In Education and Learning, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Online Accessibility as a Component of Water Equity

For years, River Network has hosted online webinars, trainings, and peer calls to engage members of the water community around relevant and topical issues. But as many organizations, including River Network, have ramped up online events and digital outreach in the last few years, and particularly over the past 18 months in response to COVID-19, we have unintentionally excluded many individuals from these conversations.  

In recent months, members of River Network’s internal Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee have embarked on an effort to find ways to make our virtual programming more accessible to all members of our network, recognizing it is imperative that we adjust how we plan and facilitate online events so we are fully inclusive of our network members and partners who may speak languages other than English (the language many of us default to), live with a disability, and/or are neurodiverse.1

What do we mean by “accessibility”? We are using this term to describe the extent to which an online space or virtual event can be navigated by a range of users, including individuals whose dominant language is not English, who experience environmental limitations, or live with one or more physical, visual, or cognitive disabilities. The Census Bureau estimates that 19% of the US population experiences a disability. An even higher percentage say that English is not their first language. There is also a significant barrier to digital information among low-income and rural Americans who may or may not have access to high-speed internet. Given this information, it is the responsibility of capacity- and partnership-building organizations like River Network to ensure that information is accessible for all who want to participate.

It is important to remember that the members of our community vary greatly in how they prefer and are able to access information. Our main takeaway from hosting and co-hosting a variety of virtual events over the last few months, including Action Days for Clean Water & Rivers and River Rally, is that creating truly inclusive online spaces will require us to constantly evolve. Because while research shows that disabled Americans are less likely to use technology, new developments in assistive technology are shifting quickly and drastically to accommodate those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate in online digital events. This gives our network an opportunity to shift as well.

Accessibility in online spaces is too often an afterthought; something considered when event and technology plans are already in motion. A question we are asking ourselves is, “What might happen if we centered accessibility in our planning before the wheels began turning?” River Network’s goal is to integrate accessibility tools like closed captioning, ASL (American Sign Language) and other language interpretation at future virtual events, proactively creating inclusive virtual spaces. We plan to move away from implementing accessibility features simply in response to specific requests, and instead incorporate them as baseline features, thus ensuring all attendees have the conditions in place that enable them to engage with the content and participate in the conversation enthusiastically, without fear of exclusion, and without having to ask.

We look forward to sharing this journey and our learnings with members of the network. Here are a few of the changes that we are considering incorporating into our practices:

  • Providing call-in numbers for individuals with limited access to internet/computers, and emailing out any presentations or visuals in advance of the meeting.
  • Utilizing built-in accessibility features that come with common tools, such as Zoom auto-transcription, language interpretation within Zoom, and YouTube language interpretation through subtitles.
  • Prioritizing accessibility in our budgeting process building in funds to support captioning, ASL interpretation, language interpretation, and other actions.
  • Offering multiple ways for attendees to engage during online events, such as chat, breakout rooms, or other forms of follow-up or engagement when opening the conversation for participant feedback and sharing.
  • Being more inclusive in our planning processes! Accessibility begins at the planning stage. We will strive to include individuals with various needs in these processes from the beginning.

To start, River Network has made a commitment to provide closed captioning at online events moving forward. In addition, River Network will also assess the accessibility of digital spaces such as our website, information pages, and online forms we create for organizations to apply for River Network funding or programs. Toward that goal, we will take action to reduce sensory overload in our online spaces by reducing the use of  contrasting colors, flashing GIFs or animations, and auto-play, a strategy that is especially important for neurodiverse individuals.

We hope to learn alongside you – our network members and partners – about how we can make our services more accessible to a greater number of people. How are you making your virtual events more inclusive and accessible? Read and contribute to the discussion in the River Network Online Community to share resources, tools, and insights into this journey.

1Neurodiverse is a broad term describing individuals who may experience varying degrees of less typical cognitive variations, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or others. Making online content more inclusive for neurodiverse individuals means preventing sensory overload in all spaces and increasing readability.

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