Last reviewed: 30 March 2021
Before March 2020, many organisations had only run the occasional online event or webinar. COVID-19 restrictions meant that many organisations quickly had to move all their events online. The move has shown that there are many benefits to hosting virtual events, including removing the need to travel for both delegates and speakers. But there are also issues to address if you want to deliver an online event which is as engaging and accessible as one where everyone is together in a room.
In this resource, we offer tips and practical advice on how to create a virtual event that delivers for everyone. Much of this advice is based on Business Disability Forum’s own experiences of hosting a range of inclusive and accessible online Member and Partner events since March 2020.
The world of online events is new and evolving. There is additional functionality regularly being added to existing platforms to make them more accessible. There are also new platforms, online tools and services being developed with inclusion in mind. Events delivered fully or partially online are likely here to stay. We will be adding to our resources in this area over time to reflect that.
Making your online event accessible: Things to consider
Think about accessibility and inclusion from the beginning
As with in person events, it is best to plan your online event with accessibility and inclusion in mind from the beginning. This will give out a positive message about your event and allow you to promote your event as accessible. It is also easier and more cost effective than trying to add in accessibility features later. That said, it’s also important to ask delegates if they have any additional requirements or needs and to offer plenty of opportunities for delegates to share this information with you.
- Think about accessibility as early as possible and book any services that you think you will need. Live captioning and signing services get very booked up.
- Make it easy for delegates to tell you about any additional adjustments they may need.
- Include space in registrations forms for delegates to share information about adjustments required. Also provide contact details for anyone who wants to discuss requirements with you.
- Include reminders in email confirmations and joining instructions.
Consider the cost of accessibility features, such as live captioning and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters, and plan for them in your event budget. Do not be tempted to cut costs in this area. The accessibility of your event is as important as the content of the event. There is no point putting on the ‘perfect’ online event if some people cannot access it or participate in it.
You may also find it helpful to create a reserve to cover the cost of any additional requirements requested by delegates
Platform and production costs also need to be factored into your budget For larger events, you may want to consider commissioning the services of a platform producer or an online events company to help you deliver your event. There are now many that specialise in services and products aimed at helping you create events with accessibility and inclusion, in mind. You can find out more about some of the services available in the Further Information section.
Live captioning and interpreting
Most platforms come with automated captioning built in. Automated captioning is advancing all the time but is not yet a replacement for live captioning. We would recommend using live captioning whenever budgets allow and particularly for larger events or for events where there is a lot of technical vocabulary. Remember that it is not just disabled people who use captioning to support their understanding of an event. It is useful for everyone.
- Using the services of a live captioner also allows you easily to create a post-event transcript.
- Transcripts can be useful for delegates to refer back to and can be helpful for anyone who was unable to attend the event on the day.
- Creating a transcript from scratch after the event can be time consuming and expensive. This also applies to captioning post-event recordings.
- Automated captions do not usually show up on post-event recording. Live captions do.
If you are using a BSL interpreter, it is important to make sure that the interpreter remains visible on the screen, throughout the event. To do this you will need to ‘spotlight’ or ‘pin’ the signer, so they do not disappear from view when there is a change of speaker.
Remember that for longer events, you will may need to budget for more than one interpreter and captioner. Consider creating some pre-recorded sessions if budgets do not allow for live captioning and interpreting throughout.
Send a list of any technical, or potentially tricky, vocabulary to your captioner and signer in advance of your event.
Choosing the best platform to host your event is important. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, StreamYard, HopIn, Crowdcast, WebEx and Google Meet are just some of the platforms available and most come with a range of accessibility features built-in. Research different platforms to find the best fit for your event and the needs of your audience. Here are some things to consider, when choosing a platform:
- Access and security. Internal security systems and firewalls may prevent some organisations from accessing certain platforms.
- Ease of use.
- Screen reader accessibility.
- Whether the platform supports keyboard navigation.
- Picture and sound quality.
- The number of delegates that the platform will support.
- Any time limits on platform use.
- Captioning options and whether the platform supports the use of a live captioner.
- Whether the platform supports the use of live BSL signing.
- Whether delegates can choose how they join the event.
- Whether there is a chat messaging function and how this is accessed.
- Whether you can pin a BSL signer, presentations etc.
- Recording options.
- Transcript options.
- Language options, if you are hosting an international event.
Refer to our resource, ‘A user’s guide to video conferencing apps’ for more information about the accessibility features of some of the leading platforms.
Design an event which works online
Creating an online event is not as simple as just moving your in-person event online.
Having regular screen and comfort breaks scheduled into the agenda for your event is important. It is not recommended that anyone stares at a screen for hours on end, and for some people having a camera on or following an online discussion for a long period of time is particularly difficult. Schedule in breaks every hour or so, and make sure that you stick to the agenda and brief all speakers to do the same.
Consider whether you really need a longer event. If you do, then think about timings to allow as many people to participate as possible. It may be better to break down a one-day event into shorter sessions over five days.
Audience engagement and participation
Keeping your audience engaged in an online event can be a challenge. Create plenty of opportunities for delegates to ask questions and to interact.
For larger events, fielding questions via a chat box is often the best option. This also makes it easier for people to participate who may not feel comfortable asking a question verbally. Have colleagues ready to collate questions and pass them to the panel, or to respond via the chat box in real-time to create discussion.
You can also use the chat box function for sharing live information about the event with your audience and responding to technical issues.
You may wish to create multiple chat channels for the same event on different topics. This allows delegates to access information which is most relevant to them and means that important information is not missed.
Screen reader users may find it difficult to skim through a long conversation. Remember to clear down or archive information in the chat box which is no longer relevant.
Creating polls via live polling platforms, like Slido, can also be a useful way to generate audience participation and to monitor engagement in real time. Findings from the poll can be shared with the audience during the event.
Breakout rooms can help with creating virtual networking opportunities, but you need to consider delegates who use BSL and how they will communicate in a breakout room without an interpreter or live captioning. It is also important to remember that not everyone will feel comfortable participating in a breakout room. Some people may also prefer to participate with their camera off. Allow delegates to take part as they wish.
Consider your speakers
We have mentioned ways to make an online event accessible for your delegates, but what about your speakers? It is important to consider their accessibility needs too.
Remember that speakers may also need to access captioning and signing. Using a streaming service, like StreamText, means speakers can view captions on a second screen or device. Make sure you the speaker can also view the interpreter on their screen or device.
Offer your speakers an opportunity to test out the platform before the event. It is best if you can do this a few days before the event so that you have time to make any necessary adjustments.
You may also want to create a FAQ document for your speakers, which suggests checks to carry out before the event and advice on what to do if they have technical issues on the day.
Be prepared for the unexpected
All events require great planning and organisation to run smoothly. Online events are no different in that sense, but they also present additional challenges. Namely, the need to rely on technology and good internet connections.
Take the time to get to know the platform you are using in advance. You may want to consider hosting a run through of an event a few days before the real thing to help you spot and address any unforeseen issues. This will also help speakers to know what to expect on the day. Ask colleagues to act as delegates and test out all the accessibility features.
But even after the most thorough testing, things can still go wrong on the day, so always have a back-up plan.
Pre-recording some of your sessions is a good idea. This means you have content ready and available should a live speaker experience a poor internet connection or power cut. You may also want to create some short promotional videos which you can show. These can also help to visually represent key messages and themes from your event and can break up longer panel sessions.
Back-up speakers are also a sensible idea. Ask people who you know will feel comfortable speaking at short notice. Make sure you are aware of their access needs and how to meet them.
Think beyond the event itself
When thinking about accessibility, you need to think beyond the event itself. All information and resources relating to the event must also be accessible.
- Check that any presentations and slide decks are accessible.
- Share as much information as possible before the event. This includes:
- platform links
- browser information
- slide decks
- delegate and speaker FAQs
- contact information
- details of how information will be shared after the event.
- Remember to offer this information in alternative formats
- Send out links to transcripts and recordings post-event. Make sure all video content is captioned.
- Invite feedback on your event to make future events even more accessible.
You can find more information on creating accessible PowerPoints and making information available in alternative formats within the ‘Inclusive communication practical resources’ section of our Inclusive Communication Toolkit.
- AccessLoop – An online tool for adding live captions and signing to online events (accessloop.com)
- Attendable – An event management company which specialises in making events inclusive and accessible to everyone (attendable.co.uk)
- MyClearText – A live captioning company (mycleartext.com)
- StreamText – A technology platform for stream captions (streamtext.net)
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