Conferences aren't as accessible as we think they are, but they're getting better

Published on 9/11/2015 3 min read

Before the 2015 Full Stack Fest, I hadn't really given any thought to how accessible a conference is past whether or not it had wheelchair ramps and lifts. It turns out there's way more to making an event inclusive than that.

A live-captioned talk at Full Stack Fest A live-captioned talk at Full Stack Fest

For the Full Stack Fest, Kickstarter sponsored live-captioning for all the talks, transcribing the speakers' words into a space below the slides and allowing anyone to follow along with the talk in.

If you've not experienced live captioning before, it's easy to be skeptical. The text changes frequently, which could be distracting, there's no chance of the technical terms and product names being picked up, and there's almost no way the captions could keep up with the speakers (especially anyone who's nervous!).

It turns out those preconceptions are almost entirely incorrect when you're in the hands of good captioners.

The first couple of days of Ruby talks didn't have that captioning quality, and the captions were laggy, incomplete, and often nonsensical or contradictory to the point the speaker made. The captions only really served as a point of ridicule when they got it particularly wrong.

Less useful captions at Full Stack Fest I failed miserably to take a picture of the worst captions.

At this point the organisers really excelled, swapping out the captioning for an alternative provider and making the last two days much better. It turns out that they'd worked around the problem by setting up a live-stream to the states, where it was live-captioned and sent back to be displayed on the main projector. Even with the latency of sending it half way round the world it was still timely enough that I often found myself following along with the text when I missed a term or phased out through lack of caffeine.

If the captions had worked well from the start, I would probably not have given them a second thought. As it turned out, the failure from the first couple of days was a real eye-opener to the challenges many people face in the tech industry. Without captions or some kind of service providing improved audio (like the T-loops you often see in shops and post offices), those with hearing impairments are pretty much excluded from the kind of events we see as essential for professional growth.

Hopefully we'll see more efforts to increase the accessibility of events in the tech industry as we become more aware of the challenges our colleagues and peers face daily.

A live-captioned talk at Full Stack Fest Captions are great when they work

# Captioning kudos

White Coat Captioning (opens new window) came through at the last minute and did the live-captioning for the final days of the conference. They deserve a special mention because the captions were flawless, hitting pretty much every word and phrase, no matter how technical or obscure. They also wrote the story up (opens new window).