What do you do when you facilitate online with high-quality visual whiteboards like Mural and Miro and then are asked to facilitate a group with some vision-challenged participants?  You throw away the whiteboard.  This was not the conclusion I was expecting when I was recently given this problem, but researching what it meant to be vision-impaired and what’s possible led me to some surprising findings in shifting my facilitation.

Appreciating and Embracing the Visual Challenge

As online facilitators, we embrace our visual tools.  Our near-infinite canvases, online sticky notes, drawings with color and simple shapes, numerous icons, and graphics we paste in from the internet or with the help of an artist, give us the ability to construct a visual guide for our participants which becomes the foundation of our work. 

And then you find a client that cannot stand with you in the visual space.  They need something different.  They need something even more inclusive.  They need you to stretch your capabilities beyond the visual to serve everyone in their group.

Most facilitators (and most business leaders) cannot understand why this matters. And it’s not surprising as they have no experience with these situations.  Rather than shrugging shoulders, it helps if you find ways to empathize with these needs.  

Keep in mind that it’s you as the facilitator that holds the challenge.  For those with a visual disability (or any disability), it is more than a challenge.  It is their life.  You respect them by adapting your approaches to work for everyone, including them.

As an example, friends of mine at Lucid Meetings sponsored this short “day in the life” video: https://accessmovie.org/.  It’s less than 14 minutes long.  I’d rather you watch that than read the rest of this article, but I’ll be here to finish my story if you choose to return.

Rethinking Visual

As I prepared for my session, I was confident that I could adapt my techniques after 20 years of facilitation with much of it online.  I was quickly humbled when I debriefed the event sponsors on my approach.  These sponsors had a visually disabled person on their staff for a few years now and they were a valuable team member.

As an online facilitator, you ensure all participants can equally engage in the event that you plan and facilitate. But these sponsors provided me with some key questions to consider to include a more diverse group of participants with equity and inclusion:  

  • What if some participants have visual challenges with your typical tools and exercises?
  • What if a participant is color blind?  And what type of color-blindness? There is more than one type. [CCC-W] 
  • Do they require screen reading technology?  Do your collaboration tools support screen reading?

You need to address these questions. 

You also need to address the dignity of the person with the needs in mind. You do not want to start a meeting by saying something like “I know we have a blind person in the room. So I’ll be making some adjustments.”  That puts the person in a very awkward position and you disrespect them. You might consider a “people-first” approach in your facilitation and your language. (Refer to this list of “people-first language” for a list of outdated references and some suggested alternatives.

You might also consider how we adapt to create an environment where everyone feels valued, seen, safe, and heard with the following questions:

  • What assistive needs are there for the online session you are planning? (Seeking Diversity)
  • How can you weave this assistance into your online facilitation so the experience is similar for everyone to participate? (Providing Equity)
  • What support might you need to accommodate these different and diverse needs?  Do you need someone to focus on technology while you focus on the people?  Do you need someone to focus on one or more assistive needs online or in person (hybrid remote)? (Being Inclusive)
  • What might happen if you or one of your co-facilitators lose connection with the remote event?  How might you adjust? (Being Resilient)

Letting Go of the Visual Canvas

After consulting with a colleague with experience in media accessibility, I decided to make the following changes:

  • I adapted the canvas we had in Mural into a document format.  I wrote out every step of the exercises and shipped it to participants a few days before as a Word document as that tends to have the best support for screen-reading technology.
  • I asked the participants to complete some of the first exercises as preparation as a way to entice them to open and review the document.  It didn’t really matter if they completed the preparation.
  • Since this exercise was part of a series across the organization, I did show the canvas to the participants at the beginning of the event.  But I quickly started referring them to the Word document so they understood the equivalence of the Word document.
  • We used many breakout sessions where they were in groups of 3-4 and everyone could easily enter a discussion or ask for help.
  • I invited a cofacilitator to help me walk through the virtual breakouts.  That way, one of us was nearby to assist.  It wasn’t needed as the participants were all colleagues accustomed to supporting each other.
  • During debriefings with the entire group (about 12 total participants), either my co-facilitator or I would capture their learning in a main copy of the Word document.  After the event, we shared this main document with all participants so that they had everyone’s prework and work during the session.  This allowed the visually disabled participants to easily use their screen reader technology to review.
  • As all teams who participated in the series were asked to submit their Mural canvas as results, we submitted the main Word document with results to emphasize that canvases do not work for everyone in the organization.

Was this more work?  Absolutely.

Did I learn an entirely new way to facilitate?  Absolutely.

What’s Next for Inclusive Remote Facilitation?

 As I was wrapping up these sessions in late February 2022, Mural began releasing early versions of the built-in screen reader capabilities.  This is part of their broader efforts for accessibility.  I hope to see more of this from Mural and other vendors.

I also hope more people share their experiences.  Most of what I found in my search on inclusive facilitation included some cumbersome steps in preparing and using slide presentations. (It’s not worth sharing the links.)  If we can do better than that online (and we have), we can certainly share more on how to be inclusive in our facilitation.  Even the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has used “hummed consensus” as an alternative to visual voting for years.  This is yet another reason I support the Online Collaboration Manifesto.

I, for one, look forward to pushing the boundaries of inclusive facilitation.  Want to talk about it? Contact me here or join me in the Meeting Innovation Community.

Special Thanks

To Elise Keith at Lucid Meetings for sharing the Access moving and reminding me about the IETF “hummed consensus”

To Kirsten Clacey of the RemoteCoaches.com for discussing some early versions of this article. (I decided to keep it simple Kirsten and I’m looking forward to you writing on similar topics – hint, hint.)

To Nikoletta Tatar for letting me know that Miro has released similar features to support screen readers.