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A Summit for all

Words by Mark Renja • Nov 2 2021

Making the Code for All Summit more inclusive

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic reshaping almost every aspect of our lives, things remained frustratingly intransient for the one in eight people on the planet who are disabled. Even as the world transitioned to remote work seemingly overnight — an accommodation disability activists will tell you had been presented by employers as impossible — many of the difficulties people living with disabilities face simply shifted to this new reality.

One example is the now-ubiquitous video call, which has only recently become more accessible with Zoom announcing that auto-generated captions are finally available for free accounts. The unfortunate but common practice of platforms and services locking crucial accessibility features such as captioning — which is vital for deaf and hard of hearing users — behind paid tiers was a shocking oversight at best and a cynical monetisation strategy at worst. People with disabilities have had to navigate calls, online events and virtual workspaces that either completely ignore their needs or are hostile to anybody with any kind of impairment.

At Code for Africa, we’ve spent time thinking about what digital accessibility means for our own processes and events. As the continent’s largest network of civic technology and data journalism labs, Code for Africa is constantly developing tools, products and programmes that serve an increasingly diverse cross-section of people. With this in mind, Code for Africa’s Engagement team adapted a Universal Access Guide with principles to help us consistently consider the needs of everyone in everything we do. Code for Africa launched the guide, which is a living document that continues to evolve, on Global Accessibility Awareness Day at an event inviting technologists, journalists and civil society to a frank conversation on digital accessibility. It was clear then — as it is now — that there will always be more work to be done, and we were excited to share our journey with others.

That opportunity arrived at this year’s Code for All Summit, an event which for the second year in a row would connect civic technologists virtually for four days of introspection, encouragement, camaraderie and learning. With support from the National Democratic Institute, Code for All and Code for Africa worked together to make this gathering of members and partners of the Code for All Global Network a more inclusive experience by:

1. Showing what’s possible

Before the Summit even began, Code for All and Code for Africa worked together to create simple accessibility primers for presenters and attendees. Key to this approach was the framing of these resources as an opportunity for people to explore what an inclusive Summit could be, rather than a stern set of rigid do’s and don’ts. We encouraged presenters to make sure the material they’d be sharing would be visible to low vision audiences, speak slowly and clearly so that nobody gets left behind, and grant enough room for everyone to participate at their own pace. For those attending, we emphasised that they would now have access to captions for pre-recorded on-demand video and live sessions, as well as presentation materials and session transcripts. By defining the expectations early, we wanted to demonstrate that this Summit would consider the needs of as many of us as possible, and get everyone involved in making that happen.

2. Serving the community

It can be easy, not to mention convenient, to dismiss accessibility needs as the unrealistic, time-consuming demands of a tiny group of people that you don’t even engage with regularly. However, Code for All and Code for Africa approached accessibility during the Summit as a mandatory minimum: something that needed to be done whether anybody used the accessibility features or not. The foundation of this plan was an acknowledgement of two truths:

Accessibility serves everyone, not just the disabled. While digital accessibility features such as captions and transcripts can be considered as tailored specifically for a deaf audience, anyone can get value out of these features. Those for whom English is a second or third language appreciate captioned videos, and transcripts serve as an option for those who for whatever reason — slow internet, noisy surroundings, personal preference — need an alternative to video content.

Disability is inevitable. Whether as a result of injury, illness or old age, we’re all going to live with some form of disability. This inevitable eventuality ought to prompt us, if not out of a shared sense of humanity then perhaps out of an expectation of reciprocation, to afford everyone the empathy and support we’ll need further down the road.

Accessibility is an important way to help build a more inclusive online ecosystem and by creating an event that would accommodate even more of us, we hope that features like captions, transcripts and sign language interpretation — all of which were part of the Code for All Summit — eventually become as inextricably tied to events as microphone mishaps and agonisingly awkward ice-breakers.

3. Staying teachable

Delivering an accessible experience to people from across the globe is a daunting undertaking, and very important lessons were learnt. Because accessibility is so often overlooked by so many, it can be tempting to be satisfied with fulfilling even the most basic requirements since, in many cases, they’re not even requirements to begin with.

But all through the Summit, the team working on accessibility features kept learning and adapting. One important lesson came courtesy of editing hours of automatically-generated captions which nearly two years into a global pandemic kept transcribing Covid as ‘coven’, ‘covert’ and other similar but bizarre variations, just one flavour of the many errors introduced by automation. Automated captions are vital, but the technology still has a very long way to go.

For the presenters and facilitators, this might have been the first time they had explicitly been given the task of considering the needs of disabled attendees and despite the uncertainty being put in that position could cause, they learnt quickly and showed themselves to be quite capable.

To everyone who attended and to all who shared their hopes, fears and dreams with the world at the Code for All Summit, thank you. We hope you felt truly included and we look forward to enjoying next year’s Summit with you.

Author picture

Mark Renja

Project Manager at Code for Africa

Mark is a disabled communications professional with 10 years’ experience in journalism and digital communication. Having worked on groundbreaking digital initiatives at two of East Africa’s largest media and service multinationals, Mark now helps create inclusive communities and accessible products as Code for Africa’s Engagement Project Manager.

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