Creating accessible remote and online meetings

We're all very well accustomed to online and remote meetings in 2023. "Oh sorry I was on mute" - is this still happening to anyone else? Beyond these unique challenges presented by online and remote working, could lie both visible and invisible accessibility barriers. In particular, for people with disabilities and additional needs.

In this episode, Texthelper Sammy will give you tips and advice on how to make your remote and online meetings more accessible. She will take you beyond the built in accessibility features in the platforms, to give you ways that you can create a sense of belonging that makes your work or education setting more inclusive for everyone.


Rachel Kruzel (00:15):
Welcome to the latest episode in this season of the Texthelp Talks podcast. This season we're talking all things accessibility with a host of experts from education, right through into the workplace. So make sure you subscribe through your preferred podcast player or streaming service so you never miss an episode. You're hearing from me, your host, Rachel Kruzel at Texthelp, and today I'm going to be passing over podcasting duties to my colleague and accessibility expert Sammy White.

Sammy will be taking you through how you can create more accessible remote and online meetings within your organisation, as well as giving you some tips along the way of how technology can help. At the end, I'll leave you with one thing to know, one thing to do and one thing to think about. So let's get started. Sammy, over to you.

Sammy White (01:05):
Hello and welcome to this episode of Texthelp Talks, where we're going to be talking about creating accessible meetings and online spaces. It's part of our season here at Texthelp Talks on accessibility. My name is Sammy, and if you want to connect with me or any of the team here at Texthelp, our email address is We're going to be talking about being welcoming from the start, top tips for hybrid calls, top tips for remote workers, and some ideas around preferred channels as well. Like I said, my name is Sammy and I am a Product Specialist here at Texthelp. I've been in education for many years and I now have the privilege of working with organisations, leadership teams about their education technology journey and their accessible technology journey. Hopefully a few of the tips that I share today might spark an idea for you and maybe some action for you to create a more accessible and inclusive environment in your workplace or education setting.

Our goal here at Texthelp is to help everyone understand and be understood, where difference, disability, language are no longer barriers for anyone. And I want to start with my favourite quote, and that is that, "Diversity is a fact. Equity is a choice. Inclusion is an action, and belonging is an outcome." Our wonderful world is diverse, we choose to make it equitable. Inclusion is an action, and that's what I want to talk about today, are actions that I think are reasonable that might help create that feeling of belonging and that quotes from Arthur Chan.

So the first part is the welcome. I've actually covered this off already. When I welcomed you to this podcast, I gave you my contact details. If we were in an online meeting, I would give you my contact details and I would explain where I want questions to be asked and how I want questions to flow during the session. The reason for that is if we were in an online meeting with hundreds of people with us online, the cognitive load for me as the host is quite high. Having people messaging the chat might be a distraction. So by saying to people, "Could you leave questions to the end or could you pop questions in a different panel in the polling system," however we want to do it, it might just help me as the host feel a bit more settled.

Also, for participants, it's good to set boundaries and expectations. People who are literal and follow things to the letter, if you say, "Please ask questions in the Q&A panel," that might help address one of the challenges that they're facing, which is, "Where am I going to ask questions? There's three options here, which one am I going to click?" By sharing my email address and my contact details, I'm saying I'm interested in continuing the conversation. Hopefully I'm helping you feel that you belong and that we're on this journey together.

It's also really important to share your contact details for people who might need to step away from the meeting as well, and for them to know that it's okay to step away, catch up on the recording and reach out via email afterwards if they so require. Someone with a physical challenge might need to take a break to undertake some exercises. Someone who has neurodiversity challenges might need to take a break because there's a sensory overload issue. Someone with a childcare challenge and their child is not with a childcare provider today might need to step away to help look after their child. The point is, we don't know what situations people are in and we're not expected to, but by taking an inclusive action, by sharing our contact details from the start, we're hopefully helping people feel that they belong.

I've also shared a brief agenda of what we're going to talk about in the podcast today. The welcome, accessible from the start, hybrid meetings, remote workers, preferred channels, and the reason for that is first of all, to be respectful of your time and that there is an agenda and there's a structure and you know what's coming up, but also to give you an opportunity to manage your time as well. If we were in an online meeting, I'd possibly put some timings alongside this and say, "We'll talk about this for five minutes, then we'll have a group discussion for 10 minutes and then we'll do this for 10 minutes as well." Again, it's respectful of people's time, but also for people who are neurodiverse, they might need to know the routine, the structure, the expectations. That might help them to manage their challenges in the meeting. "We're going to do this, then we're going to do this. Okay, I can manage now. I feel that that is the information I need in order to engage."

So whilst it might be necessary for some people to know what's coming up in the meeting, it's really useful for everyone else because if we think back to those who might need to step away for whatever reason, they then know what part they missed, what part they can skip to, what part is relevant to them. So it's this necessary for some, but useful for all-inclusive action of welcoming everyone, sharing an agenda, explaining the features of the platform, and giving them an opportunity to ask questions.

If questions are going into the chat panel, amazing. Maybe get people to start at the beginning by popping something in the chat panel to say where they're from or where they're joining from today. Personally, where you are from, I find a bit of a challenging question. Some people might not want to share that information. I would always go for a low stakes question. Perhaps something about your favourite flavour of crisps or chips or your favourite candy or sweet, something that's low stakes, engaging and fun might get more out of people than asking them to say where they're from.

Once they've found the chat panel, perhaps it's an opportunity for you as the host to point out where they can turn captions on. Again, you don't know who has an accessibility challenge where captions might be necessary. Your meeting platform might also include translation facilities. Those with English as an additional language might welcome the opportunity to turn the meeting into one of the language in the captions. By taking a moment to explain these features, it's an action from you as the meeting host that creates a more belonging feeling for participants. Something as simple as how to pin speakers to the screen might be all someone needs to be able to feel that they belong, to know that who is the main person that they need to focus their attention on during this meeting.

So we've covered off the welcome. Now let's have a look at hybrid calls. When I think about hybrid calls, I'm thinking about people sat around a meeting table, perhaps in a meeting room and someone or a team of people dialing in on a screen on the wall. Those people sat around the table in the meeting room, the person dialing in can't see their faces, can't pick up on visual cues and certainly can't lip-read. So whilst they can turn captions on for themselves, they can't pick up on when it's appropriate to interrupt necessarily. It might feel more of a challenge for someone who's dialing in to be able to interrupt or throw an idea into the table. They might not feel confident because they might not be able to pick up on where the meeting is at at that time.

So an action that's inclusive that you might want to consider is assigning a buddy system, assigning the person who is remote or dialing in, a person who is in the room. They can communicate via a messenger or a text based chat so it doesn't disrupt anyone else, but it gives them an advocate in the room. So the advocate in the room can go, "Oh, we lost a bit of technical issues there. Can we go back over that please for the person who's dialing in?" The person who's dialing in can say, "Oh, which page are we on? What document are we on now?" And the person in the room can help guide the person who's remote.

It can also help build that feeling of connection and belonging. It can help the person who's dialing in feel that someone is there to help them feel that they are part of this meeting as well. The person who's dialing in and is on the screen might be relying on captions as I said. If we have people in the meeting room who are having side conversations, it could be really challenging for the captioning software to identify the main focus of the topic of conversation.

Side conversations can also create an exclusive environment as well. "You are not welcome in this meeting because we're having side conversations," could be the message that the person dialing in feels. So if we say no to side conversations, we can create a more inclusive environment. Captioning software will work better. The person dialing in might feel more included. And also, if we have the buddy system running alongside, we have that advocate in the room that can address side conversations. The person dialing in can say, "The captions are getting a bit confused because it can't work out who's speaking." The person in the room can read the social cues, read the non-verbal cues and say, "Now is an appropriate time to raise this. Can we just stop having side conversations because the captioning software is struggling?" The person in the room can read the room a lot better than the person dialing in. So a buddy system I think is quite important.

Also, if we're meeting across different geographical locations, could we pre-record some content for people? I'm thinking about people with English as an additional language. Perhaps it might be useful for us to record the agenda ahead of time and sketch out some of the points of the meeting, almost do a video welcome for them. It might help them feel that they belong, but it also might help them listen to the accents, understand the way the language is being spoken, or even identify that the meeting will be held in English. It might just create that more inclusive environment by sharing content ahead of time.

And then about sharing the floor. All of these are actions I'm suggesting to help people feel that they belong and to avoid something that CIPD called presence disparity. CIPD are our human resources expert professional body here in the UK, and they defined presence disparity when the person who is dialing in remotely has a different experience to the people in the room, and we don't want that. We want everyone to have the same chance to create an equitable space. So something that might be considered is names in the chat as a way to share the floor.

So if we put the names in the chat and we put Elkie, Carrie-Ann, Amy, Karen in the chat, Elkie knows that when Karen finishes speaking, it's her turn. Amy knows when Carrie-Ann finishes speaking, it's her turn to share. It helps people feel that they know they have a voice and they know they have an opportunity to speak. People can pass. People can say, "I have nothing to add at this moment," but it gives them an opportunity to know when it's their turn to speak and it avoids what could be preferential treatment either for the person dialing in or for the people sat around the table in the room.

So in our little agenda of this podcast episode, we wanted to look at the welcome, hybrid calls, and now we're going to talk about remote workers. I think we're in a situation now where remote working is more common than it possibly has been, certainly in the organisations I'm spending time with. I myself, I'm a remote worker. I work in a different part of the country to where the rest of the team are based. I actually have to fly to get to go to team meetings. So it is an onerous challenge to join those team meetings. So remote working is the most common practice that I have.

And so some tips, again from CIPD about how we can include remote workers are about agreeing ways of working, sharing big ideas, setting expectations, making sure remote workers have the support and equipment that they need. I think this is really important. If we think about that situation where we were dialing in to an online meeting in a hybrid call, how does the person dialing in have access to the same paperwork or documentation that we're using in the meeting? Something that I use a lot are QR codes. A QR code is an image that when scanned with a camera points or takes someone to a web address or a document that we're talking about. I actually use them in presentation slide decks as well. It means that people don't have to wait for the slide deck to be shared with them to be able to engage with the content.

It means that people don't have to have that awkward conversation of, "Is this going to be available afterwards? Where can I get the links from?" And it avoids noise in the meeting. Sometimes in the chat people can say, "Oh, where's the link for this?" It just negates all that noise and conversation. It's an action that I take to be more inclusive. The QR code to the resource works live in the meeting when I'm sharing my slides, anyone can access that QR code and access that material. It also works if the meeting is recorded and the individual can access the material without having to reach out or find who organised the meeting or where the documentation is held. It also means that anyone who needs to step away from the meeting has access to that material as well.

I create my QR codes using Google Chrome. There's a little forward arrow or a share arrow in the web address box and it just says QR code. Important point to mention though is when you are inserting the QR code into a presentation or a slide deck, do include alt text. Alt text is a description of an image used by people who use screen readers. It helps people to differentiate between text and images on the page and your description of what the image shows is really important. I also include the web address in the alt text, so if someone is accessing it via a screen reader, they can go directly to that web address as well. I am being hopefully a bit more inclusive by taking that action as well.

So to support remote workers, sharing materials and resources is really important. Managers and teams should make sure that everyone has access to what they need on a broader sense, as in where documentation is the majority of the time, but also in a specific individual sense. If we are about to go into a meeting, does everyone have access to this documentation? If you're not sure, quickly grabbing a QR code and adding it to the slides that you're presenting from is an action that helps create a more inclusive environment and helps people feel that they belong.

So more tips from the CIPD for remote workers is connections, daily huddles, rhythm of one-to-ones if you have a remote worker and they have a weekly one-to-one with you. If for whatever reason, workload prioritisation or annual leave, you as the manager or the team leader are canceling that one-to-one. That could mean it's two weeks before that remote worker sees anyone in the organisation, possibly three weeks, possibly longer. How isolating is that going to feel to that remote worker? So rhythm of regular one-to-ones is really important.

Also, this daily connection, having a quick daily huddle or a standup or a 15-minute chat might help build that feeling of connection between the remote worker and the rest of the team or the remote worker and the manager. Doesn't have to be long, doesn't have to be onerous, but just might help people feel that they belong. Tailoring feedback and communication is really important too. Remote workers can't pick up on social cues. Also, people who experience autism find social cues a challenge as well. So by being clear and concise in our communication always, we can be more inclusive for everyone.

The final part of the agenda for today is about preferred communication channels. A text-based communication channel, as I mentioned in hybrid meetings for the buddy system is really useful. A text-based communication channel might be useful more broadly as well. It might be a space for people to have a chat who are remote. There might be many people who are remote. By having a space for people to connect in a tech space chat, it might help build feelings of belonging.

An off-topic chat is also really useful. A chat where people can talk about work, ask questions about where documentation is, what tasks they should be working on, how is the project looking is really important. But just as important is the space where people can put in pictures of their pets, say what they're doing on the weekend, share their latest recipes. Two chats, one for work, one for work, but for building those connections at a more social level as well.

Preferred communication channels as well mean is a meeting actually necessary? Could we do this as a pre-record and do an information download? Do people need to sit there live to listen to this? If it's an information download, it might be able to be recorded. Would a live session be better for people to come with questions once they've watched the information download? Perhaps. A few actions that might make it more inclusive, just thinking about what's the purpose of what it is that we're trying to do? How are we trying to create a more inclusive environment for everyone?

Commenting in documents might be more appropriate because it might help people keep more on task and more focused. The use of focus time and the respect of focus time as well. If someone is in focus time, do we say we don't contact them? Are we going to be the change in that? Similarly, for out of office. If we see someone's out of office, do we hold onto that communication? The chances are if you message while they're off, it might get lost in a wave of external communications that didn't know they were out of office. It also might help you have an opportunity to create a more meaningful connection when they return.

So we've covered off the points I wanted to talk about today. Remembering that diversity is a fact, equity is a choice, inclusion is an action, and belonging is the outcome. I'm hoping that there's been some tips of some inclusive actions that you might want to take forward. It's all part of our journey here at Texthelp to help everyone understand and be understood, and some of the actions that I've suggested today are necessary for some people, but they would be useful for many as well. And our tools here at Texthelp are necessary for some and useful for many.

Think about text to speech, for example. It's necessary for some people to have pieces of text read aloud for a wide variety of reasons. It's actually really useful as well. I'm neurotypical, but I find text to speech really useful because it frees my hands, eyes up, and I can make notes. I'm an analog paper note taker, so a text to speech means large documents can be read aloud and I can focus on making my notes. Just one example of how ours tools are necessary for some, but useful for many. I hope there's been something in here for you today, and I hope that inclusive actions help create a feeling of belonging that recognise the diversity and the equitable spaces that you work or teach in.

Rachel Kruzel (22:25):
Brilliant, Sammy. That's all we have time for today. It's been really great to learn from you and have you share your expert advice. So thank you. And to our listeners, you all, thanks for listening. At the beginning, I promised to leave you with one thing to know, one thing to think about and one thing to do. So here we go.

One thing to know, presence disparity can prevent collaboration. So by taking steps to resolve this, you're not only supporting the people within your organisation, but creating better outcomes for remote and online teams. One thing to think about, I really want you to think about Sammy's quote from Arthur Chan and what this could look like within your setting. "Diversity is a fact. Equity is a choice. Inclusion is an action. Belonging is an outcome."

One thing to do, start taking the steps outlined by Sammy to not only make your workplace or organisation more accessible to those with disabilities and additional needs, but to also create a sense of belonging that makes everyone feel included. Don't forget to subscribe to Texthelp Talks on your preferred podcast player or streaming service to catch the next episode in our Texthelp Talks Accessibility season. Thanks again. Bye.