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  • Writer's pictureHannah Walker

‘Flipping the Tin’ podcast episode 2: Accessibility within Digital Events

Updated: May 19, 2021

Our new podcast has recorded its second episode! We chat with industry specialists, policymakers, and conference attendees on the future of events and we are very excited to share this one with you. A really insightful discussion with distinguished guests Rachel England, assisted by her BSL to English interpreter and Gerardo Ortega. They explore the inaccessibility of digital events within the deaf community and share advice on how to be more inclusive.

Rachel England is a research assistant at the University of Birmingham. She obtained her BA/BSc in Deaf Studies with Psychology at the University of Wolverhampton in 2002 and a Postgraduate Certificate in Deaf Studies at the University of Bristol in 2008. Since 2011, she has been working as a research assistant on numerous projects across the UK. Including the Syndrome Vision Research Unit within Cardiff University looking at the mysterious benefits of bifocals for children with Down's Syndrome.

Gerardo Ortega is a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the signed languages of deaf communities and the gestures produced by hearing people. A key aspect

of his work is how deaf and hearing people acquire a linguistic system expressed with the body and processed through the eyes.

1. Have you been able to attend any virtual conferences and what was your experience?

Rachel: After the pandemic came and we went into lock down and we all turned to Teams or Zoom to get access, that became a problem for deaf people to be able to see the interpreter all of the time. Everybody's signing all at the same time on these little tiny stamp sized pictures and it is very very difficult...There's also always a delay with the interpreter so sometimes I'm ready to speak, I've got my hand up and I'm ready to sign but somebody else has got in there before me... It's very difficult to create a system that's deaf friendly... It's a very bad experience for a lot of deaf people.

Gerardo: Unfortunately the pandemic hit us very hard and very suddenly and I don't think that we had the technology to really cater for all these people and it was really challenging… As Rachel was saying, it was incredibly difficult to really communicate and make it accessible to everyone. If you think, normally people interact face to face, so if you’re hearing or deaf you have your interlocutor in front of you and you can see all their bodily actions and these are important cues. These are gone in a virtual environment, and this is particularly more challenging when it comes to deaf people and the communication using sign language.

2. Have you seen in your research ways to overcome these barriers?

Rachel: Personally for me perhaps the best idea I have to make it accessible to deaf people is to perhaps have it led by a deaf person, because a deaf person would know how to pace the information... Technology and how it's working at the moment is the problem and it's not accessible to a person who is deaf like myself. I think in the future perhaps online training that was deaf-led would perhaps be able to help because then they would be able to do the pace. It would be very difficult for people with no deaf awareness to empathize and to know how to make the adjustments that are needed. Also I think that limiting the number of people that would be in the conference would make an impact.

Gerardo: I think that very often people who organize these conferences are very well intended but they don't really have the knowledge or the understanding of how to be accessible … One piece of advice would be just something as simple as looking at the camera. We know from research that eye gaze is a very important cue to signal turn-taking in communication ... Another really important point here is that we have to be aware that even though technology can allow us to do several things at the same time, the mind has limited cognitive resources and we cannot really pay attention to absolutely everything that is happening online... We have to consider that people who attend this conference have different abilities, different ages and different digital literacy so we cannot just assume that because the technology allows us to do certain things that everybody's going to keep up with it.

3.Has it affected networking at all? Have there been solutions?

Rachel: Networking was quite important for me and asking questions and putting your view out there... but then that's been a problem. If it was led by a deaf person and it was at the pace of a deaf person it would be fine, I'd probably be able to cope. But if it's a hearing person who's leading it, it's more problematic... It's easier for me to just sit back and say nothing and watch all my colleagues asking and making the comments and hoping that one of them will ask a question that I’m thinking about… It depends on the energy of the day to put up with the barriers... We need our strength to keep coming forward and saying ‘don't forget us, don't forget us’ but you keep coming forward and getting knocked back. It's really draining.

Gerardo: I think that the answer will depend on the personality of the person you ask... I personally miss the lack of ability to really communicate and interact informally with people because that's also what makes us human. That aside, other personalities I've seen that really engage in this type of platforms had these discussion boards and chat options and they were texting away their lives and sharing stories and talking about personal experiences and their research. People who were traditionally very quiet to ask a question in a public domain, like in a face-to-face conference, they were very communicative in the text format. So I think that it really depends on who you ask.

4. What is your hope for the future of academic conferences?

Gerardo: My prediction is that we're definitely going to stick to hybrid from now on for many reasons... I think that it would be really irresponsible to go back to encouraging people to fly and continue polluting the world. We want to keep things accessible to people so we are broadcasting things live, but also we're going to try to limit the amount of travel that people are doing because it's expensive and it's bad for the environment and we have seen that there is no need for that.

Rachel: I think there's more learning opportunities to develop different training and to make it more accessible. As I’ve mentioned before with big screens, it would be a lot easier as you can see everybody but you'd still be sort of together... I can see the possibility of both, the hybrid way, I think that is the hope really because you'll get more learning opportunities... Perhaps that's the future that I'd hope for. If technology could improve to facilitate something like that, that would be great.

So much more is said on the limitations surrounding deaf attendees within digital events on the podcast. You can find the audio here: Flipping the Tin (

You can find a video with subtitles here:

A full transcript of our discussion can be found here:

Download PDF • 113KB

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