Virtual Meetings and Cognitive Accessibility

As a recent NYT article noted, video conference calls are difficult and stressful. “Whether subconscious or conscious, we’re having to do more work … and that can get exhausting.” For people with cognitive difficulties, this additional cognitive load can make online meetings particularly challenging. 

The aim of the following recommendations are to improve accessibility in video calls by reducing cognitive load, enhancing predictability and minimising the anxiety that these online meetings create. Specific requirements will vary depending on the context and the number of participants, but in general, the larger the meeting, the more important it becomes that guidelines such as these are adhered to.

Be aware that cognitive access issues do not just concern people like me who have cognitive disabilities (autism in my case). They affect anyone whose cognitive functioning is compromised, even in the short-term. Examples include illness, tiredness, grief or stress, or the effects of medication. You’ll find more on this in my Cognitive Access Primer.

Before the Meeting

- Explore alternatives. I would endorse Quinn Keast’s remarks that in terms of accessibility, “it would be better for companies to switch to any form of written communication before leaning on video calls.” At the very least, online meetings should be kept as small as possible, with the purpose of the call as limited as possible.

If a video conference call is unavoidable:

- Set up an email or chat group to share guidelines and information about the session and the agenda, as well as resources such as documents, slides, reports etc.

- Confirm layout and format guidelines for media, images and slides, and ensure that any video is captioned.

- Share photos of all participants, including job title, institution or organisation.

- Establish clear start and end times, including the time at which people are expected to be logged-in. e.g. 5 minutes beforehand.

- Consider having a technical support person or connectivity facilitator.

- Ensure that all users receive information as to how to use the platform and access the meeting. Participants should be given a choice of methods for joining (at least two if possible), and these should be as easy and intuitive as possible.

- Authentication should be avoided or simplified, as in the context of cognitive access it’s a major barrier. 

- Ensure that the system and software are thoroughly tested and any problems are resolved. Dropouts, interruptions, and glitches are stressful for everyone but doubly so for people with cognitive difficulties.

- Consider running a test session and provide training where necessary.

- Ask participants if they have specific access requirements. Allow anonymous replies.

- Have an accessibility facilitator who is responsible for troubleshooting any accessibility issues and who acts as liaison.

- Allow participants to send comments and questions in advance. During the session, these can be voiced by the coordinator (or nominated person).

- Indicate in advance any questions that individual participants will be asked to respond to or comment on.

- Attendees should be forewarned as to participation requirements and expectations, and participant roles should be clearly defined.

- If anyone will be joining or leaving during the session, this should be communicated beforehand.

Planning and Organisation

- Have a clear agenda and adhere to it.

- Allow more than one form of communication. Allow people to opt out of audio and especially video. Some people are uncomfortable being the subject of gaze and feel judged and self-conscious. Participants may also need to feel physically comfortable in order to manage the stress of a call, (e.g. being able to move around or stim) and may be concerned with self-presentation.

- Allow participants to contribute via a parallel chat, such as WhatsApp or email. During the session, the accessibility facilitator should manage this supplementary (private) chat and act as an intermediary, either by text or taking the floor. The facilitator should also use this parallel stream to confirm with their participants that key points are being understood and that they are able to follow what’s going on. They can also provide feedback during the meeting, e.g. on the need for speakers to speak slower or more clearly.

- Use photos rather than live video where possible. If used, live video should be head and shoulders only. Backgrounds should be blurred or use a neutral/blurred background image. For anyone on screen, avoid activities such as note-taking, typing or phone-checking.

- Give participants the option to avoid gallery view (showing all participants)

- If there is sign language interpretation, allow it to be turned off if not required

- Don’t ask people to share their computer’s desktop, as they may feel self-conscious about it.

- Suppress all sound indicators (e.g., chime when participant joins/leaves)

During the Meeting

- Make clear beforehand how the meeting will start, e.g.: “The coordinator will introduce each person by name and run through the agenda. We’ll start with a discussion of xxx”. Avoid asking people to introduce themselves unless it’s necessary, e.g. for blind or low vision participants.

- At the start of the session avoid comments such as “Are we on?” or “Can you hear me?”. Consider programming an optional 15 minutes of social “water cooler” chat beforehand.

- Participants should not be required to acknowledge that they’ve joined or are leaving.

- Default audio for all participants should be mute and only the host or coordinator should have the capability to mute/unmute participants. 

- Management of turn-taking is essential. Rules on speaking and allotted speaking time should be clearly established and adhered to, including the use of mute for participants who run over.

- Where participants wish to take the floor, they should use the Raise Hand feature or similar if it’s available.

- All requests to speak should go through the coordinator and participants should only speak when invited to. 

- Encourage all speakers to make their points as efficiently and succinctly as possible and to avoid extraneous interruptions and cross-talk when not.

- Encourage all speakers to use plain language and avoid jargon.

- Use of public chat within the session should be kept to a minimum. Chat should not be used for parallel discussion or to subvert any “one person speaking at a time” rule.

- Changes of topic need to be clearly signalled by the coordinator. Prior topics should be closed off with a summary.

- During the session, consider making summaries, key points or questions available via email or text.

- Documents that people will be unfamiliar with should not be introduced unless it’s unavoidable, in which case they should be shared in real-time through email or chat.

-  If participants experience connectivity issues they should have clear guidelines on how to respond and who to inform (e.g. text or email to the technical support person or coordinator).

- Participants should be able to add comments, feedback or questions after the meeting has finished. (This is important as it helps reduce in-session stress.)

- Allow for a 5+ minute pause during any meetings over an hour.

After the Meeting

- Send attendees a summary and allow the inclusion of additional feedback and comments. The accessibility facilitator should follow this up with their participants as required.

- The accessibility facilitator should provide feedback and observations to organisers as to the accessibility of the meeting, as well as passing on feedback and comments from participants.

Copyright © Peter Crosbie 2020. All Rights Reserved.


New York Times: Why Zoom Is Terrible

Captions in video calls: better accessibility, but harmful side effects. Quinn Keast

“it would be better for companies to switch to any form of written communication before leaning on video calls.”

In regards to making meetings in general more accessible, one of the most comprehensive guides I’ve come across is from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Disability Rights: