The professional conference landscape has changed considerably over the last few years. We have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic that conference environments can evolve to become more diverse and inclusive in part by organizing UseR!20211. Organizing a conference that is accessible for colleagues with disabilities is an important way to ensure a large group of presenters and participants from all career stages will attend and contribute their expertise to the field. Accessibility is the responsibility of the conference organizers and presenters. Accessibility practices are the steps we take to make sure an event is accessible to as many people as possible, like transcripts and text captions of speech, alternative (alt)-text descriptions of images, and more frequent breaks.

Moving conferences online has made them more accessible in many ways, but some barriers to full participation are often overlooked by organizers. This report will evaluate the components of the RSE Asia-Australia Unconference 2022 and make suggestions for removing accessibility barriers. Some of these will be easy to respond to for this year’s conference, while others will require more advance planning and budgeting and can be implemented in future years or other conferences.

1 Overall Communication Strategy

The conference will be welcoming if you show that access has been considered and accessibility practices have been adopted. The practices listed in this section are for conference organizers. Linked resources on how to implement them are in Section 3, which talks about accessibility standards for presenters. These accessibility practices are:

2 Software Components and their Accessibility

For this conference, registration is on EventBrite, the website is hosted on GitHub, and the conference will take place on Zoom.

2.1 EventBrite

The EventBrite platform is not optimized for screen reader use. I have tested the process for other events on Mac and an iPhone with the VoiceOver screen reader. Signing up for a free event is difficult but I was able to do it. However, I was not able to get through the process of charging a paid event to a credit card. As a result, there are likely to be people either giving up on attending or contacting the organizers to ask for an alternative way of paying.

2.1.1 Suggestions

For this year, the organizers should find alternative ways for people who can’t use Eventbrite to pay. In future years, a more accessible registration system should be selected. We used Conftool for useR! 2021 successfully and the developers were even willing to help fix accessibility issues.

2.2 Website

In general, GitHub and Markdown provide an accessible environment to host the information about the conference. The banner graphic has descriptive text, and the table is easy to navigate with a screen reader. The conference flyer is in .png format and is inaccessible with a screen reader.

2.2.1 Suggestions

For the conference flier, consider another format like markdown/HTML or PDF that has been created to be accessible (Adobe and Microsoft Office have facilities for this.

For the conference website, the heading “Accessibility and Inclusivity” on the website would be a perfect place to provide information about accessibility practices like captions, accessibility standards for presenters, and address other questions potential participants might have about disability-related access.

The website provides an email address for questions, which is a good step toward communicating about accessibility. Consider having a dedicated email address for disability-related accessibility communication. Potential participants will need these answers before deciding whether to submit proposals for presentations or to attend the conference. In the future, this information should be available when open submissions are first announced. Questions about accessibility should be answered promptly and not leave the participant wondering if their query reached anyone who can find answers or fix problems. Don’t charge late fees if answers could not be provided before early registration closes.

2.3 Zoom

Most important features of Zoom are accessible to people with disabilities. Zoom has prioritized accessibility more than many other platforms. It is in wide use, so some people will be quite familiar with it. Others may be less experienced and take more time to find their way around the interface.

Conference presentations rely on the assumption that the audience receives information on two channels: they look at the slide to appreciate some of the information, while listening to the author explain the content. The synthesis of the information from these two channels leads to comprehension of the presentation. For example, in a presentation about statistical analysis code the slides are likely to contain the precise code while the verbalized part of the talk might be more general or explanatory. For people with sensory disabilities, there are accessibility practices to provide the missing information.

Accurate captions are critical for the participation of people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. They also benefit people who are logging in from noisy environments or whose primary language is not English. Zoom provides automatic captions at no cost, however, they are not accurate enough for specialized or technical language. They cannot properly recognize vocabulary like software package and function names, code, and terms related to data science or statistics. (Deaf people call these “craptions.”)

2.3.1 Suggestions

Captions should be provided by humans who have an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the field in advance. There are many services that provide these “live captions.” One that has been effective in the R community is White Coat Captioning.

Since some deaf people use sign language as their first language, it can be an ideal accessibility practice. Interpreters should also have an opportunity to become familiar with the field and its vocabulary. One complication with sign language interpretation is that each country has its own sign language. Since this conference is focused on Australia, Auslan interpretation should be considered.

Both live captions and sign language interpreters can be integrated easily into Zoom presentations. The Zoom environment should be set up so the user can make the presenter, the slides, and the interpreter visible (not small images).

Live captions and sign language interpreting are intensive work and are likely to be the most expensive accessibility practice for a conference. They are important and their price requires advance planning both logistically (scheduling) and financially (raising funds through either sponsors or registration fees). Some universities can help with logistics.

For people who are blind or have low vision, the missing part of a Zoom presentation is the slides. Screen reading software only works with static text: it cannot recognize text in videos or describe images in videos. To provide the details from the slides, the slides should be made available in advance so they can be read along while listening to the presentation or in preparation to understand it. Presenters should be encouraged to describe images and verbalize the concepts that their slides show. There is more information in Section 3 about providing presenters with accessibility standards.

Presenters who are aware of describing all the elements of their slides often slow down their talks in a way that benefits people with many kinds of disabilities.

3 Accessibility Standards for Presenters

Providing accessibility standards for presenters accomplishes two goals: providing access for participants with disabilities, and educating presenters, who are usually more structurally privileged, about how to make their material more inclusive. We wrote accessibility standards with instructional resources for UseR!2021. Some presenters told us they learned a lot of things about making their work accessible, while others ignored the standards. In the future, one way the RSE Asia Australia Unconference could nudge presenters toward implementing accessibility practices would be to have them agree to follow accessibility standards as part of the submission process.

Many of the accessibility standards for presenters are parallel with the recommendations for conference organizers. They are presented here with some learning resources.

3.1 The Slides

  • Prefer slide formats like .Rmd/HTML or Python Notebooks/HTML. Sometimes source code is more accessible to screen reader users. Silvia Canelón has a great tutorial blog about creating accessible Rmd/HTML slides using the Xaringan package.

  • Avoid distracting transitions, flashing images, and complicated layouts.

  • Ensure that images have alternative (alt) text so screen reader users can access their meaning. Some resources for learning about this descriptive text:

    • The Diagram Center has guidelines and learning tools for writing alt-texts for STEM.

    • WGBH also has guidelines for STEM images. For my opinion about their emphasis on brevity (I disagree that that’s the #1 priority!), see the next item.

    • Communicating Science Through Meaningful Alt-Text, presented by Liz Hare to the Time Scavengers Virtual Internship Program, June 2022

    • Revealing Room for Improvement in Accessibility in a Social Media Data Visualization Community, Silvia Canelón and Liz Hare, CSV conf, May 2021

  • Optimize the visibility of your slides by considering:

  • Ensure that PowerPoint or PDF slides are created with accessibility features. MS Office has an accessibility checker. Some instructions:

    • Adobe

    • Power Point Use the Accessibility Checker and add alt-text before saving as PDF.

3.2 Giving the Talk

  • Speak clearly and not too quickly. Keeping your face visible will help people understand you by reading your lips or facial expression. Faking eye contact is not necessary, since some presenters will find this impossible or uncomfortable.

  • Mention slide numbers or headers when switching slides. Use descriptions to help orient people following along with a screen reader.

  • Avoid assuming that things are “obvious” in your slides. Mention these things aloud.

4 After the Unconference

The RSE Australia/New Zealand organization has the potential to both expand its membership and enhance career opportunities and visibility for disabled research software engineers. Organizers should be aware of the chicken-and-egg problem of inclusion on all aspects of diversity, but particularly for people with disabilities who face specific barriers to participation. We haven’t been seen at conferences or in professional settings, so accessibility has been overlooked. Building the infrastructure to allow a variety of disabled people to attend will lead to increased participation, but the barriers must be removed first.

To facilitate progress from year to year, it’s quite useful to survey participants after the conference. People are used to inaccessibility and may have learned that their feedback is usually ignored. Asking directly about it will help convince participants that their experience matters.

Keep track of the accessibility practices you used, and how to implement them. Retain this information along with feedback data and organizer comments. If you document the accessibility work and results, it’s more likely that as members of organizing committees change over the years, the knowledge is retained. Due in large part to a change in the organizational leadership for UseR!2022, it was not as inclusive across many historically excluded groups as UseR!2021, and not screen reader accessible. Accessibility is fragile. To mitigate this, the Global UseR! Working Group created a Knowledgebase as a repository for resources and lessons learned.

One way to promote inclusion in a conference is to make sure the leadership and organizing committee are diverse. Invite people to join rather than relying on self-nomination. The article referenced below3 and the
Knowledgebase provide further advice about leadership, continuity, and diversity.

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  1. Joo R, Sánchez-Tapia A, Mortara S, Bellini Saibene Y, Turner H, Hug Peter D, Morandeira NS, Bannert M, Almazrouq B, Hare E, Ación L. Ten simple rules to host an inclusive conference. PLoS computational biology. 2022 Jul 21;18(7):e1010164.↩︎

  2. Alt-texts should include any “text” that is in the image, as screen readers cannot extract text displayed in an image. It should also describe the main visual features of the image (for more on alt-text, see Section 3).↩︎

  3. Joo R, Sánchez-Tapia A, Mortara S, Bellini Saibene Y, Turner H, Hug Peter D, Morandeira NS, Bannert M, Almazrouq B, Hare E, Ación L. Ten simple rules to host an inclusive conference. PLoS computational biology. 2022 Jul 21;18(7):e1010164.↩︎