Richard Ladner, Kyle Rector
It is extremely common to accompany a talk at a conference such as CHI, CSCW, IUI, DIS, UIST, and others with presentation visuals. But there may be people in the audience who are blind, have low vision, or who cannot see the visuals clearly. There may also be deaf or hard-of-hearing people in the audience, or those who cannot hear your talk clearly. Some audience members may be attending the conference by telepresence robot. Some may have learned English as a second language or be unfamiliar with the topic. Since the talk is for everyone, it is important to make the talk accessible. Indeed, even if there are no people with disabilities in the audience, the talk should be broadly inclusive. The purpose of this short article is to provide guidelines and resources for giving accessible conference talks.
Before discussing the guidelines, we would like to give some examples of practices that limit accessibility at conference talks. In each example, we state what the speaker might say and then why the talk is not accessible.
- Images. “These are examples of X.” Several images on the slide represent examples of the topic at hand. If an audience member is blind, that person is at a loss to follow the examples.
- Video 1. “Let me show you a video demonstrating process Y.” The video is narrated but has no captions. If an audience member is deaf, he or she cannot follow the narration.
- Video 2. “Let me show you a video showing Z in action.” The video has no narration, just some background music. If an audience member is blind or has low vision, then Z’s action is a mystery.
- Graphs. “This graph shows some growth of W over time.” A blind or low-vision audience member will not have any idea of the magnitude of the growth or the time period.
- Pointing. “Look at this equation that shows the relationship between X and Y.” The speaker is using a laser pointer. A blind or low-vision audience member will not know what the equation is or what the relationship is. A deaf audience member who is watching the interpreter might not be able to also see where the laser is pointing.
- Allusion. “You never know who you might meet.” The slide shows a picture of the speaker and the President of the United States shaking hands. The reference might be lost on a blind or low-vision audience member.
- Animation. “Watch how our algorithm manipulates the data.” There is no narration to help blind or low-vision audience members understand the algorithm.
These examples are not meant to imply that images, videos, graphs, pointing, allusion, and animation should never be used. Instead, they illustrate the risks of using these devices in talks.
What is the purpose of giving a talk at a conference? Having attended hundreds of conferences and perhaps thousands of talks in our careers, we have found that a great talk is one that inspires us to read the paper and want to talk to the speaker about the work. A great talk is not about the slides; it’s about the speaker. The focus of the audience should be on the speaker, not the slides. The slides only amplify what the speaker is saying. How the speaker connects with the audience makes people want to listen, so it is paramount that the speaker know who the listeners are. Think of speaking at a conference as a teaching moment—the great teachers teach to the level of the students, not over their heads. Naturally, it is always good to face the audience and progress slowly and deliberately through a talk so that everyone can keep up.
It helps to understand some of the accommodations, and their implications, that audience members may use.
Personal assistive listening devices for people who are deaf or hard of hearing include hearing aids and cochlear implants. Since these devices generally do not completely restore hearing, those wearing them often want to be able to read the lips of a speaker while listening. This may mean that the speaker should be as close as possible to the audience and face the audience as much as possible. Some assistive listening devices have FM capability. In this case, the speaker may be asked to wear an additional microphone so that the speaker’s voice arrives more clearly at the listening device.
Sign-language interpreters are often requested by deaf audience members. It is important to recognize that a deaf audience member using an interpreter can focus on only one thing at a time: the interpreter, the speaker, or the slides. Furthermore, interpreters are really language translators, so there is a slight delay from when the speaker says something to when the deaf person gets the same information. This means that when referring to information on a slide, it is good to pause for a moment to allow time for the translation and the attention shift to the slide.
Tactile sign-language interpreters are often requested by deaf-blind audience members. It is even more important to follow the guidelines above for sign-language interpreters, but to go even more slowly and have less cluttered slides. The tactile sign-language interpreter is not only interpreting what you are saying, but also describing the visuals on the slides.
Real-time captioning is another request that can be made by deaf audience members. Such requests are typically satisfied by using a professional captionist, who in real time creates a written transcript of what is said. The transcript could be broadcast on a screen for everyone to see, or on an individual’s laptop display. In the not-too-distant future, automated or crowdsourced speech-to-text may replace professional captionists. Regardless of how real-time captioning is done, it is important to note that a deaf audience member can focus on only one thing at a time: the captions, the speaker, or the slides. Again, there is a slight delay in transforming speech to text. This means that the same principles applicable to sign-language translation also apply to real-time captioning.
How the speaker connects with the audience makes people want to listen, so it is paramount that the speaker know who the listeners are.
Telepresence robots may be requested by members who wish to remotely attend a conference. Most often, a Beam telepresence robot is used; the attendee can personalize the robot to wear a badge and other accessories. With the robot, the attendee can navigate the conference and participate in the audience. The person may be following along with slides on their own computer. Speak clearly and somewhat slowly so this kind of attendee can follow along.
Advance materials may be requested by blind or low-vision audience members. A speaker may be asked to provide an advance copy of the talk in an accessible format. Fortunately, PowerPoint and some other systems support accessibility such as alternative text for images. The notes section of each slide can be used to provide textual descriptions as well. In the future, it may be possible for the slides to be automatically described rather than having the author add annotations in the notes section. Sign-language interpreters and captionists can also benefit by having copies of the presentation slides ahead of time.
Here is a short list of practical suggestions for giving an accessible talk:
- Minimize the amount of text on slides. This should help keep the focus of the audience on what you are saying. As soon as the slide appears, announce it, then pause for a few seconds to let people read it before saying anything. This will allow deaf people and everyone else in the audience to read the slide before you start talking. Repeat the text on the slide to make sure blind people in the audience know what is on the slide.
- Minimize the number of visuals on slides. Again, this should help keep the focus of the audience on what you are saying. Each image should be described so that blind people in the audience will know what is there. Graphs and charts should be described and summarized.
- Minimize the number of slides. No one wants to be shot with a fire hose while trying to understand your talk.
- Keep graphics simple. No one wants to read a complicated graphic when there are only a few important facts about it. Save the complicated graphic for the paper.
- Use high contrast and take care with colors. Audience members with low vision or color blindness will appreciate it.
- Avoid or control the speed of animations so they can be described fully. This will help people who cannot see the animation clearly. All audience members will appreciate an animation that moves slowly and is explained.
- Make sure that videos are captioned and audio described. Sometimes it is good to give a brief description of what is in the video before it is played. This will help blind audience members to establish context for what they will hear.
- Make sure the Q&A period is accessible. This is helpful if the speaker or audience members cannot easily see who is asking a question, or if audience members are sitting toward the back of the room, or if the room is large. If there is a microphone for questioners, make sure they use it. Otherwise, repeat the questions so everyone can hear them. If a member of the audience is using a telepresence robot, make sure they have the opportunity to ask a question.
The preparation of this article was supported in part by National Science Foundation grant number CNS-1539179.
Richard E. Ladner is professor emeritus in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. His research interests are in HCI with an emphasis on accessibility for people with disabilities. He also leads AccessComputing, an NSF-funded alliance to increase the participation of people with disabilities in computing fields. firstname.lastname@example.org
Kyle Rector is an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Iowa. She has research interests in human-computer interaction and accessibility. She is specifically interested in developing eyes-free technologies that enhance quality of life, including exercise and art technologies for people who are blind or low vision. email@example.com
Here is a short list of resources that may be valuable in preparing your talk and your paper:
- Cavender, A., Trewin, S., and Hanson, V. SIGACCESS Accessible Writing Guide; http://www.sigaccess.org/welcome-to-sigaccess/resources/accessible-writing-guide/
- Trewin, T. SIGACCESS Accessible Conference Guide; http://www.sigaccess.org/welcome-to-sigaccess/resources/accessible-conference-guide/
- Foster, S., Long, G., and Snell, K. Inclusive instruction and learning for deaf students in postsecondary education. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 4, 3 (1999), 225–235.
- Foster, S., Long, G., Ferrari, J., and Snell, K. Providing access for deaf students in a technical university in the United States: Perspectives of teachers and instructors. In Educating Deaf Students: Global Perspectives. D. Power, G. Leigh, eds. Gallaudet Univ. Press, Washington, D.C., 2004, 185–195.
- Foster, S. and Holcomb, T. Hearing-impaired students: A student-teacher-class partnership. In Special Educational Needs Review: Volume 3. N. Jones, ed. Falmer Press, London, 1990, 57–82.
- Holcomb, T. and Foster, S. Communication in mainstream classrooms: A matter of courtesy. Perspectives in Education and Deafness 11, 2 (1992), 10–11.
- Burgstahler, S. Universal design: Implications for computing education. Trans. Comput. Educ. 11, 3 (Oct. 2011), Article 19, Page 7.
- Supalo, C. Techniques to enhance instructors’ teaching effectiveness with chemistry students who are blind or visually impaired. Journal of Chemical Education 82, 10 (2005), 1513.
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