Rapid Accessible Streaming

Accessible educational video tips and best practices for the space, time, and resource strapped.

Flexibility is Key

Things everywhere are always changing rapidly, and easy digital alternatives to traditionally in-person experiences in adverse conditions are more important than ever.

Disclaimer

This is adverse condition advice, meant to get someone up and running semi-accessibly in a hurry, in the field, or in less-than-ideal circumstances. If you're reading this in some blissful stable future, we're not giving you an out here.

This is intended as jury rigging for people trying to build a bridge across a river as quickly as possible.

It's not going to be a nice bridge, and you'll have to fix it up later, but for now you just need to get across the river. Your institution's obligations under the ADA don't end just because everyone got sent home. Section 504 and Titles II and III are still very much in effect.

As always, we are not lawyers, and this is not legal advice.

Background

Rapid Realtime Video That Works.

This was written during the depths of the COVID-19 lockdown on the eastern seaboard of the US, but can apply to any situation where you've got to move from "in person" to "virtual" in a hurry.

Let's try a hypothetical:

I'm an educator, and I've been suddenly tasked with moving all of my instruction online. I'm reasonably digitally savvy, and I can turn on my laptop camera and people can hear my microphone. I share secondary materials with my students in various ways, and things are progressing along. The initial shock of having to move things to some streaming service (Zoom or Hangouts or whatever) is wearing off and now I'm starting to buckle down into the actual task of teaching.

I'm now responsible for my institution's compliance with ADA regulations and I've got 45 minutes until my next lecture.

I've got, say, (optimistically) 40 students in every class. According to the US Census Bureau, statistically, 8 of those students have some form of disability. Maybe I'm aware of them and maybe not, but I may see some of my learners starting to struggle with the new format.

Beyond disabilities, my students are now outside of a classroom environment in an environment where they have little control and possibly little stability. Home stressors for students can run the gamut from battling their siblings for computer time to housing and food insecurity. Simple changes benefit not just students with disabilities, but also learners who may be struggling with unstable living situations and other issues that are beyond my purview and control to mitigate.

By making my learning materials and sessions a clean, well designed place of refuge for my students I can create a place for them to focus on the tasks at hand and on something they can control.

Technology

Beyond hypotheticals, most educators use third party vendors to deliver course content, and they probably had no say in the platform choices. Most large technology vendors have some form of accessibility statement that will pretty transparently state their goal criteria and current conformance (Look for WCAG 2.0 or 2.1 AA at minimum).

If they don't have an accessibility statement, that's not a great sign.

However, accessibility can be a great lever for change from hated vendors, assuming there's a more accessible similar tool available.

Video Basics

Using a laptop to film yourself in your kitchen? Of course you are, and that's totally cool. Let's do some basic media training. I'll refer to the person being filmed (or streaming) as "the subject", though this is probably you.

Mise en Scene

The medium closeup is shot as close to eye level as possible. The main light source is behind the camera (in front of the subject). Set up the shot to shoot from about the collarbones up, making sure that there's a little space above the top of the subject's head. Try to find a spot with a neutral and uncluttered background as possible.

Lighting

Keep the main light source in front of the subject. Don't film the subject in front of an unshaded window or other bright light source, and don't use overhead light if possible.

If you want to be glamorous, put the main light source about 45 degrees off center on their good side. If you want to get even more glamorous you can also add a secondary less powerful light source 45 degrees on the other side as a "fill" and a tertiary (and even less powerful) light source above and behind the subject as a backlight.

A large white square (like a wall) can reflect light too! If you want to impress your friends call that a "bounce". A nice desk lamp and a bit of wall reflection can make for a tidy shot

This is called "three point lighting" and it's worked just fine since the American civil war. Side note, Amazon patented this setup, but we won't tell Jeff you're doing it.

Move things around, set it up and try it out, change it.

Audio (The lynchpin)

If possible, find a quiet space. Get a little mic, plug in mobile phone headphones with the little mic attached, bust out the gamer headset, do your best.

It'll cut down on background noise, it'll enable the speaker to feel like they don't have to talk as loudly, and it'll help learners with unstable connections or background noise of their own.

Remember that you're also dealing with whatever is on the other end of your lectures, so the easier you can make it on your end the better.

Actual Video Accessibility Guidelines

Though thus far, we've talked primarily about live/streaming video, standard accessibility guidelines change when the video is prerecorded. So, for example if you record a live lecture and then post the recording for later viewing, the rules change. Our opinion is that this is mostly due to the limitations of modern technology, but you're not here to get in the weeds with an interminable discussion of WCAG Time-Based Media Rules and the inner workings of the W3C.

The Upshot

Let's simplify this in the spirit of the times. As far as accessibility is concerned, there are three things to think about:

  • Text Alternatives
  • Captions
  • Audio Description

Automated Captions

Some video streaming and chat platforms (Zoom, Hangouts, Youtube) have real-time captioning, and some of their captioning is (given the current state of tech)...ok. There's not going to be a ton of wiggle room here for delivering video lectures in real time. Check out vendors, and change over to one that at least tries here. It's imperfect.

Audio Descriptions

Realtime video audio descriptions are another field where a lot of (even large online learning companies) fall down. They're expensive to generate, they demand special (though becoming more common) video players, and generally aren't as widespread as they should be.

The WCAG gives an out here for real time video, but it's also fine to describe what's on screen. "The graph dips at 450 and then sharply curves up at 500".

Everyone can use help parsing information sometimes, so it's fine to deliver it multiple ways. Show it, describe it.

Finally

Consider recording and making videos available after the fact.

Remember, this is adverse condition advice. It's meant for the field. If you (heaven forbid) have to continue teaching remote for longer than, say, a month, there's going to be more work to do, and your institution is going to have to get more serious about accessibility.