Accessibility for All: ADA Considerations for Public Meetings


Digital tools have revolutionized the way that the public and government staff access and provide information. That holds especially true for public meetings, where planning, holding, and archiving public meetings has moved into a hybrid of online and in-person options. In creating a digital pathway that reaches audiences where they are most likely to engage with vital information — either live or after a meeting has concluded — the likelihood of public participation increases. Staff also find time savings from conveniences created by automation and easy digital archiving. But public meeting accessibility is vital.

Increasing that community reach, governments may face previously unconsidered concerns when it comes providing access to information for residents with disabilities. That’s why the recent Presidential order to increase compliance with Americans with Disability Act (ADA) regulations is creating a transformative moment for governments as they continue to evolve their digital services. Governments are finding that they must increase digital accessibility to meet the needs of all their residents.

In a recent webinar, Accessibility Specialist Geoff Ames of Meeting the Challenge, Inc., discussed the importance of factoring accessibility into the development of online public meetings. By better understanding, and meeting, the needs of users with accessibility issues, the full power of digital government can be realized: reaching more people where and how they can best interact and engage with information.

How is Public Meeting Accessibility Different Online?

It can be daunting to understand government-sanctioned ADA standards, especially when getting it wrong can mean costly fines, penalties, or lawsuits. More importantly, getting it wrong can prevent a member of the community from equal access to participating in public meetings.

Many governments are familiar with ADA-related considerations that must be taken for in-person public meetings. Wheelchair access to meeting rooms, accommodations for service animals, ushers or guides to help convey information to those with vision impairments, and  sign language interpreters for deaf audience members are all common considerations for in-person public meeting events. When those meetings move online, however, many governments forget to translate those same ideas to meet the needs of those in their digital audience who require more assistance to view or participate in the meetings.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act highlights many actions that government staff can take to make sure that a digital experience is inclusive to all members of the community. While many of these guidelines apply to website design, they can also apply to video streams (either live or archived), including:

  • Accessible Documents: Presentation documents such as PowerPoint, Word, and PDF must be accessible and, whenever possible, distributed ahead of the meeting to allow attendees to pre-read or reference at their own pace during the meeting.
  • Captioning: For attendees who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, materials that include an audio component should have a text version accompanying it (e.g., open or closed captioning). This includes all training and informational video and multimedia productions which support the agency’s mission (both live and pre-recorded).
  • Audio Descriptions: Blind and low-vision users who are unable to see visual information will rely on oral or pre-recorded audio that describes the text, images, graphics, charts, animations, and video that comprise the visual portion of the presentation.

What Staff Should Know About Online Public Meeting Accessibility

Just as with in-person public meeting accommodations, Ames said that while virtual facilities must be independently accessible, accommodations for online meetings must be disclosed and requested ahead of time. This might be something users don’t expect in an era of internet plug-ins and ready-made tools. However, Ames added that providing captions and descriptions for video must be done for all streamed and archived video and audio content to meet accessibility needs of Section 508.

Whether or not there are currently internal standards for a government organization when it comes to providing online accessibility to meetings, staff must find an alternate means of access to public meetings, said Ames. If not, organizations may be found in violation of ADA Title II which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

“Public meetings are key to informing residents about public services, programs, and activities,” Ames said during the webinar. “That’s why it’s so important to have these alternate means of access to meetings.”

Overcoming Common Virtual Meeting Compliance Challenges

Governments looking to be compliant with ADA requirements often face issues with the very same areas mentioned above relating to Section 508. Fortunately, many aids and services can help.

Video Remote Interpreters (VRI) and Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART) are two third-party services that provide ASL interpreting and captioning options for those with hearing issues. Assistive listening systems also offer an option for users. Creating large-print and tagged PDF files can help those with visual impairments, as well as creating text that screen reader tools can easily interact with in a user’s web browser in real time.

Other design and production considerations, such as creating sufficient visual contrast, can also provide a means to increasing accessibility.

Balancing Compliance and Convenience

Involving third-party tools and aids to meet accessibility demands for public meetings, however, can both impact the speed in which videos are presented (often reducing live streaming options) and create excessive work for staff. Fortunately, digital solutions such as Granicus’ govMeetings family of solutions integrate tools that meet these needs.

The Live Cast tool in govMeetings leverages a video player tested and approved by third-party ADA experts. It automates video indexing and hyperlinks agendas, minutes, and documents for increased accessibility. Organizations that use Live Cast’s simulcast option to stream to YouTube are also able to provide automated closed captioning in any language.  Meanwhile govMeetings’ Peak tool allows clerks to create agendas and meeting materials with automated ADA-compliant processing to work easily with common web readers such as WAVE.

By using tools that automate the otherwise time-consuming process of creating ADA-compliant meetings and materials, govMeetings makes it easier for governments to increase accessibility easily.

Learn more about how governments can evaluate and identify both physical and operational accessibility barriers to government public meetings as well as the aids and services needed to provide effective, equitable communication for all people in Geoff Ames’ conversation, here.

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