How WordPress Accessibility Day Stretched My Speaking and Technology Skills

photo on left shows Empish wearing a suit and speaking from a podium. photo on the right shows Empish wearing a white tee shirt with the words "Make WordPress Accessible, WordPress Accessibility Day 2022"

Editor’s Note: In time for the International Day of Disabilities on December 3, Empish Thomas has written a post about presenting at the 2022 WordPress Accessibility Day, including her challenges and how she overcame them.

I have been using WordPress for nearly three years for my website and blog. My overall experience using this platform has been pleasant. I am able to perform the tasks I want to do with little complication and with few accessibility problems. So, when WordPress announced their Accessibility Day event, I had to sign up.

The event started on Wednesday, November 2, and ended Thursday, November 3, and ran for 24 hours straight. There were panel discussions, 15-minute lightning talks, and longer 50-minute presentations. Topics covered making beautiful accessible websites, form accessibility, theme development, choosing plugins for accessibility, writing good alternative text, and more. There were sessions for all experience levels: designers, developers, content creators, accessibility testers, and advocates.

My Presentation

Not only did I attend, but I spoke as well. My presentation was titled, “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: How Alt Text Communicates Accessibility and Inclusion.” I wanted to highlight the importance of using alt text for images from a blind perspective. I shared best practices and my own personal experience. (Alt text is descriptive text which conveys the meaning and context of a visual item in a digital setting, such as on an app or web page.)

There were about 40 speakers from 14 countries, and many of them had disabilities. About 1,600 registered for this event. So, it was an excellent opportunity to provide valuable information and receive worldwide exposure. With that being said, I learned a lot from just preparing for the event. It stretched my speaking and technology skills. In this post, I am going to share the things I learned in an effort to encourage you to take advantage of opportunities when they come your way and don’t be afraid or intimidated to pursue them even if you are not an expert.

Empish using stretch band to demonstrate "stretching" her skills. She is grimacing as she pulls hard on the band.
Empish using stretch band to demonstrate “stretching” her skills

Six Things I learned from Presenting at the 2022 WordPress Accessibility Day

1.Coming up with a topic: In order to present I had to submit a proposed topic. It took a couple of days to produce something relevant and interesting. I thought about the event requirements, the audience, and my own experience. I thought about some of the challenges with accessibility I deal with daily. On the top of the list was a lack of text descriptions for images. As a blind person, it is so important to use alt text, which is a brief description of the image. Alt text is essential for people who are blind or low vision to access visual information on a website.

2. Learning how to host a Zoom call to record a presentation: I was excited when my proposal was accepted. Woohoo! I was assigned to the lightning talk category. This would be a 15-minute recorded presentation. WordPress encouraged speakers to use Zoom to host and record a call. I have used Zoom for years—but as a participant rather than a host. This was a new thing I had to learn. Fortunately, I already had a Zoom account. I read over hosting directions for a desktop computer and got going.

But there were problems along the way. First, the “scheduling a call” feature was tricky to maneuver. The section for date and time was not easy to do. Then, I needed sighted help to blur my background. I used AIRA, which is a virtual assistant for those are blind or low vision, to help me.

3. Presenting virtually: I have given speeches and presentations for years and feel very comfortable talking in front of people. But I quickly realized presenting virtually is not the same. There is no feedback from the audience. I had no idea how or if my presentation was being received. So, I tried to stay positive and keep my face open with a smile. I also modulated my voice, spoke slow and direct, pausing for effect.

I wrote a script of my speech and partly memorized it, practicing several times until I was confident. Once I accomplished that, I had to figure out how to keep my eyes focused on my webcam. I realized if I positioned my keyboard directly in front of the camera, I could keep my eye direction straight.

After I did a practice recording, I sent a copy to a sighted friend. I wanted her to listen to my speech, look at my presentation style, and critique it. She gave me great feedback and suggestions for improvement that I implemented.

4. Learning about Google Drive to upload my presentation: Once my speech and appearance were polished, I had to record and send my presentation to the coordinators. They had a Google drive file folder for all speakers to upload their presentations. I was unfamiliar with this option and fumbled around before successfully submitting it. It was not obvious how to upload it, and I had to try different options before I found the right one. I reached out to the coordinators to share my experience and suggest they provide some instructions in the future.

5. Learning how to use Slack: On the actual day of the event, all speakers were encouraged to be on Slack. This is a business messaging app to communicate with co-workers or a team. It reminded me of a group chat for text messages but much more extensive.

I have never used Slack, and when I asked around to my blind friends, I got mixed responses. Some were familiar, some not. Some said it was hard to access and others not. Some said to use it on a smartphone because the desktop version was not very accessible. It would also be cumbersome to respond simultaneously while using a screen reader. So, I knew I was entering into another challenge that would stretch my technology skills.

I contacted the coordinators about it, and they provided a person to give me a crash course. I learned a few tips on how to use Slack with a screen reader on my desktop computer. I opted for this way because it would be a little more complicated to set up my account on my phone. Additionally, this was a one-time situation, so I was mindful of my time, energy, and bandwidth to learn new things. I had to prioritize.

The learning session went great, and I left feeling confident that I could use Slack. But the day of the event was another story. My learning session gave me the basics, but when conversations and messages were coming through, interacting on the platform was different. However, I was still able to engage through email notifications that took me directly to the conversation or message. I even learned how to send an audio message to one of the coordinators when he asked for the proper pronunciation of my first name. I was pretty proud of myself after that.

6. Interacting with listeners during and after my presentation: Slack was not the only way we chatted and had conversations. During and after my speech, people were sending messages right there on the event platform. I quickly learned how to respond to those messages. I used the split headset option available within my screen reader. This allowed me to listen to the audio of the event in one ear and my screen reader in the other.

Next Year

As far as I know, WordPress is hosting this event again next year. I plan to attend and, who knows, maybe I will do another presentation. With all that I learned this year, I feel even more confident that I could do it again successfully.

 

Learn More

Alternative Text – Digital Accessibility | University of South Carolina (sc.edu)

Social Media Accessibility Checklist | American Printing House (aph.org)


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