Spoken Word On-Screen: How To Make Your Virtual Event Really Accessible


Sez Thomasin is an autistic poet and poetry host who has learned a few lessons in what to think about when producing online spoken word events. Here are some of their findings.

Zoom on a screen

Attending poetry events online removes many barriers for disabled communities.

Since the UK went into lockdown, our spoken word scene has transformed. Even as we wait anxiously to see how many of our beloved venues will survive the economic consequences of closing their doors for months on end, our community has found ways to keep events going online.

In some ways, the change is for the better, especially for disabled people. Poetry nights in upstairs venues, which have been inaccessible to wheelchair users since their inception, can suddenly be attended with anyone with a laptop or smartphone. This same technology opens up possibilities for the use of subtitling, voice-to-text and screen reading software, allowing poets with hearing or visual impairments to access events more fully.

Poets and audience members who might struggle to attend even a local live event because of chronic illness or fatigue can now participate in an international community of performance poets from their own bedrooms.

It makes me wonder, since we’ve had the technology that makes all this possible for a while now, why it took a global pandemic to get us to actually use it.

As pubs and clubs, if not theatres, slowly reopen, many on the scene have started to wonder when “live” poetry events will reopen. The answer has to be “not for a while”. The logistics of a socially distanced poetry gig would be impossible. Cramped, crowded rooms, one microphone shared between a dozen performers, all of whom would potentially projecting covid-19 microbes into the audience along with their words… It really doesn’t bear thinking about. We can expect the spoken word scene to remain very much online for the foreseeable future.

As an autistic person with social anxiety, I have to say that suits me fine. I’ve attended more events in the last three months than I had in the preceding six. I’ve encountered many poets who are entirely new to me, as well as reconnecting with old poetry friends I hadn’t seen in years. I had some serious misgivings about attending my first “Zoom gig” (other event hosting software is available), but, by and large, I have fully embraced the new, virtual reality of poetry events. That’s not to say they’re perfect.

As I used to say ad nauseam in my days as an NHS Equality and Human Rights project manager, accessibility is more than just installing ramps. Even as online events have made the art form more physically accessible to many, there are a number of ways that they can create access issues that are less visible, less obvious, less considered.

Online gigs are an unfamiliar environment for most of us. They constitute a lot of screen time, and while they do allow us to connect with others, most Zoom attendees are, in a practical sense, alone. This, to me, means that there is an even greater responsibility for event organizers to ensure that their performers and audiences enjoy as safe and inclusive environment as possible.

portrait of an artist at home

RikTheMost, welcoming poets and audience to Poetry at Your Place

Assemble a team. It’s tempting to believe that you can run an online gig single-handedly, and while this is technically possible, it’s going to go about as well as running a physical gig on your own would. It’s important to have someone on hand to troubleshoot: supporting people who are struggling with the software and sorting out any other issues which arise. It’s no bad thing to have someone to co-host with, who can also share the responsibility of welcoming your audience as you prepare to start the event proper.

Don’t assume everyone is used to the format. Navigating the process of signing up to an event, possibly being sent a password to access it, clicking on the right link (or worse, typing in a string of numbers) and crossing your fingers that the internet connection doesn’t give out are all massive stressors for newcomers to the format, especially those dyslexics, dyspraxics and dyscalculics among us. So as host, your first job is to make sure that the pathway to getting into the event is well signposted. Have someone on hand to field panicking messages from people who are struggling to get in, who is willing to walk them through it and sort out any problems that are coming from your end.

If you choose not to password protect your event, you may encounter the unpleasant phenomenon of ‘Zoom-bombing’: people disrupting performances, verbally abusing people and even displaying obscene material. This is another reason to have a tech support person on hand to shut them down as soon as possible. Talk to your audience and performers about what’s going on and make sure people feel safe and supported to continue. Remember that the person who has just been verbally abused may well be home alone and deeply shaken by the experience. It’s not always a case of “The Show Must Go On”.

“I think in regards to safeguarding, organisers can’t just see this like they would an in-person event. It’s less effort for someone online wishing to disrupt an event – there’s a perceived veil of anonymity and they don’t have to leave their home! And whilst, as with in-person events, there is never going to be a 100% safe way of running things, there are a heap of options and resources that can reduce the risk.” – RikTheMost, host of Poetry at Your Place

You can reduce the risk of zoom bombing by password protecting your event, and making sure you have the ability to mute and unmute all participants. You can also livestream your event, so that audience members are not in the “room” itself, but viewing from another platform such as Facebook.

As with all gigs, you want to let your performers in early, make sure they have everything they need and understand how the event is going to work. Because everybody has their own mic, everybody needs their own soundcheck. Ask your performers to check their wifi connection and, if possible, use an ethernet cable to minimize connection problems during their performance. Having all this sorted out will vastly decrease your own anxiety and the anxiety of your performers.

zoom screen with several squares in which individuals are pictured from their computer monitors

Your online audience can choose whether or not to appear onscreen.

As your audience arrives, let them know how it’s all going to work. Are you going to unmute everyone and encourage “out loud” chat? Direct them to the text chat? Some hosts prefer the convivial atmosphere and background noises of an entirely unmuted event, while others find that muting everyone except the current performer makes things easier.

Unmuting for applause at the end of each poet’s time slot seems like a good compromise, but relies on precision timing and clear communication.

“As a blind person, the hardest thing is managing the chat whilst listening to the poets – two voices competing for attention. I think it’s great to have the chat function, but for me it would be easier if it was restricted to comments in between the performances.” – Bogsey, poet and host of Squeak Easy

Online gigs on platforms like Zoom allow the audience to see each other in a series of squares, not unlike the Brady Bunch opening credits. As being seen on-screen can be a source of anxiety for some, make sure the audience are aware that having their mic and camera on are optional.

Some platforms give participants the option of appearing in front of a virtual background. In my opinion this should be discouraged as these tend to flicker and may cause sensory distress to some and potentially even seizures for those with epilepsy. Make sure your audience know they can message a member of your team (see how important the team is?) if they are experiencing any issues at all, and have a plan in place for sorting them out.

Content/ trigger warnings are always tricky, but doubly important during this time of isolation. Of course you can never know the anxiety triggers of every audience member, but it’s good practice to encourage your performers to provide content warnings for material they know is likely to cause distress. A general note from the host at the start of the event, letting audience members know that it’s fine to mute any poem they find too distressing, and to check in with one of your (increasingly hard working!) team for a chat if they feel unsafe for any reason. It’s a great Idea to keep the event open for a while after the gig has finished so that people have time and company in which to process any hard-hitting material together.

“Some of us find our lack of social cues are magnified by Zoom, and are scared of interrupting, so may stay quiet when we want to be more involved. Depending on the kind of event, some encouragement to join in when appropriate can be useful.” – Jenni Pascoe, poet

Many online events make great use of the chat function, throwing out quotations from poems being performed, expressing appreciation and engaging in (mostly harmless) heckling. Be mindful of the fact that this medium is more difficult for visually impaired people to engage with. One option is for the host to select particularly enthusiastic or insightful comments to read out between poems, so that everyone can enjoy them. It’s also possible for the host to save the chat as a text file: why not offer to email a transcript of the chat on your mailing list, so people with visual impairment or processing differences can peruse the comments at their leisure?

“I’d really like to see poets provide text versions of their poems. It is harder to focus when not in a room with social pressure ensuring attention – I reckon this would be helpful.” – James Webster, Poet

Finally, plan to use your newfound skills to make your events more accessible in the future: sooner or later, venues will open their doors to live events once more. I hope we’ll see a new era of events which, using the technology available to us, can exist both online and offline. After all, disabled poets – and poetry fans – around the world are at last getting a taste of technologically enhanced accessibility. We won’t let ourselves be shut out again.