Accessible conferences allow everyone to attend, participate in, and benefit from your event, including people with disabilities. As spring and summer usher in conference season, consider the needs of all attendees and speakers, virtually or in-person, so everyone can make the most of your event. Consider the needs of potential attendees with disabilities in every part of the conference process, from choosing an event location to offering accessible materials for both your speakers and participants, whether you’re organizing a half-hour webinar or a week-long in-person conference.
Conference/ Meeting/ Webinar Organizers
Like any accessibility project, the easiest and most effective way to create an accessible conference experience is to plan for accommodations before it even starts. Consider accessibility in each part of the conference experience.
Before the Conference
To identify exactly what accommodations are most valuable to your potential attendees, consider sending out a survey. Send the survey to past attendees if the conference is annual. If this is a new event, you could post the survey on the conference website, which allows potential attendees to respond and lets them know you’re prioritizing their needs. Once you have input from your audience, you can plan accordingly. It also gives you an extra opportunity to engage with potential attendees. Follow up with survey participants by asking questions to clarify their needs, or to explain how you plan to implement the accommodations they requested. Many people who may not normally attend conferences due to lack of accommodations might consider attending if it is made clear that you intend to meet any accessibility needs.
Accessible Conference Registration and Website
Accessibility starts before the conference doors open, whether literally or virtually. Show your potential attendees that you’re prioritizing accessibility by creating an accessible conference page or website. Make sure that everything on that website or page is accessible, including files like past conference video recordings, images, and PDFs.
One of the first and most important parts of your website that need to be accessible is the registration form. It will be one of the first elements of your conference potential attendees, speakers, sponsors, and exhibitors will encounter. If the registration forms aren’t accessible, people with disabilities won’t be able to register. They may also assume their needs won’t be considered in the rest of the conference, either. Accessible PDF forms must include tagged fields and tool tips so assistive technology users can easily read and enter the correct information in the correct format. Equidox PDF remediation software allows users to easily add these tooltips to existing fillable forms.
Beyond the website, make sure the promotional materials you use to create and send advertising your conference are accessible.
Then, include a list of accommodations you’re planning to make available so possible registrants know what to expect. This may even encourage more people to sign up if they know their needs are being anticipated without even having to ask. Include fields on the registration form for registrants to request accommodations. Allow registrants to enter their own accommodations needs instead of simply offering a checklist; no two people experience disabilities in the same way and they may need a variation of the accommodations you’re offering. Extend these options to event presenters, vendors, volunteers, and anyone else who has interest in the conference.
Event Platforms and Locations
Look for conference/ meeting/ webinar platforms that offer accessibility features such as real-time captioning, keyboard navigation, sufficient color contrast, large buttons, and more. They should also support screen readers and ASL interpreters. Some programs offer the ability to simulcast presentations for use with screen readers. Many sites such as Google Meet will describe their accessibility features. Read through their descriptions and choose the one that would best suit your audience participants.
Consider physical locations that have accessible features like ample parking, minimal stairs, ramps, bathrooms with accessible stalls that are close to meeting rooms, and hotel blocks that include accessible rooms and are close in proximity to the conference locations. That’s not just helpful for people with disabilities; it also benefits those carrying laptops, women wearing high heels, and speakers or vendors lugging materials to their boots or sessions. Close bathrooms mean people spend less time hunting for facilities and more time learning from sessions.
Depending on your audience, you might offer attendees the option of participating either virtually, in-person, or both.
Make your accessibility expectations clear to everyone
Make sure all speakers and vendors also prioritize accessibility. Set accessibility expectations, like requiring all handouts to be made accessible and available to attendees before the conference begins so they can prepare. Handouts can be made into accessible PDFs quickly and easily with intuitive software like Equidox.
Consider hiring sign language interpreters for some or all of the speaker sessions, and requiring speakers to submit their material to interpreters ahead of time. According to Lou Ann Blake, Executive Deputy Director of the National Federation of the Blind, “You may need an ASL interpreter that has a certain expertise, like in medical terms for example, if you’re planning a medical conference…The interpreters like to have those presentation materials ahead of time.”
During the conference
Offer high-speed internet so people who need to access digital files via their assistive technology can do so. For example, people who have low vision or are blind may access digital versions of speaker handouts or conference agendas using assistive technology on their phones and laptops in place of using paper copies.
Enlist volunteers or workers to offer directions to various conference rooms or restrooms and answer questions; do not rely solely on signs and other visual aids for directions.
After the conference
Offer a transcribed recording of virtual events or speaker sessions after the event ends, and include accessible copies of slides and handouts as well. Post a list of speakers, vendors, and other (consenting) participants online so attendees can easily find contact information even if they weren’t able to collect or access business cards, or had questions about a session.
Survey attendees to ask what was successful and where there were opportunities for improvement in the accessibility of the conference so you can plan for more accessible future events.
Conference sponsors and presenters
Offer slides, handouts, or other documents in an accessible format before the conference starts. Lou Ann Blake, of the NFB, suggests, “For any presentation materials, make sure you provide them to low-vision or blind attendees in an accessible electronic format…We try to do it ahead of time, so that these attendees can have access to those materials.” This may require you to move deadlines up to accommodate collecting materials in advance of the conference.
Provide a guide for all presenters outlining best practices for accessible presentations. That guide might include:
- speaking clearly and slowly so participants and interpreters can understand and keep up
- Avoiding or explaining jargon, acronyms, or idioms unless they’re ubiquitous to the audience
- Pause between topics
- After asking whether anyone has questions, pause to allow the audience to think and form thoughts into words
- Don’t refer to text on slides without reading it aloud; not everyone can visually read the text on the screen.
When following up with session attendees or contacts after the event, make sure emails, newsletters, and other communications are accessible. Files such as PDFs, videos, or images within those communications should include captions, alt text, transcriptions, or otherwise be accessible.
Building a welcoming, diverse and inclusive event community
People are excited to once again participate in events where they can connect with like-minded individuals and other industry professionals at both in-person and virtual events. Build a sense of community by including everyone in your event during the planning process, in speaker sessions, and in follow-up communications.
Nina comes to Onix with years of sales and marketing experience from a variety of industries, and holds a BS in Language Arts Education. Nina has a passion for words, storytelling, and information, which she believes everyone should have access to regardless of ability. After spending time as a teacher with a blind student, she became much more aware of the limitations and abilities of web accessibility, and how essential it is to those experiencing disabilities. “Being able to access information equally ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity for education, employment, and success in life.”