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Create Accessible Meetings

In response to a global health epidemic, how agencies gather, collaborate, discuss, share, and learn has changed from largely in-person meetings and conference calls to virtual meetings where the audience participates remotely through voice and video from their homes. As federal employees return to their offices, meetings are expected to be a hybrid of in-person and remote participants, accessibility can and should be seamlessly integrated into your meeting. 

This guidance is intended to provide information on how you can make your next meeting accessible to attendees with disabilities in compliance with Section 508 and other disability rights laws. 

Table of Contents

Understand Your Audience

It’s important to plan meetings so that they are inclusive of people who have vision, hearing, mobility, cognitive and other disabilities. Some individuals are unable to distinguish colors and need charts and visualizations to include other ways to comprehend the graphical information. Others may use a screen reader, a screen magnifier, or their computer’s keyboard instead of the mouse to access and navigate content. People who are deaf or hard of hearing may rely on speech to text translations - commonly through captioning - to understand speech and other meaningful sounds. Not all platforms support screen readers, keyboard accessibility, or live (or even automated) captioning, which must be taken into consideration. Additionally, similar challenges must be addressed when meetings are held in-person.

Graphic picture of Equality, wheelchair user not being able to reach the whiteboard; Accommodation, wheelchair user using a ramp to reach whiteboard; and Accessibility, whiteboarder lower for everybody to reach

Understand that accommodation is not the same as accessibility:

  • Accommodations are for individuals and are reactive.
  • Accessibility is for populations and is proactive.
  • Accessibility should make content available to all, in equally effective ways, at the same time.
  • Accessibility is the goal, accommodations are just tools to reach it.

Begin Planning & Considerations

With accessibility in mind, consider the following when planning your meeting:

  • Digital first: Going forward, most meetings will see one or more attendees joining virtually.
  • Select a venue/format: Determine if your meeting will be in-person, over the telephone, using a virtual meeting space, or a hybrid of two or more methods. Keep in mind that different venues require different planning and accommodation solutions.
  • Know your audience: Because no two disabled people experience their disability in exactly the same way, it’s important to know who the audience is and how people with disabilities use the web. If possible, those in charge of handling the accommodations for the meeting should speak with the disabled person(s) in question to inquire what their specific limitations are and what can be done to best accommodate their needs. Be sure to ask for accommodation needs upfront in the registration process. Ask for specific needs for captioning, ASL interpreters, etc. You will always need to plan for other unexpected accommodations, but it is vital to have an estimate of the audience’s accessibility needs as part of your meeting planning.
  • Interactive features: What communications tools and interactive features do you plan on using?
    • Audio information commonly includes human speech, music, and sound effects
    • Visual information would include video feed/profile image, screen sharing, documents, animations and videos
    • Interactive features may include chat, polling, Q&A, whiteboards, and breakout rooms
  • Platform accessibility: Identify which of the features are accessible, and how you will accommodate equivalent access for attendees who are unable to access or use any features. Unfortunately, no virtual meeting platform is perfect. To select a platform to use for your meeting event:
    • Check with your agency/organization to identify which platforms you already have access to; and if you are co-hosting an inter-agency event, identify which platforms your partner agencies have access to
    • Engage people with disabilities to test and evaluate those platforms with you
    • Implement meeting management strategies to compensate for weaknesses in your platform
    • Utilize other accessible services where possible to compensate for weaknesses in your platform (e.g. separate captioning streaming website, hand raising tool, polling/surveys)
  • Platform availability: Due to mission, security and other considerations, not all agencies use or allow the use of virtual communications platforms on their network.
    • Confirm that your attendees can access the platform selected for your meeting in some way (e.g., desktop, tablet, mobile, web browser).
    • Confirm that the availability and accessibility of features is available for the platform selected.
      • Platform features may vary depending on how attendees access your meeting. Typically, the client software (requiring download and install) is more feature rich than the web-based version of a communications platform. For example, automated captioning may be available on the client software version, but not available to those using the web-based version.
  • Onsite accessibility: When hosting individuals in-person, your guests may require building access, auxiliary aids, and other services, which you will need to address before the meeting takes place:
    • Wheelchair access to the building entrance, meeting space, stages, lecterns, seating, tables, including registration, displays, food and beverage, and other services
    • Service animals, such as guide dogs, must be permitted to accompany the individual with a disability to all areas of the facility where customers are normally allowed to go
    • Ushers and guides who may provide oral or electronic descriptions/maps of meeting room layouts, emergency exit locations, and amenities prior to the beginning of the conference/presentation
    • High-contrast color and large print for materials, maps, books, signs, menus, forms, and displays
    • Real-time captioning, translators, ASL and foriegn language interpreters, and note takers
    • Preferred seating for individuals making use of sign language interpretation. Take into account that the interpreter needs to be either next to the speaker/presenter or seated in a sight line to allow the deaf person to see the speaker/presenter beyond the interpreter
    • Assistive listening device availability for participants to improve the auditory reception of speech or sound information. These devices, which can be used alone or in conjunction with personal hearing aids, involve a microphone-transmitter unit, either worn by the speaker or placed close to the sound source and a receiver worn by the listener
    • Adjustable room lighting to increase the contrast - and thus the visibility - of audiovisual materials

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Accommodate Audience Needs

Depending on the size of your meeting or event, and the technology and features selected for use, you should plan to build accessibility into each aspect of your meeting:

  • Accessible Documents: Presentation documents such as PowerPoint, Word, and PDF must be accessible and, whenever possible, distributed ahead of the meeting to allow attendees to pre-read or reference at their own pace during the meeting. For more information, visit Create Accessible Digital Products.

  • Captioning: For attendees who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, conference materials that include an audio component should have a text version accompanying it (e.g., open or closed captioning). This includes all training and informational video and multimedia productions which support the agency’s mission (both live and pre-recorded).
    • Real-Time (Live): Provide real-time, two-way captioning (e.g., Federal Relay) to enable participants to interact and participate in the meeting via a professional captioner.
    • Automated: Virtual platforms have increasingly integrated automated speech to text translation into their products. While these solutions may be serviceable for some, others may lack a human captioner’s ability to translate heavily accented speech, acronyms and jargon, as well as provide an indication of speaker change, grammar and punctuation. Be prepared to provide professional real-time, human-generated captions.
  • NOTE: Some virtual meeting platforms allow an untrained participant to type captions. This method is not recommended due to the difficulty in providing quality, synchronized translation.
  • Sign Language Interpreters (ASL): Some deaf and hard-of-hearing participants may find it difficult to participate using captions (e.g., lots of reading is tiring, quality of captions due to garbled speech, reading or comprehension disabilities) and may request a sign language interpreter. Conversely, be aware there may be individuals who are deaf/hard-of-hearing in attendance who prefer not to use sign language to communicate and that they may require real-time captioning services.
  • Audio Descriptions: Blind and low-vision users who are unable to see visual information will rely on oral or pre-recorded audio that describes the text, images, graphics, charts, animations and video that comprise the visual portion of the presentation.
  • Other Communications Services: While captioning and ASL translation services are most commonly known, there are a number of other services that are available to individuals with disabilities such as Video Relay Service, Video Remote Interpreting, Captioned Telephone, and more. Additionally, print media may be made available in Braille and large print.
  • Maintain flexibility: Allow for as many different types of connections as possible (e.g. internet-based audio, telephone audio, audio only, video only) as some users' interpretation services might only be available via voice/telephone or might be the best option to meet their particular needs.
  • Moderators and Technical Support: Ensure that all participants have access to someone who can help them navigate the technical environment. Remember that not everyone uses, or is familiar with the platform being used for your meeting.
  • NOTE: When the participants are a group of individuals known personally by the organizer as not having any communication impairments, and when the meeting is not intended to be recorded or rebroadcast, accommodations services may not be required. Generally speaking, if you are not sure, ask.

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Invitations, Registration & Agenda

Whether you are hosting a teleconference, virtual meeting, training or large conference, individuals are best able to participate when they can independently access the information, venues and tools being used for the meeting.

To avoid erecting barriers to independent access, make sure meeting invitations, registration and agendas include information from organizers to help them understand how to register and attend meetings. Pay particular attention to:

Invitations

  • Description: Creative and engaging titles should be grounded in plain language, with event purpose and description, costs, and seating limits clearly marked
  • Date and time: Include date and time in a way that complies with the timezone of your audience
  • Location details: Building and virtual/remote access availability should be detailed up front - including parking, metro, and other transportation information
  • Duration of the event: Start and end times allow individuals to plan their day to participate - whether it’s to block out the appropriate amount of time, coordinate with colleagues or family, or secure access to accommodations
  • How to register: Include a clear indication of the website link, email address, and/or telephone number people can use to accept your invitation or register for your meeting
  • Accessibility: Specify what accommodations will be made available to all participants, and information on how (and by when) individuals may request additional accommodation based on their needs. Enable online registration features that allow users to indicate accommodation needed. For email-based invitations, it is recommended that an inquiry statement similar to the following be included:

    “We strive to host inclusive, accessible events that enable all individuals to engage and participate fully. To request an accommodation or for inquiries about accessibility, please contact [name, email, telephone].”

Registration

The tool invitees use to register should include the same information provided in your invitation, announcement and promotional materials. Some tools like email calendar invites are simple, whereas webinars and conferences may require people to visit a website and take extra steps to register.

  • Forms: All users must be able to access the meeting information and online forms in order to fully complete the registration process. (Note: The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (21st Century IDEA) required the digitization of paper forms)
  • Confirmation: Provide an indication of completion and successful registration. Email confirmations should contain a summary of the event details and other materials for easy reference.

Agenda

Depending on whether you are hosting a routine meeting or a large event, you may attach the agenda and other materials to the invitation, or send these details to only registered attendees. In either scenario, consider providing attendees with information on:

  • Purpose: Topic, issues and objectives
  • Speakers: List of attendees and presenters; include speaker biographies for larger meetings, webinars and conferences
  • Schedule of events: Specific dates and times of how the meeting has been organized; including speakers, breaks, etc.
  • How to Join: Provide detailed information on the ways attendees can participate in the meeting (e.g., links to virtual platform, alternate telephone number)
  • Accommodations: Include detailed information on how individuals can access available accommodations, (e.g., FedRelay Relay Conference Captioning (RCC), ASL interpreters, assisted listening devices, alternate print formats)
  • Materials: Whenever possible, distribute electronic presentation documents and media to invitees and attendees in advance of the meeting
  • Tech Checks: Provide ways for participants to test platform access prior to meeting (e.g., zoom test meeting), particularly when inviting individuals from outside of your organization

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Presentation Materials

Discuss with each presenter, prior to the meeting, in the planning phase, the importance and expectation of developing a presentation that will be accessible to all participants. Materials intended for electronic distribution (e.g. meeting platform, website, email) must meet Section 508 conformance criteria for the accessibility of the format in which the materials are available. The following links contain information on creating accessible content:

Be sure to distribute checklists for the formats that will be used by the presenter(s) and have someone on your team test the documents to ensure accessibility before distributing them to your audience in advance of the meeting.

Screen Sharing and Demonstrations

While virtual meeting platforms differ in the placement and types of controls available to users, most offer similar screen sharing features for both hosts and attendees.

  • Screen sharing: By default, virtual meeting platforms only display the visual element (e.g., document, browser, application, entire screen) selected by the person sharing their screen. Screen sharing is not accessible to persons with vision disabilities, so speak as if the meeting is being conducted via teleconference and verbally describe any visual content.
  • Screen sharing with audio: Many of the virtual meeting platforms have included a feature that allows a presenter (who is sharing their computer’s screen) to also share the audio from their computer. This is helpful when the presenter is sharing a video.
    • Presenters should mute their microphone while shared audio is playing to avoid causing an echo.
  • Consider screen sizes: When sharing screens, keep in mind the various sizes of device screens which may be used by your attendees. Individuals using laptops or tablets may be unable to view the information when the shared screen is large or set to a high resolution.
  • Avoid flashing: Some individuals are susceptible to seizures caused by flickering, blinking, or flashing effects. Most web content is harmless to individuals with photosensitive epilepsy, and most animations, videos, and moving text do not present any danger. Presenters should make every effort to ensure that their content does not have flickering, blinking, or flashing effects.

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Finalize Planning (Checklist)

Incorporate feedback and accommodation requests from your audience into existing plans, adjusting as needed to ensure equivalent access, participation and comprehension.

No. Planning Item Examples
1 Select the optimal venue and communications platform to meet your guests needs, of those available to me Registration, building entrance and rooms, telephone, virtual meeting software
2 Secure support staff, technology and services necessary to accommodate your guests’ needs Captioning, ASL interpreting, Braille, large print, assisted listening devices, ushers/guides, seating
3 Update the meeting’s promotional material, registration and agenda with any updates and additions to venue and communications platform accommodations Meeting links, captioning links, platform help files such as test meetings, keyboard controls documentation
4 Verify that all electronic presentation materials conform with their applicable accessibility standards, and have been distributed to attendees Documents, audio/visual media, no flashing or blinking
5 Conduct a dry-run or practice meeting and affirmed hosts, moderators and presenters understand how to:
  • Access and operate the controls and interactive features of the communications platform selected for use in the meetings
  • Control and manage accommodations such as captioning, ASL interpreting, audio descriptions
  • Support for on-site activities and amenities
  • Login, audio and video, screen sharing, chat, polls/surveys, whiteboards, etc.
  • Enabling or turning on captions, pinning the ASL interpreters camera, describing visual information
  • Building access, seating, lighting, noise mitigation, assisted listening devices

 

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Meeting Management Techniques

Meeting hosts should be familiar with the controls, features and functionality for the platform being used for the meeting. Having a practical understanding of the platform controls mitigates technical interruptions that can wreak havoc on attendee attention and participation.

For Hosts and Presenters:

  • Establish communication with support team
  • Turn your camera on, whenever possible, to enable lip reading
  • Ensure proper microphone positioning
  • Wear high contrast clothing
  • Ensure adequate lighting
  • Welcome guests and establish (and enforce) meeting rules
  • Inform attendees when meeting is being recorded, allowing sufficient time for individuals to turn off their camera and microphone, or disconnect from the meeting
  • Ask that attendees ensure that their full name is displayed for reference
  • Ask participants who joining by telephone to identify themselves by their number
    • Note: Captioners typically call in to meetings by telephone
  • Ask whether all attendees have what they need for effective communication
  • Describe what’s on the screen (this also helps people who are participating by telephone/audio only)
  • Use plain language, avoid jargon
  • Ensure speech is clear and well paced
  • Read the submitter name and question before answering
  • Remind participants to identify themselves before they begin to speak

For Participants:

  • Confirm access to meeting platform and features
  • Familiarize yourself with platform controls like volume, mute, and reduced noise
  • Arrive on-time - if not a little early
  • Ensure that your full name is spelled correctly for other participants to reference
  • Understand and follow participation rules

  • Participate using speech, chat, polls, Q&A, and “raise hand”

Tech Check

  • Fine tune your audio
    • Use a headset whenever possible
    • Prevent echoing - only use one audio connection method (telephone or computer, not both)
    • Mute when not speaking
  • Fine tune your video
    • Frame your shot
    • Consider an external webcam
    • In larger meetings, consider turning off your video when not speaking

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Publishing a Recording of a Live Meeting

Many individuals and organizations record meetings and events, posting them online as on-demand training for others to watch. While this is perfectly acceptable, understand that the accessibility standards for live video and pre-recorded video (technically referred to as synchronized media) differ in that:

  • Captioning needs to meet the higher standards of pre-recorded media, and
  • Audio descriptions are required for visual content

Visit Creating Accessible Synchronized Media Content for more information and tips for planning the production of synchronized media from live event recordings.

NOTE: If you plan on recording the meeting, let attendees know ahead of time and make an announcement prior to the start of the meeting.

 

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All programs and activities funded by federal agencies must be accessible to persons with disabilities.

The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA), Sections 501 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as well as Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) stipulate that public facilities must make reasonable modifications to avoid discrimination in their policies, practices and procedures, which includes ensuring that such facilities are physically accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies to provide employees who have disabilities access to electronic and information technology that is comparable to the access available to employees and members of the public who do not have disabilities. These laws mandate certain proactive steps required to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities who are visitors, guests, employees, or applicants for employment.

The meeting planner must work to ensure equivalent access to both the physical environment as well as access to the information which will be presented. Doing so will assure that any person with a disability – be they an invited speaker/presenter or an attendee – will have full and equal access to the facility and the proceedings.

Additional Resources

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Reviewed/Updated: May 2021