Accessibility at Virtual and In Person Events

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  • The following article is based on a recent interview conducted by Lou Rosenfeld, Publisher of Rosenfeld Media from his podcast, The Rosenfeld Review.  In this episode, Lou speaks with Darryl Adams, Director of Accessibility at Intel.  The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

    Welcome to the Rosenfeld Review. This is Lou Rosenfeld, your host, and today I am joined by Darryl Adams, the director of accessibility at Intel. Darryl, how are you?


    [Darryl] Hey Lou. Thank you so much for having me today. Pleasure to be here.

    [Lou] It’s great to have you join. We’re going to be talking about the issue of accessibility, especially at conferences. I’m certainly interested in it; and I know many of you are, whether you speak there, you put on conferences, you are conference producers, or you’re doing internal conferences. You know, in the days of Zoom, we’re all in the virtual conference business one way or another. I thought it would be great to have Darryl on. Darryl leads a team at Intel that works at the intersection of technology and human experience, helping discover new ways for people with disabilities to work, interact, and thrive.

    Tell me a little bit more about your mission and your passion here. How does it connect to what Intel is about, and your background here? 

    [Darryl] Accessibility at Intel—there is a number of facets. One is the importance of making sure that Intel is a great place to work for employees with disabilities. We continue to try to drive an inclusive environment, but really getting down to an accessible environment for everyone. It’s always a long road, and that’s something that we are working toward. I think the key aspect, in my mind, around what accessibility really means for Intel is the future possibility of creating a future of technology that is fully inclusive and accessible for everyone, and really thinking from the beginning about how we create new computing architectures, new technologies that everyone can use. That is really what drives me specifically, and that comes from a personal space for me. I have retinitis pigmentosa. I’m legally blind, and losing my eyesight from the outside in. I’m also deaf in my right ear. These challenges have really shaped my perspective on working with disabilities, interacting with technology, how that can be a barrier, as well as a tremendous benefit. But we need to be deliberate in the way that we design technology in order to make it a benefit and not a barrier.

    [Lou] Before we get into the conference side of things, I want to ask a little bit about that work at Intel. I always think a lot of people may be wrong that Intel is primarily a technology company. I also think a lot of accessibility is less about the design of the technology and more about the application of the technology and how it’s combined with design.


    How much of your work at Intel is about impacting the way that the technology itself is created, versus how it’s applied?

    [Darryl] Intel has a long history. Over 50 years of innovating computing and creating computer architecture. Think of it as the foundation of how we design. Today, if you are designing software, you’re designing software within some constraints around a 2D screen. You’re expecting an input from a keyboard or a mouse, and you’re building, innovating, and designing around that paradigm. And that computing architecture—that is the foundation of that experience—is a culmination of a lot of the work that Intel does under the hood and the work that we do across the industry, as well. We’re partnering with computer manufacturers, operating system vendors, that type of thing. My thinking here is that when we think about true accessibility, true user experience and user interaction with technology, it’s smart to start thinking about what we do beyond that standard computer interface we have today.

    We have to think about this also along the lines of, if we look over time today, we are just a single plot point on a graph. But if you see that graph out, say, 10, 15, 20 years from now, computing power will increase exponentially. And the capabilities that will bring us, I think it stands to reason that we should be thinking beyond sitting in front of computers and typing, that type of thing, for our primary mode of interaction. And I feel that this is where we can come and think about new computing architecture and how we can evolve to take advantage of all the new capabilities that we see before us.


    [Lou] And you’re reminding me that Intel’s in this position to create computing architectures, and obviously influence many other players in the industry. I imagine there’s a great amplification effect you can have by being right there at Intel thinking and talking about this issue.

    What can be done to make [conferences] more welcoming and more inclusive for people to speak at conferences?

    [Darryl] I think the conference context is broad. I really appreciate the question of how we make the conference experience for speakers more accessible. I think we’ve been having the conversation about how we do accessible conferences for the audience for a while now, and it’s important to consider the speakers as well. I would say that it all starts at the beginning. To me, we are always thinking about accessibility as being present from the very beginning, from the first conversations. When you’re planning a conference it’s not “plan the conference” and then figure out what we need to do with accessibility. It’s “plan the accessible conference from the start.” From the audience perspective that starts at the website and the approach that you take for registration ensuring that’s fully accessible.

    Then, on the speaker side is ensuring that you are giving the speakers the opportunity to describe what they need in terms of an environment to be able to effectively engage. If we’re talking about a physical space and we’re at an in-person conference, it’s important to be able to provide access to the space and understand what technologies may or may not need to be used to support the speaker. Generally, I think that’s true for probably most speakers, but it’s really important because the devil is in the details on the nuance that somebody who is speaking, maybe with a disability. In my case, I can describe the example that visual impairment makes it very difficult for me to track anything visual. I can’t read a teleprompter, for example. Having to rely on visual cues is challenging at best. If I set my speaking engagement up where I am expecting very specific, non-subtle visual cues, and I don’t get it, then that becomes a problem. Having the ability to really go through the motions prior to the actual event is important. I think that also applies to the digital context as well.

    [Lou] So, get to know the technology that’s at your fingertips, what visual cues you may be expected to know and if those aren’t working, how to replace them with alternatives.

    Do you find that, besides seeing it in advance and having that type of orientation—as different events have a different flavor, voice, tone—is there any correlation between how formal the event feels and how much you are expected to present rather than discuss? Does that have any impact, or is that more an issue of personal style, regardless of accessibility issues? 

    [Darryl] I certainly think there’s a personal style aspect to that. This is also, maybe, a function of everyone’s personal journey with disability. With this level of disability for a long time, [I] have learned the tips, tricks, and techniques to manage it and be able to speak confidently with the tools that they have. I think a formal approach is fantastic. In many cases, and I think mine is one of them. My disability is progressive; I feel like I’m never really quite an expert with the tools that I have because I’m continuously needing to learn. That lends itself to probably a more casual style, more conversational. Then I think where I’m able to convey my ideas the best is through conversation rather than reading slides. I do think that while that is helpful for the disability context and for accessibility, it also probably should be true in general.

    [Lou] Amen. I think this is sort of more, we could call it, casual. You could call it interactive. Maybe human is ultimately the way to look at it, but my gut is that removing pressures, like following a tightly organized script, reading slides, is probably better for everyone in every context.

    Do you think an in-person conference organizer should be prepared not only to do the kind of orientation that you’re talking about, not just for disabled speakers, but really for all? It removes that pressure and makes people more comfortable, and supports remote speakers because something, I would imagine, that is a real benefit to disabled speakers is the option to speak remotely?

    [Darryl] Yes. And that also actually does address one of the more technical issues around the transition of speakers. If you are onsite and maybe doing a transition from one speaker to the next, and the new speaker is going to use, maybe, a braille display or they’re going to have some integration with an earpiece where they’re listening to some audio cues or something like this, that’s pretty difficult to do. At least, it’s more time consuming than simply handing a mic to the next person. Those are challenges, but the ability to present remotely, it’s a great way to allow somebody to feel most comfortable in their environment and own all of the technology that they need to be successful.

    The one caveat I would note here is that as much as my hardware, my physical devices are set up optimally for me, I don’t have control over the platform that’s being used, the software platform that the conference is using. Something I think is important to consider when you’re choosing the platform is choosing something that is going to be accessible for most people or, hopefully, for all people. Not all platforms are created equal, and some are much more difficult to interact with visually than others. That makes it more challenging, certainly from a visual impairment standpoint.

    [Lou] Yeah. Our approach, generally, is to use platforms that are the most generic. A conference being produced, let’s say in Zoom, is familiar, obviously, to many people—speakers, organizers, and such—but also my gut [feeling] is that they’re more likely to have had rigorous accessibility studies performed than maybe more of a niche or boutique tool.

    [Darryl] Yeah. Thinking about standard platforms that get a lot of usage is definitely a good starting point. I do think there is an additional piece to this. That is about how you use them. Zoom in particular is a simple platform, so that’s always good. The simpler the better, in my opinion. But then you need to know if you are going to go with automated captioning. Then you let your audience and your speakers understand that because that may be simple, and it is better than no captioning, you’re most likely going to run into some issues with the accuracy of those captions. If somebody is relying on captioning, that’s something to note, especially in thinking about the speaker. Generally, you’re thinking about captioning for audience purposes, but if you have a speaker who is hearing impaired and is trying to follow a conversation on a panel, for example, they’re also then going to be relying on their accuracy.

    That’s an important thing to consider. Additionally, if you have a deaf speaker who is going to be using ASL interpretation, making sure that you have that flow well integrated in Zoom, ensuring that you’re pinning the interpreter correctly and that everybody has a great connection; because if you think about it, generally an audience or a speaker might have a little bit of tolerance for a poor connection for video as long as the audio is clear. But when you’re doing ASL, you really need to have a clear video connection to avoid issues with breaking up the flow of the conversation.

    [Lou] Yeah. As an organizer, if you have any type of distributed actors, let’s say someone doing ASL here, a speaker there, I get nervous about lagging and what that could do to the whole flow. Not only for the speakers, but for the audience as well.

    One last question from a speaker’s perspective. Is there any appeal to doing sessions that are prerecorded? We see in the virtual conference space a lot of conference producers have their speakers record, then they play the recording, and obviously it’s a very controllable type of thing. Then maybe they have their speakers join for a Q&A. We’ve resisted that; we like the live feel. It just feels more human, more normal, and has a bit of spontaneity; but I can see the benefit [of prerecording]. Would you say there’s a strong accessibility benefit for going with recorded talks?

    [Darryl] I would say that there could be. But I also would more agree with you that the feel of a live conversation is preferable in that it is a more human experience for everybody involved. There is the downside of that, obviously, if you’re live and you’re unable to edit and redo. But that’s also maybe the reason why live is so much more compelling. I would encourage people—when given the opportunity—to do something live versus recorded to choose the live option. But I do see that mainly where that might come into play is with speakers who are new to being in the public eye and are a bit nervous about having only one take. But I don’t know in terms of disability or accessibility in general whether that’s a key issue. It doesn’t feel like it should sway one way or the other.

    [Lou] The takeaway I have from this discussion about accessibility for speakers is—and I’ll take a page out of the accessibility book that we published by Sarah Horton and Whitney Queensberry, which is it’s really an accessibility thing first.  If we think about accessibility…from the speaker experience from the get-go, it is a better experience for all speakers.

    We’re going to move on to the audience, and what we can do by considering accessibility principles and design from the get-go, rather than applying it post facto and hoping we do well. Let’s start with in-person conferences. Most of us are pretty familiar with that experience, even if we haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy one for a couple of years now.

    Are there any big items on the checklist for an organizer to consider for a disabled audience member?

    [Darryl] Yes. I would say that first and foremost, the details matter. Every bit of the conference-goers experience should be looked at closely to understand where accessibility may be a factor or may need to be a factor. For example, arriving at a conference venue for the first time, what is the expectation for your audience? The first step is typically that you’re going to go to a registration desk. Does that registration desk support, and will they be able to support, people across the spectrum of disability? If somebody is blind, if somebody is deaf, if somebody is approaching in a wheelchair, do they understand how to assist those people appropriately? There’s a general need to be able to engage and support people where they are as they need it.

    You must educate the frontline staff appropriately right from the start. I think getting that initial engagement is huge. If I go to a conference and I recognize that people are there, and they understand where I’m coming from as far as just being visually impaired and having a bit of a difficult time, maybe making my way around, that’s a really big difference. Otherwise, the feeling is I’m lost in a sea of people and maybe I’m fairly anxious about this because I don’t know where I’m going, not sure who to ask, that type of thing. Having that type of support system right at the front is a great start.

    Is there any kind of audio mapping you’ve seen work? Almost like having an audio version of where to go? How to orient? How to navigate the space?

    [Darryl] Yeah. Interestingly, we are doing some work at Intel with a company called Good Maps, which does indoor wayfinding, indoor mapping, primarily for people who are blind or visually impaired. This is fairly new technology that allows somebody to use their mobile device, very similar to how you would use the GPS in your car. You can plug in your destination, and it will give you step-by-step directions for how to get there. Then also provide points of interest along the way, if necessary. It requires the venue to be scanned initially, and then enable that service. I think it’s really promising because I think that it kind of addresses that key element of the unknown. It removes some significant variables. I think that’s maybe the name of the game here. How do you remove as many variables as possible for your guests? Make it very clear. In one sense, the indoor wayfinding or navigation system is fantastic. Coupling that with a kiosk that is a concierge type of thing where somebody can get full assistance that they need, regardless of what specific assistance that might be.

    [Lou] I love that the technology is coming and that it doesn’t sound like it would be the hardest thing. Just a really good application of existing technologies. But, you’re talking about at the get go [going to] the registration desk. I wonder if it goes back even further, like signaling on a conference website. Often, the first place for an in-person conference venue selection is really challenging. As an example, we’re based in New York City. We do a lot of our events in New York City. It’s a vertical city, and it’s accessible in terms of public transportation. But then the venues themselves are often on multiple floors, and there may not be a whole lot of elevator capacity. Those are considerations as well, I imagine.

    [Darryl] Absolutely. Elevators should be sufficient, but if there’s limited capacities, then that is an issue. But that would be something absolutely to be considered. To your point, for the pre-conference experience there’s a lot we can do to attract people with disabilities. Let’s say you’re deaf; you’re likely not going to a conference if you’re not sure whether or not there will be sign language interpretation available, or maybe that it’s limited. We pretty quickly think that it’s probably not worth the money and time to do that. If we turn that around and we start advertising more broadly about how we are supporting various disabilities, and we state very clearly that we’re going to have all sessions signed, as well as captioned and support for wheelchair access and visually impaired services, stating those explicitly and describing how we expect to support that, then we can start actually engaging people with disabilities more and making it more likely that they will show up at our events. It’s kind of “the chicken or the egg” problem. Today, I think a lot of events look at their audiences and, say, we don’t have a lot of people with disabilities that we need to make all these accommodations. The reason for that is because the event hasn’t historically been accessible to begin with. We need to get ahead of that and start really communicating and advertising to that disability community and then supporting them. Nobody does this perfectly. As long as we are deliberate about wanting to do this, and then learning from each experience, like learning what didn’t go well, addressing it, and creating new solutions for new events and growing over time, that’s the key.

    What about at virtual events? Do you see that being a very different challenge for an organizer, considering attendees with disabilities?  

    [Darryl] A virtual event is going to bring far more diversity into the conference and event. I think it also eliminates a lot of those physical challenges. You don’t have to worry about the elevator capacity, but it also introduces new challenges. These challenges are more subtle, but probably have significant impact on the audience. An example would be if you are a blind user that uses a screen reader and you’re watching a session, if you have the chat enabled in the session, then what’s happening is you’re listening to that chat the entire time the session is going. If there’s something that’s creating a lot of engagement in the session and on the chat, then you are having to divide your attention between the speaker and this chat that’s coming through your headphones as well. That can be quite distracting. That’s something that’s hard to balance, but I think that giving it appropriate consideration to understand how best to manage that is something to be thinking about. I think there’s a few other scenarios where we have to be mindful of how we expect our audience to engage not only with the speakers, but with each other. This is difficult because depending on your own context or personality type or how you retain information, what works well for somebody will not work as well for someone else. It’s a matter of being mindful that we’re a collection of unique people with unique needs. We want to listen and respond appropriately, but it’s really important to understand where people are coming from, what they need, and try to address it as it becomes more apparent.

    [Lou] That’s really interesting. I’m thinking about what you’re saying, and specifically in the virtual conference setting, this discussion is concurrent with the presentations in Slack. We have really high levels of audience engagement in Slack, and someone who is blind would obviously have a problem with that in terms of distraction. And that’s not just for people who are blind. There are many types of people who, for various reasons, might benefit from that. It’s another example of how being thoughtful about design for people with different disabilities opens up all kinds of possibilities for everyone.

    Have you encountered people who are thinking about hosting a hybrid event, or maybe have some experience with hybrid events?

    [Darryl] I think that this hybrid model is going to be the most challenging shift that we’ve seen since the pandemic began. The challenge is going to be more of a technology challenge. I think it is completely solvable, but we’re going to probably make a lot of mistakes along the way there. It’s really important not to underestimate the complexity and challenges around audio in a hybrid model. If you have a room full of people, or a room with people around a table, and then you have a number of remote participates, the audio in the room is always more difficult to hear when you’re on the line and you’re the remote participant. We need to think of ways that help resolve that. As an example, each of the in-room participants could have a mic of some sort. We’re testing these models in advance to understand how best to optimize everybody’s individual contribution.

    It’s really distracting listening to a room that is echoing and people are talking over each and some people are loud, and some people are soft [spoken.] That’s in the best-case scenario. If you have a hearing impairment of any sort, you’re probably getting no value from that experience. Alternatively, when you are in the room, we have to make sure that we have an engagement model to visually remind people that there are participants that are not sitting next to them. We do this today with video technology, but this is another area where the nuance in the details matter. We need to come up with seamless models that we could display to remote participants when that’s appropriate to ensure they’re not being left behind, they’re being engaged, and they’re not an afterthought. If that’s the type of conversation that is happening, we need to just continue to maximize and optimize the audio in the room.

    [Lou] Excellent point. Just to step back and summarize, let’s keep experimenting. You’ve made a really important point about being thoughtful from the very beginning. A really important point in design in general is that thoughtfulness is important for all audiences.

    Is there anyone or anything that you’ve been learning from lately that you want to shine a bit of light on?

    [Darryl] We have a book that we typically recommend to Intel folks when they’re just starting their accessibility journey or need to learn and understand more about disability. The book is called Demystifying Disability, and it’s by Emily Ladau. I really can’t say enough good about it. It is a book that is simple to read or listen to, in my case. It gives you the vocabulary and the tools that you need to have in order to have respectful, engaging conversations with people with disabilities. It really opens the door to the whole community and gives a really nice overview and understanding of a lot of the differences and complexities that we have to navigate. It’s a fairly short read, but you are guaranteed to gain some valuable insights from it.

    [Lou] Well, short reads are the best reads demystifying disability by Emily Ladau.  And Darryl, thank you so much. Great discussion again. I wish we had a little bit more time. I’ve been speaking with Darryl Adams, Intel’s director of accessibility.

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