Accessibility in the Switch to Online

As we experience the uncomfortable but necessary changes in response to COVID-19, many of us have continued our work by switching to virtual spaces, whether for meetings, classes, social events, or other gatherings.

We are presented with an opportunity to make virtual spaces more accessible, which means more disabled people will be able to actively be present. On the flipside of this opportunity, however, is a threat that accessibility will be ignored, if not erased. We must be intentionally inclusive if we are to avoid further isolating disabled people, especially those who are often already isolated outside of times of crisis, both in physical or virtual spaces.

We can all act to minimize exclusion by specifically incorporating accessible practices into our virtual lives. To support instructors during the switch to online, AAA hosted a two-part webinar series on “Responsive Teaching and Learning in Anthropology” with Angela Jenks, Michael Wesch, and me, in which we discussed accessibility in the online classroom, among other topics. While the webinar series focused specifically on teaching during COVID-19, most of the accessibility practices are applicable to any online space and digital materials. Here are some accessible practices to consider incorporating into the resources you create and the events you plan. Some of the practices may be more commonplace than others, and some of them may require more time, energy, and resources to incorporate. Not every practice will be applicable to every space, but in any preparation of digital materials or events, all of these practices should be considered to minimize exclusion, especially as this virtual switch may continue for a while yet as we attempt to minimize COVID-19 cases.

For content and resources:

  • Produce or provide documents in screen reader-friendly formats, and provide all-audio versions or clear instructions for how to listen to a screen reader-friendly file.
  • Produce or provide image descriptions and alt text for images.
  • Produce or provide transcripts for audio files, including videos.
  • Produce or provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation for audio files, including videos.
  • Produce or provide accurate captions for videos, whether open (directly embedded in the video) or closed (can be turned on or off by the video player). Autogenerated captions are often inaccurate.
  • Produce or provide videos with visual descriptions, either through audio description as an additional audio track or spoken and self-described in the moment, or via additional text provided in a video description.

For synchronous virtual events:

  • Always make evident what accessible practices will be provided and what has not been planned for. Note that you welcome accommodation requests, and provide clear instructions for how to submit requests.
  • Provide in advance all material to be shared or presented in accessible, screen reader-friendly formats.
  • Provide captions and ASL interpretation for video calls such as Zoom, as well as in-the-moment visual descriptions (i.e., an accessible introduction, reading the text on the slides and describing images vocally). Provide a list of terms for captioners and ASL interpreters in advance.
  • When speaking up during a multiparticipant call, announce your name before sharing your comment or question.
  • When responding to comments or questions provided via a text chat, read aloud the comment or question before your response, and spell new, uncommon terms for the captioners and ASL interpreters.
  • Provide options to review or participate following the event, such as through an accessible discussion board.
  • Plan for intentional breaks after every 20 minutes, even for 2 to 3 minutes.

For events you plan and resources you create, asking multiple individuals to take on specific responsibilities will help to distribute this necessary labor. One individual might act as accessibility coordinator to ensure that as many accessible practices and features as possible are provided. Alternatively, if you’re at an academic or public institution, work with your disability office to identify what supports they can provide.

The disability and accessibility communities have been actively seeking remote participation well before this moment, and so for many of us this recent switch is very much welcome. However, the digital world in and of itself is not accessible; it is important that we do not forget the importance of cross-disability and cross-accessibility issues so that no one gets left behind as we increasingly engage with one another via online environments. Consider accessibility from the ground up, and through our efforts we will have opportunity to build a more accessible online environment for us all.

This essay was originally published in the May/June 2020 print issue of Anthropology News.

Nell Koneczny is the AAA accessibility and meetings coordinator.

Cite as: Koneczny, Nell. 2020. “Accessibility in the Switch to Online.” Anthropology News website, July 7, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1457

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