Virtual events open up the world

Technology plays catch up as events head online, making them more accessible to people with disabilities. By Suzanne Rent
Halifax Examiner, APRIL 6, 2021

Jewelles Smith is a human rights expert, scholar, and academic researcher who’s completing her PhD. This winter Smith attended a conference in Ireland and didn’t even have to leave home.

“It was really amazing for me academically and it wouldn’t have been possible for me otherwise,” Smith says.

Smith is also the communications and government relations coordinator with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. Like many Canadians, Smith has attended virtual events that would have been typically held in person had it not been for COVID-19. As events headed online, technology had to make adjustments and some of those changes gave access to events to people with disabilities like never before. Smith says the Council, whose staff and board are all people with disabilities, held its annual general meeting online, too.

“I think it’s become more evident of the amazingness of technology, when prior to the pandemic there was a lot of resistance to using online platforms like Zoom or MS Teams,” Smith says. “Now it’s become the norm. It opens up the world for everyone whose computer is set up with Zoom.”

Smith says Zoom is more accessible than MS Teams. Zoom allows users to “pin” the video of the ASL interpreters to the top of their screen to make them visible though the entire event. Zoom also has captioning, although Smith says it’s not as good as professional captioners like those who use communication access real-time translation (CART). Zoom also works with screen readers for those who are blind or partially sighted. She says screen readers don’t work as well with MS Teams, the platforms many governments, including Nova Scotia, use. And with Zoom, you don’t need a computer and can simply call in.

Not having to travel makes it easier for many people with disabilities, too. Smith, who is disabled and lives in British Columbia, says travelling for meetings in Ottawa can be physically demanding for her. For others, she says, attending events from home is much easier, too.

“I have heard from so many colleagues in the disability community about how amazing it is you can have your attendant there and have camera off if your support worker shows up,” she says.

Smith says virtual events aren’t good for people with disabilities who are on fixed income and can’t afford internet service. And not everyone has or can afford a cell phone and the technology doesn’t always work with landlines.

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