The COVID-19 pandemic transformed virtual events. Connecting online suddenly became the only way to convene groups large and small, for short meetings or multi-day conferences, and community managers often found themselves developing new meeting formats or learning to use new platforms and tools.
Fast forward to June 2023, and a lot has changed. Platforms have evolved (and sometimes dissolved), event organizers have mastered their own suites of engagement tools, and, as participants, we’re more seasoned (although “you’re on mute!” remains a frequent refrain in Zoom meetings!).
We’ve also gained a much deeper appreciation for what it means to host a truly accessible online event. While online events opened up spaces to many people who’d previously been excluded (e.g., through reduced registration, travel, or childcare costs), for others, it made it even harder to participate.
In a new resource we’ve been working on with community members Rebecca Carpenter, Sara Kobillka, Casey Wright, Yanina Bellini Saibene, and Hao Ye, we offer 12 guiding questions to help you think about the ways that you could improve the accessibility of your community events. And in this blog post, we share our three top tips.
Don’t let accessibility become an afterthought
A theme that comes up again and again in the tip sheet is that accessible events are accessible first, everything else next. Retrofitting an event to be more accessible is rife with challenges – most obviously a lack of time if you’re addressing accessibility at the last minute. Ensuring slide decks are accessible and available ahead of time, knowing that any accessory tools you plan to use are screen readable, or contracting with a sign-language interpreter, for example, all benefit from early forward planning.
By thinking about accessibility from day one, you’re more likely to develop a timeline that works, create scaffolding you can use over and over again in future events, and effectively support your team, your presenters, and your participants in updating their practices in a way that feels replicable in other events that they may participate in.
If you don’t know, ask
While it’s a great idea to be upfront about the accessibility of your event, it’s also important to ask people directly if there’s anything specific they need in order to be able to participate rather than relying only on your own best assumptions. Engaging in conversations about accessibility is more than just a means to an end (i.e., they make your events more accessible), it also demonstrates that you and your organization value the participation of everyone in the community. And on top of that – it’s a great way to educate yourself about the different ways people assimilate information, participate, and communicate online.
Progress over perfection
Talking about disability, and the different ways of making events accessible, can feel intimidating, especially when it’s new to you. It’s important to keep in mind that conventions, norms, and language are continuously shifting and changing. We offer some suggestions in the tip sheet to get you started that reflect where we are today, and link out to resources that we anticipate will be updated over time.
You’ll probably make mistakes – we’re all only human! – but that’s OK. Accept constructive criticism with grace, and commit to moving forward with new understanding. As Sara’s colleague Meryl Evans says: Progress over perfection!
More CSCCE resources for organizing community events
If you’re organizing online events for your community, be sure to check out the following CSCCE resources:
- Using virtual events to facilitate community building: Making a PACT for more engaging virtual meetings and events – The PACT framework describes four key elements to consider when planning your meeting or event
- Using virtual events to facilitate community building: Selecting and testing online tools – We walk you through the process of selecting a new online tool, defining the goals or use case first and then finding the right tool to meet your needs
- Using virtual events to facilitate community building: Event formats – 12 “recipes” for virtual events from STEM community managers in a variety of settings
- Using virtual events to facilitate community building: Curated resources – A curated collection of links to useful resources about virtual events – including case studies of conferences and trainings that moved online at short notice
- DEI Tip Sheet: Captioning, subtitles, and transcription for online meetings and events – We offer some solutions for creating captions, subtitles, and transcripts to improve the accessibility of your online settings and events
- Tech Tip Sheet – Zoom bombing: How to deal with bad actors during Zoom events – This tech tip sheet includes a checklist of things to do before, during, and after your event to help you mitigate disruptions caused by a Zoom bomber
And for in-person events, take a look at this guide book co-created by members of the CAALM Events Team from CEFP2019:
- Building community at scientific events – A comprehensive, multi-chapter guide to planning and hosting events of different formats in order to build community