Disability. Access to online meetings

As someone with such limited abilities to get to physical meetings, I’ve so been enjoying all the opportunities now presented by zoom, skype, jitsi and all the rest. It’s been a great joy to attend events and meetings that for several years now I’ve had to miss due to my poor health. I’ve been to concerts, meetings, workshops, rituals, family gatherings in distant lands. Now I can be part of things just from my sofa. Or even from my bed. Hurrah!

But, I’m also aware that this new state of affairs may not suit everyone, and that disability accessibility, and also the possible ways to address it, raise very different issues online than at face-to-face gatherings. Lots of new stuff to think about. Some of course very obvious, but some maybe less so.

Most obviously, there may be extra problems for people with hearing or sight impairments, and it’s worth exploring whether the tech you’re using could help with these. Are there subtitling facilities on the platform you’re using? Does using the mute facility help with sound quality? Headphones? The raised hand sign might be clearer for people with limited sight than just waving when you want to speak. It’s worth checking people’s needs at the beginning of every meeting or event.

And I wouldn’t assume that everyone can read what’s in the chat box either: they may have limited eyesight, or dyslexia, or just not be very good at reading small print quickly. To be on the safe side read it out loud too.

There are often poor connections and poor sound quality, which maybe just can’t be helped, but can make full participation difficult even for those without substantial sensory impairments. In my experience a PC or laptop gives a better connection than a tablet or phone, and it helps if people sit close to one screen per person and speak clearly. It is of course also true that not everyone can afford quality screens or has exclusive access to them without interruptions, but it’s helpful if people try to minimise background noise and interruptions as much as possible, and be aware that it might impact on other people’s ability to participate. Use your mute button when there’s something noisy happening behind you! I’ve also found that people playing around with different zoom backgrounds can create a flickering effect which is horrible for those of us with enough sensory overload already. Not to mention adding further confusion when there is enough there already.

It may be that your group can provide some support for individuals in getting their heads around the best use of all this new technology (XR did a useful guide to zoom). We do want everyone fully there!

It’s worth being clear at the beginning each time of whether there is a bio-break planned and what time you’re expecting to end. Many people will know this from any previous meetings, but it might be useful information for someone who is new and has medical needs. And please don’t assume physical mobility: even in person it’s sometimes hard to see whether people have physically limiting conditions, and online it’s much harder. So if you’re running a workshop or singing session that starts with some physical warm-ups or exercises, it’s much better not to say “Now I want you all to stand up and jump about a bit…”. That’s painful for those of us who would love to but can’t. Maybe try “If you can, how about…?” instead.

As well as physical health and impairments, people may have relevant, and not necessarily obvious, mental health and neurodiversity issues, including social anxiety about entering a new setting with very unknown or uncertain social rules. Some people are really freaked out, for all sorts of reasons deeper than vanity, about seeing their own image on the screen in front of them for the duration of a meeting. Other people might not want you to know that they’re in bed, or haven’t had the energy to get washed and dressed. We’re entitled to visual privacy when we need it. And yes, there have been times when I’ve felt that what I was saying was being treated as less interesting once other participants had figured that I was attending from my bed. Some people see “invalid” and switch off. We need to have a culture where it’s ok to keep your video off if you choose. So maybe at the start, when someone looks like they’re struggling to connect, don’t say “you need to turn your video and mic on”, but ask whether they wish to but it’s fine not to as well.

Online, it is so much harder to tell when there’s a space to speak, so in a group without formal facilitation this inevitably leads to much more false starts and talking over people. Maybe with time we’ll get better at this, but for now we can’t assume that if we do things as we did them in person it will work for everyone. People for whom standard social skills don’t flow as easily as for most can struggle to get their voice heard, and be overwhelmed by the difficulties and chaos of it all. Some people enjoy the chaos, especially maybe in family chat groups where things would always be a bit chaotic anyhow, people wandering in and out, kids screaming in the background. But some people really don’t. (Including me. I get very ratty.)

So even in informal gatherings we may need some additional form of gentle facilitation, perhaps people muting themselves and indicating in some way when they want their turn to speak. Or having talking stick type go-rounds. These do have the obvious disadvantages of interrupting the flow of conversation, but may be worth it to make sure that everyone gets heard. For some groups this is absolutely routine, for others it might seem odd at first. Try it and see.

And please, please, don’t assign people to breakout rooms for small discussions without checking first. Some people hate them and may just leave the meeting. IRL there’s so much more opportunity to shuffle around and avoid anyone you feel uncomfortable with, or to sneak off discreetly to the loo for the duration. Personally I love the randomness of talking to a small group of strangers for a few minutes, but I can see that not everyone does. I also wouldn’t assume that newcomers to an ongoing group want to be overtly mentioned and welcomed. Maybe they’d like to be, but maybe they’re shy or uncertain and were hoping to sit at the back unnoticed rather than have everyone’s on-screen attention suddenly focused on them. If you’re facilitating, be sensitive and create genuine options.

Somehow chaos and cognitive overload can be much more overwhelming for some people when it’s online. Some people who’re fine in real-life meetings get much more exhausted by online ones, maybe particularly evening ones. So it’s fair to do the important stuff first, for if some people need to leave early. Set a finishing time and keep to it. Or maybe get anything important out of the way first, then leave the meeting open for chatting and other stuff for those who wish. Socialising is especially important for people in these lockdown times, but not at the expense of some people having to duck out early and miss stuff.

And maybe, if this is an ongoing event, at the end you could ask for feedback about people’s specific needs, how they found the meeting and whether there would be any changes in the future that would help them to more fully participate? How and where could this happen? Is there an email address or a support person for people to contact with their requests and suggestions?

This is such a new way of doing stuff, of all kinds. We’re all still getting our heads round it. But thoughtfulness and space for feedback is always worth building in, so that everyone’s voices can be heard.

And afterwards. When we’re on the other side, as people like to say right now. I’ll be happy for others, but part of me is dreading losing my new-found connectivity. I suspect I shall need to be self-isolating for a long time after lockdown is officially over. Let’s think about how people who’ve attended online can still be part of things when others go back, assuming they eventually do, to doing things in person again. I’d like to still be there please.