The Accessibility of Online Events: A Retrospective

Introduction

This past year has seen a massive change in the way we conduct, attend, and participate in events. Thanks to COVID-19, we weren’t often able to gather in-person for industry conferences, corporate events, or hobbyist gatherings. Instead, most socializing moved out of physical spaces, and into online environments.

As part of the online shift, there was a lot of discussion in communities of people with disabilities about how much easier and more inclusive events would become, now that travel, and access to accessible venues, was no longer a requirement. The general consensus was that people with disabilities would be able to attend more events, and be more included, than ever before. But how has that panned out?

After a year of almost exclusively online-only events, Fable conducted a survey of our community of people with disabilities, to learn about their event experiences. We wanted to know if the accessibility and inclusion that we expected became a reality. We also wanted to know what some of the barriers to online events were and to learn what made our community feel most positive about the events they attended.

A computer with a zoom video call on the screen next to a coffee cup

Were Online Events more accessible?

“As someone with severe mobility issues, I can’t just hop in my car and drive myself to an event. Before going, I have to verify that the venue is easy to get into and get around, I have to rely on someone to drive me in my wheelchair accessible van and then stay with me throughout the event. I have to hope the event is not too crowded for me to navigate the space or too loud for me to be heard, as these are situations that give me a lot of anxiety. The prevalence of online events for the past 20 months has allowed me to attend many that I never could have in person.” – Yvette H

Before we get into the details, let’s not bury the lead. Did our community of people with disabilities find that, as expected, the online events they’ve attended turned out to be more accessible than offline ones?

The answer is yes: 40% said online events turned out to be much more accessible than in-person events, and 49% said they were a little bit more accessible. Only 11% said the accessibility of online events was about the same as in-person events, and nobody found online events to be less accessible.

This strongly supports the belief, both inside and outside of the disability community, that online events are easier and more inclusive for everyone. It also tells us that we have a lot more work to do. If online events don’t require travel, don’t need accessible offline venues, have the potential to make communication and participation more equal for everyone, and are more flexible, why does the majority of the community still find they’re only “a little bit more accessible”?

A chart showing that a majority of participants find online events a bit more accessible and nearly another 40% find them much more accessible

Accessible Platforms

“They used some sort of obscure conferencing system. The conference days started at 8:30 and I never did find the main events that were supposed to happen at that time.” – Martin C

“Although online events don’t require an accessible in-person venue, they do require an accessible platform. This was one of the most frequent areas our community mentioned encountering barriers participating in online events. Some platforms were so confusing that people with disabilities were unable to even find or join the event at all. I have attended events where the color schemes did not provide proper contrast and the chat input areas were not accessible for asking questions.” – Ben P

An event is more than just showing up. Attendees with disabilities want to ask questions, network, interact, and participate just like everyone else. This means event hosting platforms need to do more than just make sure that the basic features are usable. Event platforms need to create easy to use, fully accessible experiences, that put all participants on an equal footing. Otherwise, people with disabilities will continue to be left on the fringes of the events they attend, if they can even get in at all.

When asked about the last event they attended, 45% of people with disabilities encountered accessibility problems that either prevented them from feeling fully included in the event or prevented them from being able to participate at all in some parts of the event.

Line graph showing accessibility of three products over time. Products A and B improve and Product C decreases after a Q3 release.

Lack of Accommodations

“People did not care about my suggestions and made comments about my differences. They were not open to doing things differently (i.e., typing in the chat instead of unmuting the microphone to ask a question). People judged me for voicing my opinions.” – Sarah C

For people with disabilities to be fully included in events, it is critical that event organizers go beyond just providing accommodations to those who go out of their way to ask. If an event registration form doesn’t provide a place to ask for accommodations, 49% of people with disabilities will struggle through the event without the accommodations that they may need. When access to event platforms is already challenging, and websites may not be as accessible as they could be, finding the correct person to contact to request accommodations can be extremely difficult. Even if that person is found, people with disabilities may be unsure of the response that they will receive or assume that accommodations just aren’t available. Putting a simple question on the event registration form can lower these barriers and reassure people with disabilities that they are welcome and valued.