Inclusive Support in a Virtual Environment and the Hybrid Future

Posted: Tuesday August 17, 2021
By: Johileny Meran - Mobility International USA (MIUSA), Clau Castaneda - SAI Study Abroad, Meghan Godding - London Metropolitan University

Throughout the pandemic, we have learned valuable lessons via trial and error on how to adapt and create successful virtual work and learning environments. We’ve experienced students, faculty, and staff around the globe adapting and connecting in ways they never considered before; we’ve seen technology and online platforms rapidly evolve, and we’ve witnessed etiquette and language for the online space expanded across time zones and oceans…

But has everyone been factored into the equation in this rapid period of change? 

How inclusive and accessible has our virtual world been over the past year, in global education and the workplace? What lessons have we learned and what can we do to improve as we look toward a hybrid future? 

Being thrust into the virtual landscape has exposed holes in places that many professionals hadn’t considered before, particularly when it comes to inclusivity and accessibility in online environments. 

This article focuses on recommendations for good practices in hosting or participating in virtual events, from meetings to webinars to modules. It is based on over a year of observations of the “wins” and the shortcomings of online adaptation by three colleagues in international education, representing a study abroad organization, an overseas university partner, and an organization advancing disability rights globally.  

We hope that faculty, staff, and students can use this as a guide for implementing new ways of incorporating small, but meaningful adjustments that make a significant impact when it comes to inclusivity online. We’ve broken it down into planning in three stages: pre-event, event execution, and event follow-up.

Pre-Event - Setting the Stage:

Johileny Meran learned through first-hand experience through coordinating the Joining Hands Virtual Symposium with Mobility International USA (MIUSA) in 2020 and 2021. Here’s her two cents: 

Moving to a virtual space definitely presented some challenges, as well as advantages. Centering inclusive design for people with disabilities from the beginning stages allows for opportunities to engage with everyone. So how do you start? What steps can be taken to make your virtual events accessible and engaging to everyone? 

The first step is to consider budgeting for disability-related accommodations and seeking input from the disability community about the best way to provide equal access to your event. 

The second step is to find an accessible virtual platform. There are so many options available. One way to start learning is to research a platform's accessibility features. Accessible virtual spaces that allow:

  • Participants to have multiple ways to engage
  • There is both computer and phone based audio
  • Compatibility with assistive technologies such as screen reader software
  • Method for participants to directly chat/contact staff for access needs
  • Ways to provide live captioning or AI captioning

The third step is to work on your registration form and promote your event. Are you using welcoming and inclusive language that encourages people with disabilities to attend? Are you making sure your promotional materials are accessible? A couple of examples are:

  • Is your Registration Form accessible using a screen reader?
  • Do your social media posts include alternative text and/or image descriptions?
  • Are your promotional videos captioned?

Final step: be sure to collect information in your registration form that will guide your planning and set up every attendee for success. For instance: What disability-related accommodations will you require and/or how can we make the event accessible to you?

The Main Event - Show Time!

Clau Castaneda of SAI Study Abroad and Meghan Godding of London Metropolitan University weigh in further on what they’ve learned on inclusivity in event execution, particularly when it comes to working with students across different time zones and cultures: 

Coordinating complex virtual events like webinars, orientations, and symposiums can be daunting when taking into account the interlocking logistics behind-the-scenes. Combine that with the need to make them accessible to broader swaths of students, and hosting these activities becomes even more multifaceted. 

Integrating inclusive elements into the foundation of any event is key. Whether virtual or not, events should include materials that are accessible, and language that is not only inclusive but also fosters a brave space where students are encouraged and supported to be their authentic selves. 

We are all still learning how to host virtual and hybrid events that add value and validation to the student experience. Here are some critical good practices we have identified over the course of this last year:

Flexibility 
Offering both synchronous and asynchronous options allows participants the flexibility to access information regardless of time zone or other responsibilities.

Inclusive Language
Consider making introductions with your pronouns standard practice; doing this and being mindful of gendering language in your presentation to ensure your presentation is inclusive of everyone. Learn more about inclusive language and Person-First language here.  

Built-In Breaks 
Provide mind breaks during events and presentations. Brain breaks are a short pause during longer events that allow attendees to refocus, reenergize, and calm their minds. Similarly, bio breaks built into event schedules give people the chance to momentarily step away to do things like use the restroom, move their bodies, and get a snack to avoid screen fatigue. 

Accessibility
Ensuring materials and events are accessible to all participants, especially those with disabilities by providing alt text, closed captioning, and even describing important graphs and images verbally are steps we should all take when working towards inclusive global experiences. Diversity Abroad members can check out our Insights into the Field resource on supporting students with disabilities. 

Curtain Close - Event Follow-up:

When following up with event participants ask, in what ways were you able to engage and access our virtual event? You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that the steps you took to make your event inclusive to those with disabilities improved the event experience for everyone, not just those with disabilities. This also opens up the conversation about what can be improved. Feedback loops are important to ensure that relevant folks have a safe space to advocate for their needs. Implementing suggestions to future events is just as crucial for continued improvement and accessibility.

All of these steps and processes still apply as we move back to in-person and hybrid events, and they are useful guidelines for engaging with both inbound and outbound students -- and all of our colleagues in the field of international education. If we continue to be mindful that students have different learning styles, backgrounds, and personal realities, we can better tailor what and how we work with them.

Inculcating inclusive elements into virtual events creates spaces that weren’t there before, where students feel seen, supported, and validated. Share what you have learned about creating a supportive virtual environment on one of Diversity Abroad’s Community Resource Groups. Let’s continue this conversation and commit to growing and learning together as a collective community dedicated to advancing inclusivity and access. 

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