First posted on Inclusive Communication Services and reposted here with permission.’
Due to the pandemic, many people have been working from home and the use of virtual meeting spaces has increased. Video-conferencing platforms have enabled us to stay connected with colleagues and friends through times of lockdown and social distancing, when it is not possible to meet in person and, for many of us, virtual meetings have become a part of everyday life.
I have participated in online meetings through various platforms and have found that there are both benefits and challenges to meeting in an online environment. As someone with hearing loss, my observations focus on the communication aspects of video calls and ways to help promote accessibility.
One at a Time
Most online meeting platforms have a ‘raise hand’ feature to alert the meeting leader or group facilitator that a participant wants to speak. Although this isn’t conducive to achieving a natural flowing discussion, it can be beneficial for people with hearing loss. Establishing a ‘hands up to speak’ protocol, means there are no overlapping voices, and participants can focus on just one person speaking at a time.
Muting participants’ microphones by default is particularly necessary for large meetings. Having the ability to enable the microphone for one person at a time can help control the discussion and limit the background noise from the other attendees, helping to enhance the clarity of the speaker’s voice.
Most video-conference platforms have a feature where participants can leave the main meeting space and be divided into small groups, enabling a more focussed discussion. This is particularly beneficial for meetings that involve large groups of people, where it is not possible to address everyone’s opinions.
The option to share the meeting leader’s screen gives the participants visual cues to refer to which can be effective prompts for discussions. Having visual elements to the meeting means that the communication isn’t solely reliant on the comprehension of speech.
Pinning or spotlighting the person who is talking means the other participants can focus on the person speaking. This is particularly helpful for lipreading purposes as attendees can follow the speaker’s lips and also facial expressions to help aid understanding.
Of course, the success of this depends on the quality of internet speed; a good internet connection can be helpful for lipreading. Also, attendees will need to be notified beforehand to ensure they are in a well-lit room so that their face can be seen clearly.
Chat functions allow for written communication amongst participants. This is particularly helpful if someone has a question or requires clarification on something but doesn’t want to disturb the rest of the attendees. Either a meeting facilitator can discreetly answer the query, or the group leader can address the questions posed in the chat box at an appropriate time in the discussion.
Live Closed-Captioning and Sign language
Some video meeting platforms have a live captioning service that can be activated. These are of varying quality and it’s a good idea to check whether this is an available service to you when planning the meeting logistics.
It is also possible to invite a professional captioner to provide captions on the video platform with everyone. This is called Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) captioning service. This works particularly well when the captioner is familiar with the subject you are discussing in your meeting.
If a sign language interpreter is required, they can also join the meeting and provide interpretation.
Conducting meetings online, enable a degree of accessibility. The number of people able to join the meeting does not depend on the size of the venue. There are no costs or complications of participants travelling to a venue, and people can join the meeting from various locations.
When holding a meeting in an online environment, there may be some technical interferences such as echoes and issues with the internet cutting off. Frozen screens can lead to issues for people who rely on lipreading or sign language.
Although it can be beneficial to see the face of each speaker, without access to the rest of their body language, it can be mentally tiring to follow conversation and gauge connotations in speech. Reading captions can also be tiring.
The mental effort needed to follow an online meeting can affect anyone, not just those with hearing loss. For this reason, it is important to schedule regular comfort breaks to allow people to have some time away from the screen.
Meeting in an online environment removes some of the human interaction that may naturally occur when people are physically sharing a space. An organised online meeting isn’t conducive to small talk and participants may be less likely to make meaningful connections than if they had met in person.
The key to a successful online meeting is good planning.
As a participant, when joining an online meeting, always make sure you tell the meeting organizer if you require any accommodations to be able to participate. Ensure you make contact as soon as possible to allow plenty of time for the necessary arrangements to be made.
As a meeting organiser, have a clear agenda that is sent out to participants beforehand, along with any supporting information or documents. Make sure you are aware of any necessary accessibility accommodations and have these in place before the start of the meeting.
Following the meeting, provide a written summary when necessary, to ensure everyone has access to the key takeaway points. It can also be beneficial to ask for feedback from the attendees following the meeting, to help you continue to improve accessibility.