Recently I watched an interesting webinar given by Darren Gabbert as part of an ongoing webinar series hosted by the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA). The webinar had good content, was delivered competently, and presented no technical issues. Why bother mentioning it? Because Mr. Gabbert has an advanced form of spinal muscular atrophy with no use of his limbs. He uses single-switch scanning, where menu selections are made by tensing a cheek muscle. He also speaks through the aid of a text-to-speech synthesizer. The easiest visualization touchpoint for the layman is to think of Stephen Hawking.
I was interested in learning more about special considerations in planning, preparing, and delivering webinars involving assistive access technology. I spoke to Mr. Gabbert and representatives of the ATIA, who kindly shared their experiences and insights.
Mr. Gabbert has many years of experience presenting in person at conferences, but this was his first time presenting on a webinar. He wanted to make it as engaging as possible, with the ability to keep attendees' interest and interact with them during the session.
One of the things he did was to ask registrants for questions in advance (via a link from the webinar registration form). This gave him a chance to craft directed content relevant to their interests, but also to create "abbreviation expansions" in his scanning selector that would let him more easily give answers live during the webinar.
To ensure that his delivery flowed smoothly, he created his presentation as a collection of video segments. Each segment used PowerPoint slides with animations to highlight key points (such as underlining or circling keywords). Mr. Gabbert was able to coordinate his speaking script with the animations and slide movements, as well as embedding special text-to-speech tags to fine-tune the pacing of the rendered speech output. This helped make listening to his presentation feel more natural, while also giving the proper support to jokes and humorous asides that Mr. Gabbert sprinkled throughout. You don't realize how exacting an art it is to deliver a simple joke until you try to explicitly orchestrate the necessary pauses and speed cues that influence your audience's perception of the humor.
The use of interactive polls in the webinar gave Mr. Gabbert a chance to communicate directly with participants in the typed Chat area. While the poll was being displayed and managed by the webinar moderator, Mr. Gabbert could concentrate on composing his replies in real time.
During live Q&A after the scripted presentation, Mr. Gabbert shared his screen and showed his use of EZ Keys SideTalk. This add-on to the basic scanning system lets a user create sub-branches of words and phrases under topic headers. So instead of having to type out words letter by letter, you can navigate to pre-planned phrases that are useful in a given context. I was astonished by the speed Mr. Gabbert demonstrated in scanning through the selection choices on his screen. It was quite impossible for my eyes to find the targets as quickly as he did. Instead, I just watched the completed sentences appear in the Chat area.
To get the ATIA's perspective, I spoke with David Dikter, the CEO of the organization. I also spoke with Julia Bobo, who worked on the setup and planning of the session as well as moderating the webinar.
Mr. Dikter said the ATIA's webinars often deal with visual or auditory impairment issues that can be addressed with closed captioning or auditory control cues. But this was their first time inviting a speaker with severe physical access limitations combined with synthesized speech. Even though the ATIA has offered webinars for the last six years, it is only recently that they have felt comfortable enough with screen sharing and video sharing performance from the conferencing technologies and from a bandwidth and internet speed expectation for audience members to rely on those features for an entire webinar.
ATIA uses Adobe Connect as their webinar platform and are generally happy with its capabilities for attendees with access limitations. They use a third-party captioning service that can deliver typed captioning in real time into a dedicated content pod in the Adobe Connect console. Audiences have been happy with the offerings, and the ATIA has gradually built up a large library of recorded content that people can watch on demand. Mr. Dikter told me that the archives get far more views than the live sessions.
Ms. Bobo said she usually plans on around one month of preparation with a guest speaker before a live webinar. But with Mr. Gabbert's need for more extensive preparation and planning, she started work with him a full four months in advance of the scheduled date. Her biggest concern as a moderator/host was having back up plans for every contingency she could imagine. Although Mr. Gabbert ran his presentations as shared videos during the live webinar, Ms. Bobo had the source PowerPoints uploaded and ready to switch to if necessary. She also had Mr. Gabbert's audio files ready to play if his system developed problems. She was delighted to report that none of the backups were needed, but felt more secure knowing that she had insurance against problems.
It can also be hard for hosts to think of and test every interaction between content and attendee access configurations. Mr. Gabbert used his speech synthesizer to read the presentation materials while he showed his presentation. That worked great. But then he switched to showing video clips that included voice narration and text captioning in the video. His speech synthesizer dutifully read and spoke the text captions on the video, resulting in duplicated audio coming through to attendees listening via streaming audio on Adobe Connect. We heard the video audio track and the synthesizer reading the captions to us. Ms. Bobo quickly suggested that attendees switch to telephone audio, but an alert attendee also pointed out that we could just temporarily mute the presenter's audio while the video was showing. Once you knew where to find the right icon, it was trivially simple to toggle the audio on and off for echo-free listening.
Mr. Dikter and Mr. Gabbert shared similar views on the web conferencing technology itself… They were happy it worked as well as it did, and they felt that it successfully supported the communications and collaboration between speaker and audience that they were looking for. But there are definitely things that vendors can do to improve special accessibility. Vendors will tell you that they have built in Section 508 ADA Compliance, but the implementations may not be practical in real-world use. And very few vendors test their products for compatibility with assistive access technologies. For instance, Mr. Gabbert reported a problem using Adobe Connect's built-in keyboard shortcuts and when switching cursor focus to different content pods when he used his switch scanning system.
Mr. Dikter said it is incumbent upon all companies who deliver webinars to think about offering access to all possible audiences. "You never know who your attendees may be." You need to plan on delivering visual information for those who cannot hear or choose not to listen to your audio stream. You need to plan for audio-only access for those without the ability to watch the visual content. And you need to look for technologies that will practically and pragmatically support participants using assistive technology.
Ms. Bobo says that working on this webinar with Mr. Gabbert "opened my eyes as to what's possible on a webinar. He is the poster child for how preparation really makes a difference."
And to finish off with a quote from Mr. Gabbert on his experience as a presenter: "Overall, I feel that the webinar medium offered me far more tools and opportunities for engagement than I have doing in-room presentations."
That is a great testament to web conferencing technology and its usefulness in expanding communication and access to all members of our society.
If you want to watch the recording of Mr. Gabbert's webinar presentation, it is available on the ATIA site at a cost of USD $49. Follow this link for details and registration: