Video calling such as Teams, Skype and Zoom have quickly become a daily routine for business communication, and it is likely that this method of staying in touch will increasingly become the norm.
This short guide looks at some simple ways of ensuring that your video call or conference is as inclusive as possible of blind and partially sighted people.
For many people, video conferences are a step up from tele conferences as they allow participants to interact visually as well as audibly. In fact, it is likely that visual communication will be the dominant factor in a video conference.
Whilst visual interaction is very important for many, it must be remembered that not everyone will be able to see what's happening on the screen. Sometimes this could be because someone is using a phone to join the conference rather than the video call itself. It may also be that one of your attendees is blind or partially sighted and has some, little or no sight.
The first part of the call can be the most difficult. This is the point at which many people join and start chatting about what someone is wearing, the background, the budgie in the corner, etc. This can be a very bad start for someone who is not accessing the conference visually.
It is important to think about the beginning of the conference. You might want to wait until everyone has arrived before conversation happens. Or if you want a relaxed and informal start, consider if there is someone on the call who can ensure that anything commented on visually is described. If someone feels excluded right at the start it may be really hard for them to feel like a full and equal participant as the conference or meeting progresses.
Where numbers allow, ask everyone to introduce themselves. Not everyone will easily be able to read a list of participants, especially if people are talking.
The use of cameras should be an individual decision and participants should not be expected to use them. It can often be very difficult for blind or partially sighted people to know exactly what the camera is displaying, especially if using a mobile device without a stand. On occasions a camera can be useful, especially if someone is doing a presentation and the rest of the group would benefit from seeing them. If this is the case, then ensure there is time before the meeting to assist the blind or partially sighted person to position the camera appropriately.
Different people take in information in different ways - don't be afraid of the visual, but make sure there is a way in for everyone.
If you are collating people's thoughts via screen sharing or flip chart, consider how you do this and who the information benefits. Writing down comments and suggestions may be helpful for visual learners, but could potentially exclude others. The host may wish to simply make a note of comments which can then be circulated after the meeting. If it is important to share this information visually, you should ensure that everything is read out - not just headings or key points - everyone should have access to what is being discussed.
Try to avoid phrases like "As we can all see" or "Can everyone see the screen?" The latter question assumes that being able to see is the norm and is in itself exclusive. A simple change such as, "Can everyone see the screen who needs to" can make a big difference.
Try not to draw attention to the fact that you are saying or describing something for a particular person's benefit. For example, when sharing a screen all you need to say is that you are sharing the screen for those who find it useful, but will also read and describe everything. Never say "I'll read this out for Tom's benefit" or "I'll describe this for those who can't see".
A text chat facility can be useful in enabling people to exchange thoughts and ideas, especially if it is a large group. However, for people using screen readers this can be extremely difficult as there are people talking, messages coming in and then one needs to attempt to write one's own message. Consider giving an email address as an alternative way to quickly communicate, then people using a screen reader could use another device to email the host and share their ideas.
When trying to engage people in discussion, allow for different ways of attracting the attention of the host. Using the Raise a Hand button may be an option for some, but other people might prefer trying to speak. However, it can sometimes be quite difficult to know when it’s OK to speak, especially as most video conferences have a bit of a time delay.
Ensure that you always check in with participants, especially those who have said little - it may be that they have got something to share, but can't find a way in. Also note that the 'Raise A Hand' function is not very accessible to the host and there is no audio alert to this.
It is likely that the beginning and end of a meeting will have the biggest impact on how someone remembers it. Try to ensure that the host leaves time for everyone to have a final say if they want to, especially those who have not been able to find a way in. By doing this you will be able to pick up on any issues and, if necessary, follow them up after the meeting.
Ensure that the meeting ends at a fixed point - don't let it go on after the host has formally ended it. If it carries on informally, the structure becomes less clear and there’s a danger of people becoming excluded.
Video calling is an important way to stay in touch with people who are working from home. Working remotely can lead to feeling disconnected from the team and joining a group call can help improve morale.
Don’t be afraid to use video calling to stay in touch when you have staff with sight loss. If you are unsure about what your staff member needs or how they feel about video calls just ask them. Everyone’s different and has different needs and preferences. Consulting with them is the best way to get it right.
If you plan your meeting with accessibility in mind all your participants should feel included and will enjoy the interaction and benefit from the meeting.
Shaping Our Lives is a national organisation and network of user-led groups, service users and disabled people. They have published a helpful blog on their noticeboard outlining five things you should consider when planning interactive online events: Throwing away the rulebook: Five things you should consider when planning interactive online events, to make them more inclusive