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July 1, 2022

Accessibility in Online Events and Conferences

How accessible are online events and conferences? Can they be made better?

Having covered the environmental impact of online events compared to physical events earlier, we wanted to explore a key issue for events that Tevent is trying to address: accessibility.

On the face of it, online (or virtual) events are more accessible, inclusive, and environmentally friendly than physical (in-person) events. Yes, they are more carbon-friendly, but are they also more accessible? And if yes, why? After all, accessibility is not limited to any one factor — considerations need to be made across geographic constraints, opportunity constraints (due to a disability, caregiving responsibilities, stature, or availability), and affordability constraints.

Diving below the surface, we also need to explore, briefly, the shortcomings of providing access to events through online technologies. What are the key opportunities to improve? As we explore these in this article, we’ll also highlight some key ways in which Tevent has been designed to improve access to webinars and online events for all.

Over the last few years through the pandemic and beyond, the scientific community has documented its experience in switching to the virtual format. Conferences such as ESMARConf2021, eSymposia, and ICTA2020 have helped us understand how accessibility has changed with the newfound demand for virtual formats.

Online events can improve access beyond geography

Online Events Are Accessible Beyond Geographic Boundaries

Let’s start with geographical barriers — one of the key differentiators between online and in-person events. With access to the internet improving around the world, the barriers to congregating online are slowly falling away.

Physical events have an inherent disadvantage in this regard. Unless it’s a local event situated close to all stakeholders, physical gatherings tend to always be unfair to at least some participants. If it’s an international event, potential attendees could be hampered by the availability of the documents they need to travel. In a post-COVID world, this could also mean health checks. Not to mention the costs associated with travelling, which we’ll touch upon later.

Online events are much better placed to leapfrog these boundaries. Take the organisers of eSymposia 2020 for example, who pivoted their in-person Keynote Symposia conference to a fully online one. By holding an e-conference, they were able to bring the event to scientists from 145 countries, compared to the 91 previously. At ICTA2020, 49% of the surveyed audience said they wouldn’t have attended in-person at all.

Online events can improve access to opportunity

This brings us to barriers to opportunities. Social, political, and health constraints have long favoured access to those who are more fortunate in those regards than others. Access to opportunities is still woefully undemocratised - not just in the face of virtual events, but in every walk of life. And the factors causing these disparities are many.

Access for the disabled

Recording sessions and adding subtitles to them can improve access for those who face issues with hearing.

A major barrier to opportunities is the challenge faced by those impacted by physical or mental disabilities. These could be the inability to travel due to locomotive issues, or the inability to see or hear the sessions. Some potential attendees could be agoraphobic or suffer from issues dealing with their anxiety.

While it isn’t always possible to address the needs of every possible attendee, online events make it easier to address at least some of them. Geographic boundaries are overcome with online formats. Recording sessions and adding subtitles to them can improve access for those who face issues with hearing. At ESMARConf2021, “all pre-recorded individual talks were subtitled, and the transcripts verified in English before the conference begins.” Google Chrome also has a live captions feature that can make subtitlting easy for Chrome users.

Access for the unavailable

Unavailability Can Be A Hindrance to Accessing Events

In some cases, these barriers could be more situational — for example, care providers often need to balance priorities to travel. Even in the case of online events, the event schedule might not be the most convenient for everyone interested in attending.

The possibility of pre-recording sessions, or recording live sessions and having them available on-demand for attendees, is a game-changer in this regard. At ICTA2020, 94% of survey respondents had a positive experience with the availability of session recordings.

At ESMARConf2021, around 73% of video views on the YouTube recordings of conference sessions came after the end of the conference, with 67% of the video views coming for individual pre-recorded talks. In fact, the organisers are going further for the 2022 edition.

“To support our caregiving participants and those with resource constraints, at ESMARConf2022 we provided bursaries of up to 100 USD: this funding could be put towards a wide variety of costs, including alternative caregivers; support with meal preparation; costs of commuting to a town with strong internet connection; hiring a quiet space or a location with stable electricity; hiring a diesel generator and mobile internet; purchasing headphones, etc.”

Improving access for those who will gain value from the event or conference, but will not be able to make it whenever the event is scheduled to take place, not only helps in delivering value for attendees, but also develops gratitude, respect, and loyalty for the organisers.

Access for different language speakers

Another barrier often overlooked is the familiarity that attendees might have with the language the presenters share in. It is also a barrier that affects presenters who have valuable knowledge to share, but aren’t able to do so in widely accepted languages commonly used at conferences.

Online tools are helping overcome this barrier as well. At ESMAR2021, “the verified subtitling … allows users to automatically translate closed captions into any language provided by YouTube.”

Verified subtitling allows users to automatically translate closed captions into any language provided on YouTube.

Access beyond hierarchy

Professional stature can also be a potential barrier to event attendance. In corporate-sponsored events, the ones usually favoured to attend or represent a company can hamper the changes for someone lower down the hierarchy. This isn’t always the case, nor can it be always combated by online events, but lower fees for attending can be a viable equaliser in most cases.

Organisers themselves could work to improve the inclusivity of their event. At eSymposia 2020, organisers were able to reallocate funds to provide free access to the event to 6000 trainees and participants from low-and-middle-income countries, along with 3500 scientists.

Access to information

One other barrier to opportunities can be the lack of information flowing between presenters and attendees. While this barrier is more to the value gained at events rather than the ability to attend one, it can vastly improve every stakeholder’s experience.

As observed by Sarvenaz Sarabipour, “virtual conference platforms can provide better file sharing, data presentation, and interactive visualization formats for the speakers and attendees.”

Virtual conference platforms can provide better file sharing, data presentation, and interactive visualization formats.

Online events can improve access beyond affordability

Online Can Potentially Bring Down Costs for Organisers and Attendees

Finally, we come to barriers of costs. As has been the norm for a very long time, only the well-funded individual can afford to travel or attend physical events. In fact, costs can remain a barrier for many online events as well. But lower operational and organisational costs greatly improve the chances of the cost of attendance being lowered as well, while not eating away at the potential economic opportunity for organisers.

This is especially crucial for attendees. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Austin found that ‘costs associated with attending in-person conferences varied between 3% to 142% of attendees’ regional annual per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP)’ With 3% for attendees from the US, and 142% for attendees from African nations. That is a massive gap.

For organisers, reduced costs due to the absence of a physical venue, potential accommodation for attendees, food and beverage investments, transport arrangements, and many other factors, can help greatly reduce the barriers for potential attendees to join them. At ICTA2020 - the price fell from €135 for their previous physical instalment, to just €5, which allowed non-scientists such as journalists and practitioners to join the conference as well.

Inclusivity in online events

By improving access, online and virtual events set themselves up to be potentially more inclusive than their physical counterparts.

The same study mentioned earlier found that ‘the fractional make-up of 2020 virtual conference delegations was observed for students (29% to 43%). Notable increases in attendance were observed for women (66% to 253% increase) and non-research-intensive countries (29% to 482% increase)’. Those are significant changes.

eSymposia also noticed an improvement in the diversity of their attendees — notably 53% of attendees at the conference were women in the online edition (compared to 44% in the previous physical one) and 26% were graduates (compared with 20%).

Having said that, access is only one aspect of improving inclusivity. A lot rests on the shoulders of organisers to make it possible for a more diverse audience to attend their events.

A lot rests on the shoulders of organisers to make it possible for a more diverse audience to attend their events.

Room for improvement

As we’ve seen, online formats do break down several barriers to access for both attendees and organisers of events and conferences. However, there is more work to be done.

Access to technology

Unfortunately, one of the key barriers to online events remains — access to the technology required to host or attend these events in the first place. This could mean access to a computer or laptop, along with access to the internet, and potentially even other equipment required to record and present engaging videos.

With the improving democratisation of technology around the world, hopefully, this barrier can continue to remain in decline.

Networking

The fact remains that it is extremely difficult to replace the engaging and spontaneous nature of physical events. Yes, there are platforms trying to address this, Tevent being one of them, but it would be amiss to say that there isn’t a difference in these formats.

At ICTA2020 - only 27% joined networking sessions, and screen fatigue was a notable side-effect that presenters and attendees faced.

There is work being done — there are algorithms being developed to match attendees with others who share similar interests. There are newer virtual formats always cropping up to replicate physical networking. Perhaps one day, we will figure it out.

Scheduling

Lastly, logistically, there is no 4-hour time range that is suitable for folks from across the globe to meet up (Source).

Potential Hubs for More Accessible International Events

A workaround to this is, of course, having session recordings available on-demand to reach every possible viewer. Another solution is to host the event in different ‘hubs’ - perhaps one for the Americas, one for Africa, Europe and the Middle East, and one for Asia-Pacific; thereby circumventing time zone challenges. But the fact remains that if every stakeholder at an event meets at a physical location, these issues disappear. Perhaps this is a smaller issue than we once thought.

Tevent can help you host accessible virtual events and webinars

So, we’ve done the analysis, looked at the research, and yes, online and virtual events are more accessible than physical in-person events. They have surpassed geographic boundaries in getting people together, and they raise standards for accessibility and interactions.

If you’re looking to hold an online webinar or event, need we tell you to consider Tevent? We are breaking down the barriers to gathering online by helping you host online events. And we’re breaking down the barriers to virtual events by offering you every feature for free, even on the free tier. If you’re hosting a larger gathering, rest assured that you can do so at extremely affordable rates than are tailored to your specific needs.

If you’re ready, sign up on the app and give it a go. If you’d like to talk to us first, feel free to drop an email to support[at]tevent[dot]com or use the chat at the bottom right-hand corner.

Before you go, if you liked this article and are looking for more help making your online events and conferences more inclusive and accessible, we highly recommend you read this article by OHMB-Open Science. Ta.

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