COVID-19 is Underlining the Need for Accessible Video Conferencing
Over the past few months, many Canadians have been transitioning to a new way of working from home. While many of us are grateful to have a bit of a shorter commute in our day, adjusting to communicating with our coworkers through various digital platforms has proven crucial to remaining productive and connected during these challenging times.
We spoke with James Hardman, Director of Information Technology and Brian McKenzie, Director of Interpreting and Translation Services at Canadian Hearing Services (CHS), about peoples’ reliance on digital connectivity during the COVID-19 crisis. An edited version of that conversation is below, exploring the pressing need for accessible platforms and what CHS is doing to address it.
CHS: Can you tell us a bit about Canadian Hearing Services’ Video Conferencing Services? How does it work?
Brian Mckenzie: We provide Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) services for our clients. This means that we have a web-based service that allows our clients to make direct calls, supported by a team of interpreters across the province providing American Sign Language (ASL), English interpreting, and French/Langues des Signes Quebecois (LSQ) interpreting.
The important thing is that our interpreters can also connect to any platform that our clients use, so they are not restricted in what they use to have their conversations.We also offer Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), which simply put, is on-screen captioning. CART is done by remote writers and can be viewed on a web-based platform or embedded directly into your video-conferencing platform.
James Hardman: Our full video conferencing service solution at CHS has been operating for over 20 years. We even use this service as a solution for internal communications between our offices, with video conferencing units in all our meeting rooms, and each staff member also has access to it on their computer.
CHS: What is your role in delivering this service?
Mckenzie: As the Director, I oversee its delivery. I am responsible for ensuring service quality, efficiency, and performance.
Hardman: I am responsible for the overall IT infrastructure and the video conferencing network we have. IT takes care of all the technical details and provides support to staff as needed.
CHS: What is the value of the Video Conferencing Services offering? Why is it so important?
Mckenzie: The service is invaluable. It has opened doors for people who are Deaf and hard of hearing, helping to level the playing field for our clients. It creates a more accessible meeting room, a place where people who rely on visual cues and language can easily access information.
Hardman: This video conferencing solution creates an accessible environment where we can see all the individuals involved, read their body language, and better control the meeting by allowing only one person to speak at a time. It is a life-changing solution. Along with many other solutions such as Video Remote Interpreting it has made everything more accessible.
CHS: Does traditional video conferencing lack accessibility? What makes this service different?
Mckenzie: With advances in technology, today’s platforms work better and have more functionality. Screen sizes can be adjusted to accommodate interpreting services, meaning our captioning can be embedded directly into the virtual platforms our clients want to use. We are certainly at a much better place technology-wise than we were before.
Hardman: Traditional video conferencing solutions are inflexible. For example, some individuals need to be able to see the full screen with the interpreter there, while others may not. It is difficult to find a “one size fits all” solution, but our services provide a more flexible approach to video conferencing accessibility.
CHS: What are some of the challenges you face in your role?
Mckenzie: One challenge is that for some, technology can seem scary and intimidating. A big part of our work is providing information and guidance on how to ensure communication is accessible for all, and one way to do that is to provide the support necessary to get people to adopt these platforms.
Hardman: The biggest challenge I find is that everyone wants “one solution” to accessibility. I would love to see a “plug and play” type of technology, but we are just not there yet. I find that many technology developers see accessibility as being an after-thought.
It is only once the technology has been built that the creators realize that what they have built is missing an aspect of accessibility. The lack of user-testing and validation involving Deaf and hard of hearing individuals creates an inaccessible product. However, we’re constantly seeing new technologies emerging from large companies like Microsoft, Google and others, as they recognize the need to be fully accessible.
CHS: Do you have any advice for organizations or business leaders about how to be fully accessible for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing?
Mckenzie: Contact CHS for information and support! Ask your Deaf and hard of hearing clients what works for them. Accessibility solutions can be simple, but we can help guide you through your options when it comes to accessibility solutions.
Hardman: They should contact us, and we will help them become fully accessible. While there definitely is a technological aspect to accessibility, there is also a human one, and one part of accessibility compliance is making sure your people are properly trained.
CHS: How has your role been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? Have you seen an increase in demand for your services, given the large number of people now working from home?
Mckenzie: CHS is fortunate to be in a position where we can easily provide many services remotely. Our staff are set up with equipment in secure, private locations so they can connect with clients from anywhere. Because of COVID-19, we easily made a shift from on-site service to remote VRI. We have seen an increase in demand for remote services. In a sense, we have become more efficient at delivery by removing travel time to and from appointments. Now, service is just a few clicks away!
Hardman: In terms of our services, we have embraced digital solutions and we were ready to provide services virtually. There was a period of adjustment for our counsellors and clients as they adjusted to a new way of meeting, but we have had very successful results with it.
CHS: What steps have you taken internally to ensure an accessible working environment for CHS employees during a time when staff are working remotely? Are there lessons other employers could learn from your approach?
Mckenzie: When setting up employees to work remotely in an accessible way, there can be a few details to iron out. For meetings, this can include things like setting up ground rules, developing a speakers list to take turns when speaking and ensuring the interpreter is always visible on screen.
Hardman: For our organization, we have taken a “work from anywhere” approach ensuring staff members are not tied down to a physical environment because of technological limitations. One such example is our telephone system, which allows our employees to answer telephone calls from anywhere if they have a headset, computer, or their mobile phone. We have also embraced cloud-based services and storage to make it easy for our employees to work if they are connected to the internet.
CHS: Is there anything else people should know about these services that we have not touched on?
Hardman: Technology is not a “one size fits all” solution. We have individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing who prefer to meet in person, and we have others who prefer to use digital tools. Everyone has different needs in terms of accessibility. So, the best thing you can do to ensure accessibility, is to just ask! Ask your employees and coworkers about what their accessibility needs are. There is no such thing as a stupid question.