Welcome to Make It Kickass, a podcast about designing conferences people actually want to attend by the people who help create them. I'm Nessa Jimenez.Isaac:
And I am Isaac Watson.Nessa:
This is a topic we have a lot of thoughts about, a lot of feelings about. I would say, especially in the last two years, I think we've both gotten more radicalized in our views, so this conversation's going to be really interesting. Why don't we just start this first half on the conversation diving into the state of accessibility in the industry right now, where we think it's failing. I guess our pet peeves, but it's more than just peeves, it's the stuff that's not working -Isaac:
And we, as an industry, need to be better about.Isaac:
Yeah. I think you're right. These aren't just pet peeves. This isn't just us, these are things that we've noticed are wrong related to accessibility and events. I think that's why this is so relevant right now, because there's so much work we can do to help fix this. I think back a couple of years to a talk I heard by Liz Jackson, at a conference. She's a disability advocate and a bank strategist. She talks about disability dongle. What she means by that is that there's a lot of innovation, and solutions, and people thinking about how to fix accessibility issues that aren't actually issues. The classic example that she shared, and has gone around, is this mind blowing device that was created by a bunch of design students. It's a motorized wheelchair and it climbs stairs, so you don't need ramps anymore. It has fancy motors and everything to help the wheelchair user to actually climb a flight of stairs without having to get out of the chair, and without having to use a ramp, which in the abstract may seem great, but the reason it's a dongle is because it's a solution to a highly specific problem that isn't actually the problem.
The problem is not how does a motorized wheelchair user get up stairs. The problem is why are there not more ramps and elevators in public spaces where mobility device users need to gain access. What that solution does is fail to solve for people who can't afford a motorized chair, people who have a temporary disability, people who walk with a cane or have a stroller, or any number of other situations where a fancy motorized wheelchair that can climb stairs doesn't fix their problem. That innovation would be better served doing other things that offer more accessibility to more people.Nessa:
With this concept of disability dongles in mind, why don't we talk a little bit about what accessibility actually is. What should it actually mean to us, as we create events?Isaac:
I think, for me, accessibility is about access. It's not just about the Americans With Disabilities Act. It's not just about, can people who are deaf or hard of hearing understand what's being said. It's about access, and that access comes across in various ways. It's access to pricing and affordability. It's access in the time required for someone to attend an event, whether that's virtual or in person. It's about their ease and ability to make an effort to participate, and to engage, and that takes shape through introversion and extroversion, through social discomfort, through neuro divergence. There's so many different ways that we can talk about accessibility across an entire, for lack of a better word, spectrum, of people, of abilities, of modalities, of economic positions.
It is so deep and so rich, and there's so much more that can be done. The truth of the matter is event organizers and producers just aren't thinking about this, and that needs to stop because the longer we go without changing some of these things, the longer we go without having plans in place and devising ways to provide better access to more people, the more we're going to shoot ourselves in the foot.Nessa:
I agree. The definition of access, and the definition of accessibility, right now are so limited and so not creative, that that's part of the problem.Isaac:
Looking at the last year where suddenly everything's going virtual, and it's opening up a lot of eyes and a lot of doors to accessibility, but in the process I think we've drawn a lot of shorthand. Accessibility has become this shortcut term for merely adding caption to videos, for example. It becomes a self congratulatory pat on the back, "Oh yeah, captioning is available. We're accessible." Captioning is good, don't get me wrong. Captioning also has a lot of issues in quality, in technical complexity, and things like that. Also, captioning is not enough. Captioning is not the only way that your event can be accessible.
We've talked about this at length, before there's been a proliferation of technologies and tools in the last couple of years. Captioning, in particular, has been really interesting the more prevalent the content creation comes into play on the web. You have a lot of artificial intelligence provided captioning tools, auto transcription services. You're seeing things like Zoom, now has built in auto captioning, which is great, but it's AI based, so what's the value between human captioning and AI? How well can an artificial intelligence detect different accents or dialects, or for non native English speakers, how thick is their accent, and how does that come through from an AI standpoint?
While captioning has become this broader prevalent part of live streams and live events and virtual events, there is still a very broad spectrum of quality. It's all over the map. I've seen hard coated captions in videos that cover up slide techs, and so you can't read either. That's not helpful, that's just confusing. How does that help your accessibility?Nessa:
Let's be honest, AI captioning is so popular because it's way cheaper. It's the cheapest option, so of course, that's the one that has picked up speed. It's not great, and forget about heavy accents. I'm someone that has the eternal stuffy nose sound, and AI is awful at understanding the things that I say.Isaac:
I think what this brings up is that, you mentioned cost. Cost is a major influence. I think what this alludes to is a broader issue where from an accessibility standpoint, capitalism de-incentivizes the effort and the expenses mandated by accessibility. Say you're going to have an event with 1,000 people. Let's say you're collecting great registration data, and you know that you have two or three attendees who are deaf or hard of hearing, or could otherwise benefit from captions. Event organizers then start to look at the bottom line and say, "Human transcription is a more expensive captioning service, or can I get away with the cheaper AI version of captioning?" Then, you're starting to calculate your decision based on money. I'm sorry, but even if you only have two or three people who have a direct benefit from a particular accessibility service, that's valuable. I think that's one of the problems that we need to address, is that these types of services need to become standardized and planned for in advance, rather than being reactionary, "Let's check a box.", or, "Quick, let's fill a need with a free tool, or a cheap tool, or something like that, because it's better than nothing."Nessa:
Now that we've aired our grievances ...Isaac:
It feels good. We're going to take a short break, and we will be right back and we'll talk a little bit more about our accessibility journey, and how we've both learned a lot, and how we got to our thinking today.
Welcome back. Let's jump right back into it. For this segment of the show, we want to get into our accessibility journey. First of all, we are not experts at all in any of this. We have definitely made mistakes along the way, so it would be very hypocritical for us to sit here and be like, "Hell yeah, we're the best. We're so good at access."Isaac:
Yeah. Far from the person that just wants to pat myself on the back, and say that we've got this. I think that we have learned a lot in the last several years about what about accessibility is important, and fully acknowledging that we have made these mistakes. I mentioned early, I watched an attendee at an event I was producing, with the chair collapsed out from underneath her, and I could not believe that I hadn't thought of that. That was the first time that it had even entered into my consciousness. We've talked about captioning a little bit, and we're going to talk about it more. We've talked about geographical accessibility. These are things that we've learned, and noticed, and observed, and had received feedback on from attendees at our events that are informing the way that we move forward.
My hope through this is that we can share some of the things that we've learned, and some of the ways that we want to change the way that we do events going forward, and the ways that we are changing the ways how we do events to help the industry continue to make progress faster than it has been. It's starting to become really painful to watch.Nessa:
Let's get into captions then. Let's walk through the lessons that we've learned, and the process behind that.Isaac:
Yes. Years ago, I realized and bought into the idea that live events should be captioned for accessibility reasons, that it's beneficial to a lot of people, not just to deaf and hard of hearing, but those who maybe don't speak English as their second language. If all your contents are presented in English, reading can often be easier to digest. There are certain people whose learning styles are different. It hits a lot of potential access issues, so captioning generally is important. Live transcription services in a live event setting, we're just like, "This is the thing we'll do. We know how it works. We have vendors that do this. It's good." The big wake up call, in addition to the technological advances that I mentioned previously, is that when virtual events started happening, I assumed that captioning would carry over into a live stream fairly easily. We get captions in TV and film all the time. Closed captioning through broadcast television is just a standard these days, so I just assumed that it would be easy.
Turns out, it's not, and I was wrong. I realized very quickly that the same tools that we were used to using in person do not necessarily translate in the same way as the tools that are available through live streaming. How can you best offer live transcription, or live stream content?Nessa:
In regards to the technology, that was a big lesson for me of how many platforms have different ways of integrating different things, and how there's so many ways it could go wrong, and there's so many ways that they just don't play well with other tools that you assume they would, and they just don't. There is this process where you need to do a little bit research of, "I want to use this platform, but how does this platform handle captioning? What can it do, what can't it do?"Isaac:
I hope that this will become standardized. I really do.Nessa:
That platforms will come around and they'll stop locking captioning behind enterprise tiers, and they'll stop ... I remember you asking one platform if certain accessibility features were on their roadmap, and they were like, "Eh."Nessa:
Yeah, then I was like, "No."Isaac:
It's like ...Nessa:
I've had people stand up and say, "No." People just not answer the question. It's not a priority for them, but they don't want to admit it, because they know that it looks bad.Isaac:
Yes. This goes back to the incentivizing issue, the anti incentive, that capitalism brings into it. Does it affect their bottom line? Not enough for them to prioritize it, and that's really disappointing. I think if I can sum up the captioning thing, I think that there was a big learning curve between what we were used to doing, and then in an in person setting, and what's possible, or challenging, or technically complicated, or expensive about captioning live streams. We've now developed standards on what is our target for good captioning, how can we provide this through these particular platforms. We know what we need to ask of any platform that we're going to approach for hosting the event. We know which live streaming tools we are willing to use based on the features available to us.
Creating those ... it's policy, it's standards, it's baseline expectations, and understanding what requirements we have and that we prioritize for the events we produce so that all of our clients can benefit from that. That's the key for me.Nessa:
Jumping from that to, I think, the second really big area where we've had a lot of learning, is what is geographical accessibility.Isaac:
Again, we talked about this in the first segment a little bit, and identified some of the problems. We've been through this. At first, I was like, "This in person event is pivoting to virtual.", and suddenly 40 percent of the attendees are national where maybe five percent of them were before, "This is great. Yay. Amazing." Then the event happens and we realize, "There were some holes.", so they weren't able to attend the live activities because it was the middle of the night. There was a lot of deep confusion, time zone confusion, around when is the program actually happening. That's a communications issue, and to some extent a platform issue. We just air our grievances about platforms that don't auto convert to local time zones for their scheduling. Throw that out there.Nessa:
That's the worst. Oh my God. That is just the absolute worst.Isaac:
Some of the other things we realized were networking opportunities, are really hard for people to join, especially if you're scheduling pre event networking. Make sure you're paying attention to where are your attendees coming from? Do you know? Are you collecting that data, or are you just guessing based on email addresses or something? Having better data is going to give you better information to make decisions on. Even pricing, economically, it's very different from a developer working in, I don't know, Lithuania, to attend a tech event financially than it is for somebody working in the Bay Area, Silicon Valley, where the economics around employment are very different. How do you provide access for attendees from different socioeconomic backgrounds so that they can still contribute, because their participation is valuable.Nessa:
In terms of what we've learned about geographical accessibility, the big question is, is this actually valuable to people all around the world? You have to sit down and go, "We designed this content with who in mind? Did we really design this content for people that are from a completely different culture that we don't know about? If so, if we do intend those people to participate, how do we make sure that what we've created is inclusive of them, and how do we market in a way that it's clear to them that this is for them, they are included in our group as well?Isaac:
Exactly. That value, for us, has begun to translate into our initial strategy process. Identifying who the target audience is, where are they coming from, who are we catering to from an attendee standpoint? What are their values, how can we provide a good experience for them? That plays out through speaker selection. Diversity and inclusion in speaker selection is critical. It absolutely makes sense to have representation in your speaker line up for that audience segment.Nessa:
That's right. Mm-hmm affirmative.Isaac:
It also carries through to, we've started thinking about rebroadcasts for live streams. Can you rebroadcast in a more friendly time zone to a specific region if you have concentration of attendees there, so that they don't have to be up in the middle of their night to be able to catch a live streaming. These are some of the things that we start to build in to our process, the more we realize that it's important. It's about community building, it's about consideration for the effort and the ease at which we want people to be able to attend an event and participate in an event. That starts to get us to question what our commitment is to these broader geographical areas. This opens up this whole set of questions that are very strategic and very important to have to make sure that we're making geographic accessibility a priority, if that is indeed a priority to us. If it isn't, then you shouldn't pat yourself on the back about it just because it's conveniently happening.Nessa:
I just wanted to point out the fact that even though we've talked a lot about captions and a lot about geographical accessibility, I want to remind everybody again that the topic of accessibility is huge. We all need to do a lot of work in opening up our definition of what access and accessibility means, because we're doing a disservice to a lot of people. It's impossible for us to touch on all of those things in just this one episode, but we do plan on touching on this again in the future, and focusing on other aspects of this.Isaac:
Yes. We chose two examples for sake of brevity, and two examples that we're very passionate about. You're absolutely right, accessibility, like we mentioned at the beginning, is so much broader than just captions. Accessibility is so much more than just where are my attendees. It is an integral part of the attendee experience.:
Too long? Didn't listen?Isaac:
Event accessibility is not just about captions. We're here to tell you that it needs to change. The more we do virtual events, the more that we want to go back to in person events, the more we need to focus on accessibility. Accessibility is about access. That access is really about your attendee's experience, and how easy it is for them to participate and engage based on their own lived experience. We are making efforts to make sure that accessibility is becoming more and more important to our clients, and to the work that we do from the very beginning. We have identified some ways that we do that through captioning, and the tools and the techniques and the processes that are involved with that. We've talked about geographic accessibility, and some of the policies and standards around representation, and convenience, and things like that that we're doing. We have to build accessibility into the event planning and production process from the very beginning.Nessa:
All right. Thank you for joining us for today's episode. If you enjoyed this episode, please feel free to share it with others. Please also leave a rating and review on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts, that's really helpful. If you want to learn more about us, about what we do, to find old show notes, transcriptions of our episodes, you can find us at our website, kickasscon.com