Accessible Web Conferences and Webinar Best Practices
A variety of web based services and software products are available to enable presentations, live meetings, and training over the web. These technologies may be named "Webinars" a word play on the terms "Web" and "Seminar", or "Web Conferencing" or "Electronic Meeting System", or "Webcast", to name a few. The technology may be a free or fee-based service on the Internet, or a purchased software product.
These products and services vary in the capabilities offered. Some use the web browser to deliver images and audio over the web, allowing participants to share traditional video and slide show presentations, others provide realtime views of a computer desktop screen or streaming video. Some work in conjunction with the telephone system ("Teleconferencing") to provide realtime voice and audio on the telephone, and use the web browser to provide images and video. Others eschew the use of the telephone and use the web browser for both audio and video/images.
More than a Slide Show
These services may allow for participant polling, questions to the speaker, text chat simultaneously, text chat between participants, a whiteboard which can be annotated by the presenter or participants, slide shows, or allow the presenter to turn over the screen to participants for collaboration. Some of these features require the use of a specialized "Plugin" to the web browser or downloading a specialized desktop "client" program to provide the features. Some provide automatic recording of the online meeting so that it may be "played back" at a later date by those who could not participate at the original date.
Does it exclude those with Assistive Needs?
Our concern lays with the accessibility of the particular product or service in addition to the accessibility of the content material which may be transmitted during the presentation. To put it more plainly, just as we concerned about how accessible a PowerPoint presentation may be, we are also concerned about how accessible is the Webinar itself. If an participant with assistive needs is unable to use the webinar plugin or screen interface to receive the content of the PowerPoint or communicate with presenter to ask questions or to receive the spoken comments made by the presenter, then we need to find alternate means for those participants to receive the content and join the interaction.
These problems with accessibility in the webinar products and services do not preclude our use of them, as long as we provide an accessible alternative. We may not be able to immediately remedy the accessibility issues of these commercial products and services, but as presenters there are some alternatives that can be used while the industry catches up with 508 requirements.
- Prior to the meeting ask your presentation participants if they have assistive needs so that you can plan towards meeting those needs. Communicate with them to find out what they need to participate. Even if you do not receive any requests, have alternatives ready.
- Provide a telephone-based teleconferencing connection in addition to the VOIP (Voice over the Web) Webinar. This will allow participants with assistive needs to have access to the meeting if the webinar client or plugin is not accessible. Prepare for how such participants will be ask questions, vote, or collaborate in the presentation in addition to those using the inaccessible interface.
- Schedule the Federal Relay service for deaf or hard of hearing participants. The Federal Relay Service (FRS) (http://www.fts.gsa.gov/frs/frs_main.htm) is for the use of hearing impaired individuals. The relay service also provides for Video relay and Braille services.
- If documents such as PowerPoint, Excel and MS Word are going to be used in the presentation, these should be sent out to participants in advance of the meeting. Send your participants Plaintext versions of presentation documents in advance of the meeting. This is especially important for heavily graphic documents such as PowerPoint. This will allow a participant with low vision the ability to prepare a Braille version of the Plaintext in advance of the meeting so that they may listen to the speaker at the same time as they "read" the Braille with their fingers. This is a better alternative to trying to listen to both the Presenter and the Accessible Technology reading at the same time. If you make changes, send out an update so that participants are not misinformed.
- Last but not least, if the presentation was recorded, remember to prepare accessible versions of the webinar recordings, videos require captioning and a transcript.