditorily.
Be Clear About What’s Happening on Screen
Minimizing reliance on annotations or visual presentations during virtual meetings can ensure accessibility for blind or low-vision team members. When conducting a virtual meeting, detail what’s happening on screen and aim to articulate all important information.
Providing a comprehensive verbal description of any imagery, mathematical figures, graphs, or relevant actions of colleagues, can assist people using screen readers, since it can be difficult to switch between presenter audio and visual content. If visual elements are necessary, such as a PowerPoint presentation, share them beforehand so that employees can review content ahead of time, making it easier for them to remain involved.
Offer Multiple Audio & Video Options
While it’s generally encouraged for employees to have their videos on during virtual meetings for better engagement, some employees with disabilities have accessibility needs where turning videos off may be a necessary accommodation. Someone with a mental health disability experiencing a panic attack or heightened anxiety, for example, may need to discreetly turn off their camera for a moment without drawing attention.
Similarly, permitting a colleague with ADHD to keep their camera off can aid their focus on the task at hand. By being understanding and flexible, we create an environment that respects the diverse needs of team members with disabilities, leading to a more inclusive and supportive work culture.
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Conduct Team Access Checks
Access checks involve assessing and addressing potential barriers that might hinder the participation of employees with disabilities. Before a meeting, verify that the necessary assistive technologies are available, ensuring captioning or sign language interpretation services are provided, and confirming that the meeting platform or materials are accessible for screen readers or other adaptive devices.
By proactively addressing accessibility needs, organizations empower employees with disabilities to contribute during meetings, participate on an equal footing, share their perspectives, and collaborate effectively with their colleagues. Implementing access checks during meetings allows for real-time adjustments and accommodations, enabling all participants to fully access and understand the shared information.
Limit Chat Features
While chat can be a valuable tool for communication, excessive use can create distractions and barriers for some people with disabilities. Someone with a visual impairment may find it challenging to simultaneously follow the visual content on screen and keep up with the fast-paced chat conversation. Additionally, individuals with cognitive or attention-related disabilities may struggle to process multiple streams of information. And, for Deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals, it can be difficult to focus on sign language interpreters with other distractions nearby.
By minimizing chat usage, the focus remains on the spoken dialogue and visual content, and subsequently, reduces cognitive overload for participants. This way, employees with disabilities can follow discussions more effectively, without the added cognitive burden caused by excessive chat activity. If a meeting must use chat features, actively seek input from disabled employees to inquire which approach will work best for them, rather than excluding them altogether.
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Offer Keyboard Shortcuts
For individuals with mobility impairments or dexterity challenges, using a keyboard is often their primary means of navigating video conferencing platforms. With access to keyboard shortcuts, employees with disabilities can use various features that allows for faster and more precise control and eliminate the need for repetitive mouse movements or precise clicking. Keyboard shortcuts make it possible for them to interact with shared content, and engage in real-time discussions with ease, just as everyone else can.
Exercise Video Conferencing Etiquette
Seek to provide clear and concise instructions before virtual meetings, including information on how to access captioning, sign language interpretation, or other accommodations that may be available. During the meeting, speak clearly, enunciate, and maintain a moderate pace to ensure that employees can follow the conversation effectively.
Frequent pauses and turn-taking can also facilitate better communication for individuals who use assistive technologies or who may require extra time to process information. Additionally, sharing visual content in an accessible format, such as providing descriptions of images or sharing accessible documents, benefits employees with visual impairments.
Unless you’re the one speaking, mute yourself so any background noise does not become a distraction. Wearing a headset with a built-in microphone will often lead to better audio quality and more accurate captions.
Create an Inclusive Culture
By prioritizing inclusivity, organizations can ensure that virtual meeting platforms, materials, and communication channels are designed with accessibility in mind. Using captioning solutions or sign language interpretation services, ensuring compatibility with screen readers and other assistive technologies, and implementing clear communication guidelines that consider the needs of individuals with disabilities are just a few of the ways you can improve virtual meetings.
Cultivating a culture where employees feel comfortable expressing their accessibility requirements and concerns fosters open dialogue and collaboration. It encourages proactive discussions about accommodations, preferences, and any potential barriers that may impede the full participation of disabled employees. When employees feel a sense of belonging, they can request necessary accommodations without facing stigmatization.
Virtual Meeting Accessibility Platform Checklist
To evaluate the accessibility of a virtual meeting platform, consider the following factors:
- Is the meeting platform designed to be accessible for disabled individuals, accommodating different types of disabilities?
- Has the meeting platform been tested by users with disabilities to ensure its usability and accessibility?
- Is the meeting platform compatible with various assistive technologies commonly used by disabled individuals, such as screen readers, screen enlargement applications, closed-captioning, and cognitive aids?
- Does the platform offer real-time automated captioning?
- Can the captions be seamlessly integrated within the meeting platform?
- Does the platform allow ASL Interpreters to remain visible throughout the event, ensuring accessibility for individuals who rely on sign language?
- Does the platform provide simple keyboard shortcuts to facilitate navigation and interaction for users who may not use a mouse?
- Does the platform support both computer-based and phone-based audio listening/speaking to accommodate different user preferences and assistive devices?
- Can users who rely on screen readers or screen magnification customize the video windows and interface for optimal accessibility?
- Does the platform provide good video quality, including the ability to display multiple screens simultaneously, as needed during meetings?
- Are there any barriers or steps involved in joining the event, such as password protection or excessive user input requirements that might make it difficult for people with disabilities to gain access?
Inviting Ava to Your Meeting
Embracing inclusivity in virtual meetings goes beyond making sure you tick off every box on the checklist. It unlocks the potential of all team members, and paves the way for a more equitable and accessible future of remote collaboration.
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With Ava Connect, meetings become fully accessible. Each and every employee’s communication needs and preferences are supported. Whether our users schedule their meetings in advance or join them spontaneously, they can easily bring their trusted Ava assistant along with them.
Ava helps businesses achieve the most user-friendly experience possible, allowing all participants to communicate without barriers. Compatible with Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams, Ava Connect also ensures a faster and streamlined video conferencing experience, naming participants, and assigning each speaker a color so they are easily identifiable. Ava Connect provides equitable access so no employee is left out of any meeting ever again.