Oral presentations, whether at academic or industry conferences, guest speakers at organized events, or in the classroom, are inaccessible to many disabled people. People who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing may not be able to fully understand an oral presentation. People who are Blind or have a visual impairment may not be able to synthesize the visual information on slides that are relevant to fully accessing the content of the presentation. Various other cognitive conditions can make it difficult to attend to spoken word without accompanying text. This guide will offer some suggestions for providing accessible presentations. Presenters will learn tools and techniques that they can use in nearly any venue, regardless of support from the event. Event organizers may learn what they need to do to negotiate accessible conditions with the venue. I plan to make a future post that is more about how to make the space accessible, but today I am focusing on the presentation and delivery.
Before we begin, I want to caution that though I will discuss some auto-captioning tools, these are NOT adequate substitutes for formal transcription and translation services. People who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing who request CART (communication access real-time translation) or Signed Language Interpretation should be provided these services by event organizers without resistance. In the United States and at events hosted by US organizations, providing these services is a part of complying with Title II of the ADA, though not all event organizers are beholden to the American’s with Disabilities Act, using this as an excuse not to provide accommodations restricts disabled attendees ability to fully participate in events with their colleagues and peers.
Accessible Power-Point Documents
Please refer to guides like this one from Microsoft and this one from ACM SIGACCESS for information on how to make sure your slides are legible and have accessible color contrast for people with various visual impairments, including color perception differences.
All images and diagrams in your document should have their alt-text information filled out. You can find this field by right-clicking on an image and reading through your program’s options. You can search for specific directions for your program. The alt-text should explain what the image contains, and what the information is meant to communicate. By doing this, you allow someone who uses a screen reader to access all of the information on your slides. When presenting, this same information should be spoken aloud. Do not assume that your audience can see the image, or can understand the purpose of the image.
Your presentation notes should have some informational content about what will be covered on each slide. My notes sections actually have the full script of what I plan to say while that slide is up. Not everyone reads a script for their presentation, so some information to contextualize the slide is very helpful for you and anyone viewing your document.
I sometimes offer digital copies of my slides via short url (such as bit.ly or tiny.url) to a document hosted on google drive. I have worked with some events to request digital copies of slides from presenters so that attendees have a single source for all digital materials. This also serves as a great archival resource for events. Some people resist digital materials because they are worried about theft of scholarship. However, by producing event archives, the origins of these ideas are actually more traceable.
You may have seen or heard about these at some events already, but they are often not required by events, and there is no standardized format.
Access Copies are usually printed versions of the speech or presentation. Sometimes they include the information on any slides as well. Some people provide both 12pt and large print (18pt +) versions. I often just print large-print versions, because it’s difficult to bring more than 5-7 copies and I don’t want anyone to get a copy that they can’t use.
Some people print their slides. This can be helpful, but what is more helpful is to print the content of slides with detailed notes about what each slide will cover. If there are images on the slides, text describing these images is essential information, specifically what information the image is meant to communicate. The alt-text you added to your slides can go in the notes section too, to help remind you when you are presenting and also as an easy way to include that information in printed materials.
Personally, I print the slide content and my script in the order the audience will receive it. I copy this information in a word document because it is easier for people to follow than the “Slide and Notes” view offered by power-point.
I also sometimes offer a short link to this document, like the presentation document. Some people request their access copies back at the end of a presentation. They put “Not for Circulation” in the header.
When announcing that you have access copies, please have a colleague pass them out for you. It is really … ironic … to say you have access copies and then ask people to come to the front of the room to collect them when many of the people who need them can’t easily come to the front of the room!
BONUS: Some venues do not have the projectors set up as a separate monitor, but instead may run certain inputs on a video splitter which means that presenter mode may not work. Having access copies means that you can use one to be sure you have your own notes in case presenter view is not working.
Power-Point and Google Slides both offer auto-transcription tools. I enable these features for all of my presentations. As noted in the earlier, these tools are not perfect, and are by no means a substitute for CART or signed language. However they can be very helpful for all audience members. Further, they often provide humorous relief when they get things wrong. But note that the same things that are “funny” to attendees that can hear are the very errors that make the tools unhelpful for Deaf or Hard of Hearing people.
Microsoft offers an automated translation plug-in. It functions as captioning when translating from English to English. What is great about this tool is that it provides a short url where attendees can select their preferred language to follow along on their own devices.
The latest PowerPoint now has captions too. These options are available in the Slide Show ribbon in the PowerPoint Interface. During this year’s 4S conference, my presentation and the presentations in my sessions were accidentally using BOTH the translator and the built-in captions. You might practice and see which one works best for you. I think I will keep using both, to encourage people who would like translation to access it, and to show the differences between tools.
Google slides captioning seems to perform faster and possibly with fewer errors. However, like the features in PowerPoint, it requires internet to function, and poor connections affect the transcription speed.
As I said, all of these tools are prone to error, but there are some things you can do to improve their performance. Practice jargon words to see what sort of mistakes it makes. Put these difficult words in the slide notes. See if you can get the system to learn to transcribe the word correctly. If it won’t, inform your audience what mistakes it is likely to make that impact the meaning of the content.
The most important thing (aside from a steady internet connection) is to ensure that the microphone on the device running the captions has a clear connection to the speaker. If using a podium mic, the system can’t transcribe you if you walk away.
As presenters, we have little control over the mic and speaker set ups at our venues. I am thinking about purchasing a mic like this so that the slides can transcribe me no matter what the audio set up is like.
Skilled use of transcriptions, access copies, and narrating visual content of slides maximizes the amount of content all attendees have access to, even if the event or venue hasn’t thought about access.
Working with Interpreters
A major problem with event accessibility, is that when interpreters or stenographers ARE provided, they are not given any time to communicate with the presenter to plan ahead for difficult jargon or names. Terps are generally not familiar with the content of academic or industry events, meaning they are left scrambling to transcribe particular concepts and the disabled people using that service are working overtime to fill in the gaps. Contact your event organizers beforehand and ask if anyone will be using transcription or translation services and ask if you can give information to the interpreters before the event. (Hint: if you’re an event organizer this is one of the reasons asking for digital access copies before the event is important.)
It can be helpful to give the stenographer a .txt file of your access copy or script. They may be able to tab through what you have been scripted to say, rather than having to add particular phoneme combinations to the dictionary.
Accessible Remote Presentation
Event organizers should consider supporting remote presentation to be a necessity of promoting access. Disabled people may simply be unable to attend your event, despite being well qualified to present. Other people, including non-disabled people, may have a sudden illness that prevents them from travel, but not from speaking for a few minutes. Many other important voices can be kept out by the cost of travel, and well-supported remote presentation is a way to address that.
However, a good remote presentation (or attendance) option should never be used as an excuse not to make the physical event accessible to people who can make it in person.
My favorite means of remote presentation is actually to offer a pre-recorded (AND CAPTIONED) presentation in a local file rather than hosted on a streaming service. This allows the presenter to deliver the content without worrying about internet connection failures.
For Q&A, I prefer Google Meetings because they have live captioning options other systems do not have. This is also my top choice if you are going to attempt to present remotely in real-time. Alternatively, I like hosted chats on Twitter, Sli.do (no account required to participate), or other online spaces.
Access for Presenters
SURPRISE! Presenters can also be disabled! Please ask your presenters if they need accommodations to safely and effectively present at your event. For example, I need a stool or a chair to sit on depending on podium height and mic set up. Signed Language users may prefer to present in sign with an interpreter translating for them. A presenter may need a riser to stand at the podium. A podium may just be completely inaccessible and a lapel or other mobile mic may be required.
You also need to check with the venue to be sure that if they are putting the presenter area up on a raised stage that they have a ramp for people who need it. You would be surprised at how many organizers invite disabled people to speak but then leave the room arrangements to the venue without informing the venue what sort of access is required.
Thank you for reading. I hope this helps. Feel free to ask questions here or on Twitter @StarFeuri.
Please also see this Guide for Accessible Poster Presentations.