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Blog - Trish Wheatley

What we’ve learnt about online access during the Covid-19 crisis


When we finalised our business plan objectives back in December 2019, I had no idea how crucial our objective to “undergo development and experimentation in new online events” would become! Previously, we relied heavily on the knowledge of partner organisations and relatively high-cost third-party access solutions that our budget couldn’t sustain in the long term.

A white man smiles at the cmaera, he has two computer screens set up with various windows of Zoom and Skype calls open

Setting up for our first ever remote livestream

We packed in a serious amount of screen time in April, working as an experienced remote organisation to research and experiment with solutions. The number one concern was to make our offer accessible in the context of limited resources. Here is what we’ve learnt so far.

The barriers disabled people are facing to accessing arts and culture in the digital realm are not necessarily new, they’re just manifesting in slightly different ways. These disabling barriers can be broadly categorised into: physical, sensory, cognitive, technological and financial.

It’s easy to assume that people who face physical barriers to accessing arts venues are fine online because they’re in the comfort of their homes, but it’s worth considering frequent comfort breaks or intervals so that people can get up, move around, go to the loo etc. Something that’s really emerged in recent months through lockdown is better awareness of digital fatigue. Add on the energy it takes to concentrate with access support in place and that fatigue is amplified. People with fatigue-related conditions are also having to limit their screen time to manage their energy and health. Considering the length of time for workshops, livestreams and meetings is really important.

By far the most enquiries we’ve had when it comes to digital access is around how to achieve high quality captioning and how to facilitate sign language interpretation. Here, solutions vary depending on your budget. When engaging sign language interpreters, it’s important to establish whether making records available online is included in the contract for work. There are various ways to include an interpreter in a livestream or live event. In Zoom meetings, Deaf participants can pin the interpreter, but this limits the functionality of Zoom as simultaneous screen share is not possible. In a workshop situation you could consider Deaf participants with two devices having the interpreter on a separate screen via Skype as a work-around to that issue.

Pre-recording is by far your best option for adding BSL and captions. Consider how much of your broadcast or event really needs to be truly live. When it does, for live captioning you can use a service which does this for you, using actual humans. Or you can attempt to provide them from within your team using Zoom’s captioning feature (we found this very difficult to keep up during fast-paced presentations). Google Meet does automated captioning within a meeting, as does Microsoft Teams, but it seems to be limited to certain users, currently. There are automated live transcription services which do a decent job, but some extra work is needed to get these to display like captions.

Access for blind and partially sighted people is frequently overlooked. There are options for all budgets with professional audio describers providing the most comprehensive and consistent service. For creative content, integrating creative audio description into the work is becoming a popular option. For anything else where visual content is involved, learning the basics so that you can audio describe images on presentation slides and introduce visual content on short film content makes a massive difference. You should already be providing alt-text for images on your website and social media accounts, integrating brief descriptions into your spoken presentation or meeting with slides is similar. Check the links at the bottom of this blog for advice. The great thing about livestreaming and digital content is that you can offer different accessible versions of the same content for people so that they can choose to have AD or subtitles switched on.

Captions and audio description can also provide additional layers of access for people with cognitive access requirements. Slowing the pace of what you’re doing, using plain English, avoiding jargon and acronyms, providing material in various formats in advance also creates better access.

When lockdown happened, it seemed like within days if you didn’t use Zoom then you couldn’t participate. People take time to learn new technologies, if you’re asking your audience to do something new, like come to a Zoom meeting, or sign in to access something make sure you provide really easy to follow guidelines. It’s good practice to ensure there’s a way to access your content without having an account for something, so for example, if you’re live on Facebook, also streaming to YouTube is a good idea.

We mustn’t forget that many disabled people don’t have access to the internet, or have old devices and poor connections meaning that access is limited. So, if for example, you can provide downloads of videos and audio instead of just livestreaming and broadcasting that can be useful. Think about collaborating with organisations who are helping to get better technology in place for people too.

This blog by no means addresses all access requirements, nor does it provide all the solutions, but if you’re reading this, then it means you are considering access and that is a great place to start. Talk to your disabled artists and your disabled audience members, ask them to feedback and be part of this process. It’s a great opportunity to get to know them better and communicate that this is a process of learning how to put great access in place.

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that 26% of disabled audiences say they won’t return to venues until a vaccine is available. For many disabled people, going to venues wasn’t an accessible option before the pandemic anyway. Digital access provision to arts and culture should be a permanent ambition for all makers, creatives, producers and venues.

Links to useful resources:

Livestreaming software
Open Broadcast Software – free and feature-rich broadcast software which allows screen-capturing and broadcasting of any meeting service including Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams etc.
Livestreaming direct from Zoom – requires a premium account.

Live transcription / subtitling / captioning
StageText Digital Subtitling Training
Otter – the highest quality live automated transcription we’ve found, which also does a good job at producing captions for pre-recorded video content. They offer a 50% discount on their annual ‘teams’ plans for non-profits.
Ai Media – live captioning service which will integrate with most livestream platforms. This is a pay-per-event service and can be quite expensive.

Deaf Explorer – Midlands-based. Knowledgeable about integrating BSL, can link you up with interpreters
Becoming Visible – Interpreters in the North East who offer a quality service at a reasonable price.

Audio Description
List of audio description services
Making presentations accessible for blind and partially sighted audiences 

Multi-channel broadcasting
Restream – allows simultaneous streaming across multiple platforms including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter (Periscope), Twitch and many more.

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Aaron Williamson
Aaron Williamson
1 year ago

Excellent stuff Trish – thank you!

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