Access In Focus

10 accessibility lessons we learned working with IDA

By All Senses Go
January 1, 2021

We always knew access was a journey, a conversation and a process. There is no finish line in accessibility, no perfect answer or absolute solution. Before this year, however, we didn't know how quickly the world could change and all the ways access needs could change with it.

As events worldwide shifted to virtual platforms in response to the pandemic, our work adjusted to meet newfound demands. This year, one of our most significant projects was collaborating with the International Documentary Association to improve the accessibility of their website, events and programs, beginning with their biennial Getting Real conference.

Typically an in-person conference that spans multiple days and brings together filmmakers from all over the world, Getting Real pivoted this year to a virtual format. The 2020 conference theme Access. Power. Possibility. highlighted IDA's focus on the many barriers marginalized communities, including people with disabilities, face in accessing storytelling. In learning how to reproduce the critical benefits of a destination conference on a virtual platform, IDA realized the new format brought forth unique accessibility needs for Deaf and disabled participants. IDA worked with All Senses Go to take a successful step toward their theme and present their most accessible conference yet.

With the goal of continuous improvement, we would like to share with the filmmaking community 10 things we learned working with IDA and accessibility lessons filmmakers can take to future conferences and festivals with virtual components.

1. Virtual events are here to stay

Though in-person gatherings will eventually resume, the pandemic has transformed our lives and the ways we interact. We’ve learned geography does not need to impact participation. When designed correctly, virtual events can be just as meaningful, instructive and functional as in-person events.

Virtual events are enormously successful in removing barriers to entry: With nowhere to go but the screen in front of you, access needs related to transportation and physical environments have been stripped away—powerful shifts we hope will last. Many people who would never have been able to attend destination conferences can participate online, and we think organizations will embrace this shift and continue to broaden their reach through virtual offerings.

2. Budget for access from the beginning

What does it mean to integrate access into a way of being rather than as an afterthought? For many organizers, we learned this means being proactive and ensuring accessibility at every stage of the planning process.

To make access ubiquitous—or, more realistically, to strive to do so—organizers must plan for accessibility from the beginning and include line items in budgets. Assume that access will be needed at 100% of your public events and create appropriate line items in operating and event budgets. With proper budgeting, you can plan for unanticipated consumer requests and offer certain provisions by default.

Accessibility should never be viewed as an after-thought. Don't wait for a request and then scramble to find funding—instead, anticipate, budget and plan to meet access needs for all events.

3. Check your website's accessibility

There are some simple steps you can take to improve your website's accessibility and, in turn, appeal to a broader audience. We recommend you:

  • Choose an accessible template or theme by including accessibility in your selection criterion. It's much easier to start with an accessible website than it is to go back later once you've already gone public.
  • Keep your website simple. Focus on engaging content, not distracting appearances. Dynamic page elements like complex scroll-based animations and hover dropdowns might look neat, but they can create problems for screen readers—and truthfully, they can be distracting for any user.
  • Use well-structured headings to enable screen-reader users to skip from section to section. Label paragraphs with <p> and headings and subheadings with <h1>, <h2>, <h3> and so on. This way, screen reader users can use headings like a table of contents and orient themselves to your website.
  • Describe visuals using alt-text and image descriptions. Think about all the images you might use in a website: marketing posters, a company logo, production stills, headshots. All should include alt-text embedded in the code for screen-reader users and an image description explaining essential visuals.
  • Provide captions and transcripts for media content. All videos in your campaign should include quality captions to ensure equal access for Deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. Audio-only content such as podcasts should also have a transcript of the program.

For more information on web accessibility, check out Matt Lauterbach’s article on IDA's website: Design Your Film's Website with Accessibility in Mind.

4. Advertise access up front

An unfortunate truth of our cultural landscape is that most events are organized by nondisabled individuals who fail to consider the access needs of Deaf and disabled people. After repeated experiences with inaccessibility, many Deaf and disabled individuals assume events and programming will not be accessible. When organizers actually do provide access services like captioning, ASL interpretation and audio description, these features need to be advertised up front and often. The omission of accessibility information from marketing materials could mean many Deaf and disabled people will not participate since they were not aware the event would be accessible.

5. Incorporate visual descriptions

Another way to integrate access is free and straightforward: incorporate visual descriptions. Encourage presenters to share short descriptions of themselves and their backgrounds in introductions to better enable blind audience members to create a mental picture of the speaker’s appearance and then to connect that image with the person’s voice. In your self description, focus on relevant or important information such as height, skin color, facial features, distinctive mannerisms, items of clothing and any additional details. In a virtual context, visual descriptions can also be a great way to let people know where you are in the world and details about your surroundings.

6. Caption, caption, caption

Audiovisual content should be captioned by default. Without captions, Deaf and hard-of-hearing folks aren't able to engage with your content. And remember: Captions help everyone. From English language learners to viewers who watch your media while in a noisy environment, captions can help you reach the broadest possible audience.

Captions are great for pre-recorded content, but for live events, use CART transcription. CART stands for Communication Access Realtime Translation and is a speech-to-text interpreting service. The more accessible video-conference platforms like Zoom offer integration with CART software, enabling captions to be provided remotely. In Zoom, CART transcription appears as pop-on captions and in a side-bar transcript view. This transcript is automatically saved when the conference ends and can be shared with participants.

7. Get acquainted with ASL best practices

When working with ASL interpreters, there are a few best practices to keep in mind:

  • Assign a minimum of two ASL interpreters to each program so that providers can switch every 15 minutes for a break. ASL interpretation is cognitively difficult work, and they'll need to take breaks every so often.
  • Ensure ASL visibility. During in-person events, make sure interpreters are visible, well-lit and centrally located on the stage. Interpreters should never be placed far off to the side of the stage, where seating options are limited and sightlines are compromised. For virtual events, make sure ASL interpreters are pinned or spotlit so they always remain visible on screen for all participants and in recordings.
  • Orient ASL interpreters to conference content. Conferences tend to bring together folks with a shared interest in a niche industry. When ASL interpreters don't have experience in that industry, they can misinterpret concepts. Through an orientation, ASL interpreters can learn about niche concepts ahead of time, so they're better prepared to translate.

8. Use the chat feature mindfully

One of the most significant accessibility issues with Zoom and other digital conference platforms is the chat feature, which can interfere with screen reader technology. Every time a chat message is posted, the screen reader reads the message aloud and talks over whoever is speaking. Unable to turn off the chat, many blind users are so annoyed by the interruptions that they turn off their screen readers—a move equivalent to a sighted person unplugging their mouse and keyboard.

Here is a possible two-part solution:

  1. Q&A feature instead of chat. Hosts should use the Q&A feature instead of the chat for attendees to post questions. This way, side conversation amongst participants will not be possible, but hosts will still be able to share information via chat.
  2. Provide an alternative space for sharing. With chat reserved for organizers, provide an alternative space for participants to communicate such and share resources, pose questions and generate ideas.

9. Seek feedback and aim for growth

As contemporary dance group Kinetic Light likes to say, access is not a product or a checklist. Access is a conversation and a process, a means of growing together. We can improve accessibility only by iterating and seeking feedback.

Following an event, program or conference, ask for feedback from participants with disabilities and incorporate their suggestions whenever possible during the next event.

Ensure all communications regarding accessibility are the responsibility of one consistent team member. Widely share that person's phone number and email and make clear to disabled registrants that they can reach out with questions, feedback and suggestions for improvement. This same person should also monitor the Q&A feature during virtual events and provide immediate feedback to organizers about participants' access needs.

During registration, a best accessibility practice is to include an open comment box for requesting additional accommodations and sharing more information about access needs. By providing an "additional requests" comment box and allocating money for meeting unanticipated access needs, organizers can take continuing actions toward inclusion. In doing so, they can create a more accessible and equitable experience.

10. Start now and do what you can

Access is a journey, and we all must start somewhere. Even if your first step is providing a disclaimer on your website notifying visitors that your content isn't currently accessible, then start there and consider ways to move forward. Be honest in what you can and cannot do, and don't be afraid to start small. There are many low-budget ways to begin incorporating accessibility into your filmmaking practices, and there's no reason to wait to get started. The earlier in the process you start considering accessibility, the more accessible your final product will be.