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Cvent's Perspective: Making Meetings Accessible to All

May 18, 2022

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly one in five people in the U.S. have a disability, so making sure your meeting or event is inclusive to all is of paramount importance.

May 19, 2022, is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, so we sat down with meetings tech titan Cvent to talk with their new senior product manager for accessibility, Stephen Cutchins, and senior director of product management, Carl Aldrich, to discuss the strides and challenges the meetings and events industry has experienced in ensuring everyone is included.

Learn about cutting-edge accessibility tech from Cvent and beyond, and how our industry and world is rapidly changing for the better by including more voices in the conversation.

Listen to the episode:

Transcript:

Tyler Davidson: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this Meetings Today Podcast. I'm Tyler Davidson, vice president and chief content director for Meetings Today. And if you're listening to this on Thursday, May 19, it’s the 11th annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

So, we're happy to bring this content to you today from Cvent, featuring a couple of folks from Cvent: Carl Aldridge, senior director of product management, and Stephen Cutchins, senior product manager for accessibility, which I think is relative, I think. Steven, you've been with Cvent since January and brought in just for this role?

Stephen Cutchins: Yeah, a new position. I've been doing accessibility 17 years, but I've been doing it here for about five months.

[Related: How to Plan Accessible Meetings and Events]

Tyler Davidson: And looking at your bio, it says you've worked closely with people with disabilities, including those who are blind or deaf or have physical disabilities. And then you come from a family with a mother who was an amputee, two cousins who are in wheelchairs. So, this is really something that is close to you. You've really had an intimate involvement your whole life, right?

Stephen Cutchins: Yeah, well, that's why it clicked. So, my mother, she lost her life to cancer when I was very young, like single-digit age, and they tried to prolong her life. She had bone cancer; they took one of her legs off. So, I remember being, eight years old, and--given my age here--but I mean, this is back in the early '70s, when even an automatic open door wasn't a guarantee.

So, I remember her struggling--I would have to run up and open the doors, that kind of thing. So later since, after she died, my aunt and uncle had two kids with physical disabilities, one of them had cerebral palsy severe enough where they weren't able to talk, he could crawl a little bit, but was really kind of immobile. So, you know, I would be a 10-year-old kid pushing my wheelchair at Disney for vacation. 

And by the way, it was always Disney because at the time, Disney was only the place that could really facilitate kids in wheelchairs. So, I mean, it's been my whole life. I lucked into it. About 17 years ago, I was on a project, and they said, "Figure out this ADA thing, this WCAG [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] stuff, we have no idea what it is. Do it off the side of your desk, make it work." And it clicked, and you know, almost two decades later now and I'm still doing it.

[Read More Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Content]

Tyler Davidson: Wow, that's very commendable. So, you've seen the whole generation and increasing prominence of this topic. There's been major advances in it, but still, there's a lot of people who are slow to adopt to it. Right? And I'm glad to hear Cvent is really on board with this. And we'll talk more about what Cvent did and CONNECT, etc., around this.

But before we get to that, thank you for joining us, Carl, I appreciate it. Tell everyone what you do for Cvent.

Carl Aldrich: Yeah, so I lead our product management team really focused around attendee experiences. So, how people can participate in events, live and on-demand.

Obviously, the past couple years, we've been doing a lot related to virtual events, which have an amazing impact in terms of making live events more accessible to everyone, but also providing all the technology that people use onsite; mobile apps to discover what's happening, figure out where they need to go, understand what's on their schedule, schedule appointments, things like that.

So, really looking at the attendee experience for events as a whole. Which means really taking accessibility into account, and super excited to have Steven here to really help us also push not just our own products forward, but also the industry and really create more awareness amongst event planners and marketers around how they can accommodate everyone when they're planning their events, and really think about reaching a broader audience.

Tyler Davidson: Why is this important to the meetings and events industry? Why should they prioritize accessibility?

Stephen Cutchins: I can answer that. So, they always should have, I mean, we are.

The reason our business is here is to bring people together. And it used to be a little more, "Let's bring people together in a place. Now it's... the best thing about COVID is now let's bring people together, period, not all of them are in the same place. And I think with outside of just events, schools, education, suddenly it was, "I have two kids, and suddenly it's like they're home here." I'm lucky my kids can see, my kids can hear, my kids can use a mouse, they can use a keyboard. What about those parents that their kids couldn't? What about somebody who had a kid who had ADHD and suddenly you expect him to stare at a screen all day? 

It was a massive paradigm shift, and how we have to share information, how we have to connect people. And yeah, that's what actually is fantastic. Some of our customers that are coming in really appreciating this the most are higher education, and they realize this isn't going away.

[Discover this Accessibility Site Inspection Checklist From Joan Eisenstodt]

Carl Aldrich: Yeah, and I think it's such an important thing, just from a business perspective, as around a quarter of adults in the U.S. experience some type of disability, around 20%, globally. So, anyone who is not taking that into account, just from a marketing standpoint, is really missing out on an opportunity to reach a much broader audience and make sure that they're actually maximizing the opportunity that they have as a business.

So, it's not only just the right thing to do in terms of making the world a better place, but also really important from a business perspective.

Tyler Davidson: And, as I mentioned earlier, at CONNECT 2022--Cvent's CONNECT--featured a keynote from a Deaf activist, Neil DeMarco, who zeroed in on the need for improved accessibility for those with disabilities.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to attend that, but what are some of the highlights of that? And then, also, how has the pandemic, and really, the sophistication of virtual and hybrid events, kind of pushed the needle, or moved the needle on, accessibility?

Carl Aldrich: Yeah, good question. I could probably speak to that a little bit. I mean, we were super excited to have him join us for CONNECT. I felt like that was a really impactful experience for people. Also, good news, Tyler, you can watch it on-demand, if you missed it. So, it's still accessible to you.

And for us, I think that helped create more awareness in our audience. And that's part of what we're trying to do also, in doing this, and then doing more outreach, just to share what people might want to think about in terms of creating those more accessible experiences. I think, like Steven said, there’s a lot of positive things in terms of technology and accessibility coming from COVID. You know, both in terms of people having to think about it more, because all of a sudden, they're hearing from people who aren't physically there that they need some help to figure out how to participate in an event. But also because it's really pushed innovation in tools like web-based video conferencing solutions.

And it's really pushed a bigger investment in services, like remote interpretation for different languages, including sign languages, which helps people reach a much broader audience more effectively through their remote meetings and events. So, all of that has really helped push what we're able to provide in a positive direction, as well as just the technology industry as a whole.

Stephen Cutchins: Yes, so much of this, they say it's useful for all, that it's mandatory. For some things like captions, I have a middle schooler, one going to high school, two kids. So, they're home, suddenly, I'm working, I'm on a webinar, I need to understand what's going on. Instead of blasting up the volume, I turn on captions. And, for me, it's absolutely nothing to do with accessibility, it's just more convenient. And for somebody who's--again, I'm lucky, I can hear what they're saying--it's just more difficult because of all the mess going around in my house.

For somebody who's Deaf, they don't have that luxury. So, for them, it's mandatory. And little things like that; people are starting to realize all these little, you know, movements in the industry more and more--it's helping everybody, but for some people, it's that or they can't attend.

Tyler Davidson: And I think probably the improvements in AI technology have really helped this immensely, right?

Carl Aldrich: Yeah. Yeah. For sure. Captions: I think one thing that's on our minds a lot is, not everyone has the budget to deliver an event like Cvent CONNECT, or get the level of support that might be required in order to deliver captioning and have an onsite production team and things like that.

And AI has really helped move automated captions forward a lot, give people tools that can create those transcriptions as well as automatically translating things into different languages, and that's probably never going to be quite as good as having somebody doing it professionally, [but] it can be a lot more affordable. And you know, we'd rather see more people create open and accessible experiences, on balance, than only have it be available to the very top end of the market.

So, you know, we're thinking about how we can continue to improve our products just to make that easier for people who don't have the budget, or potentially the time, to navigate some of the complexities there.

Stephen Cutchins: And even simple things like you're checking into an event, what if somebody is deaf, they want to check in, they have trouble communicating?

There are mobile apps now that are free to download. Or somebody who's deaf; on one side, it shows a keyboard, the other side, it's a microphone. So, I can speak to someone, you know, "Do you need help registering?" And it will show up? Do you need me need help registering, with a question mark? And then they type in, "Yes." And we can communicate back and forth? All through holding a phone? And what's the alternative? Would they maybe grab a piece of paper they have to write it down? 
It makes it more seamless and more human, more personal.

Tyler Davidson: Yeah, and I've been writing a lot of stories, almost from a curiosity standpoint, that once we get back to in-person meetings, kind of at full force, how will things have changed from before the pandemic? And I think this may be one of those areas, that in the last couple of years, this AI technology has improved the recognition of the need for this has improved.

So, do you think when go back to face-to-face, in-person meetings, that there's going to be more people adopting and/or demanding this and providing this for attendees?

Stephen Cutchins: Yep, absolutely. I think my example for this was at a prior company. My test lead was a quadriplegic. I mentioned her a lot. Her name was Lisa. And she could not use her legs at all. She could use her right hand, minimally, but she couldn't type, so she used a mount stick. She controlled her wheelchair with her mouth or, inside of her face--I'm holding up a pen--but with a mouth stick, she would move to select letters, and it was called a [unintelligible]. If she wanted to select something, she would blow or she would suck to left-click, right-click.

So, long story short, she didn't go to events. The logistics of her trying to get to the airport and get on a plane and in her wheelchair--it's not like she can borrow a wheelchair at the airport; she needed her chair, period. She can go to events now. And now that she has that benefit. These planners and people giving these events, they don't want to lose Lisa, right? Realize now that, "My god--she's beneficial. We want her there.

Before it was like, "Well, you can't come here in-person. Let's meet, let's have drinks, let's go to Vegas, let's have this great event. No, you have to [unintelligible] everybody. The shift is done. I really think that it's not going to change.

Tyler Davidson: Do you think we're going to be surprised? Like, here's all these people who've never had a voice. We never heard their knowledge, their input. And is this going to be something like, five years from now--"Wow, those were the Dark Ages," when these people were not allowed to participate, basically?

Stephen Cutchins: For a very long time, we didn't use the word discrimination, but it really is. We were discriminating against a select group of humans. I heard this for a very long time, that people with disabilities, they didn't want anything extra, they just wanted equal opportunities to participate. That was it.

You know, it's not like they're asking for the world; they just want your products, your website, to work with their assistive technology. It's really not that hard. It's a little more expensive, it's a little harder, but it's not like we're going to completely redo one of our Cvent products. And now it's tweaks here and there to make it work. It's 90-whatever-percent already accessible. It's little pieces that make it work really, really well to make it really usable.

Carl Aldrich: And I think, you know, one big positive, in addition to the technology stuff, is the increased awareness from customers.

You know, I think if we went back in time, before so many events were happening in a remote format, that the planners might not have thought about creating an accessible experience, because they weren't hearing as much from those people because they weren't coming to events. And now that they've been through the experience of having somebody reach out to them and say, "You know, hey, I rely on a screen reader and I'm having a hard time participating in this part of the event... All of a sudden, it's something that they're thinking about and realizing that they can reach that audience and that people are out there who, for whatever reason, are just not able to attend in-person.

And so, I think that awareness is a huge, huge step.

You know, I think we do see some areas where there's a lot more awareness, and it has been, historically, especially in higher ed, and like Stephen mentioned, growing that awareness especially into more marketing-oriented use-cases I think will be a big positive for the industry as a whole. And you know, more distributed work opportunities are a huge step forward. And all of this will keep pushing technology in a positive direction.

I think one thing that I'm hoping continues is innovation, also in the hardware space--and this is a little bit outside of our business--but when we think about creating a hybrid event, it can get quite expensive to have onsite production. And we don't want people have to choose between reaching everyone who wants to participate in their event, or not, based on that type of cost.

So, seeing more innovation around what can be done simply with a smartphone, or smaller, less expensive, dedicated devices, for live streaming has a lot of potential. There has been some really cool innovation there related to youth sports, which is kind of interesting. People just wanting to be able to watch their grandkids play soccer, whatever the case may be, that technology can find its way also into meetings and events and allow people who don't have a big budget for an onsite team to still be able to reach that remote audience.

Tyler Davidson: And how can planners who may not have this, or it hasn't been as big of a priority as it should have been? How do they begin their journey to ensure that they're delivering a more accessible and inclusive experience?

Stephen Cutchins: I mean, there's a lot of information out there. I think you have to start with--I don't want to sound like a sales guy--but you have to start with accessible software. You have to have that as part of your, I guess, procurement process, or whatever they would call it. it's just like with security; you have to make sure your software is secure; somebody's not going to pay with a credit card, and then somebody is going to steal it.

You have to make sure it's accessible from the beginning. And there are still things that can go wrong when you're creating it. So, I mean, there's training out there. We're hoping to do some things--not just training--we're actually hoping to do an accessibility certification, for Cvent products.

So, this is a little more forward-thinking, and under a year from now, maybe. But there's a lot of information out there. We just hope, now, when people realize about accessibility, they'll actually go out and use that information. Because there are guidelines for all this and standards.

Carl Aldrich: Yeah, and I think we think about it kind of like it's a little bit of a two-pronged approach for us. One is thinking about things that we can do to help educate the industry more. And thinking about certifications like that could be a big positive.

And then, also just thinking about it when we're building our products, too. And training our teams; they're building software, designing software or supporting it, to make sure that workflows that might be different for somebody who relies on assistive technologies--questions to ask when we're supporting an event from a professional services perspective--asking questions to the planners around what they've thought about related to accessibility, just to make sure that that's part of the planning process.

And then in the product itself, thinking about things that we can do to help someone create an accessible experience when they're not an expert? Because, you know, the reality is we know not everyone is going to be an expert on all these things.

It's a really--there's a lot to learn, right? And so, we want to help make it make accessible, I guess you could say, and give people helpful prompts when they're setting up their event, so they know if they choose a certain combination of brand colors, that it's not going to create an accessible experience. And just make sure that we're being proactive with the product itself.

Stephen Cutchins: So, like Carl mentioned there, I mentioned standards, there's one called way WCAG, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They say the color contrast should be at least 4.5 to one for somebody who may be colorblind or have color vision deficiency, or low vision, that they can discern between the text and the background, the foreground and background. So, if somebody picks a color, like Carl mentioned--"I'm going to do yellow on orange."

It's their choice, but we will flag it and say, "That's a bad color contrast, consider a different color." Problem is they could still say, you know, whatever, I'm gonna do it. And then they have all their attendees who are squinting at the screen, like, "I can't read this," you know? Or if they're on mobile and it's a bright room, they can't see it. You know what I mean?

So, we want to prevent that, mitigate the risk. They can still do it, and that's part of where additional training comes in. But at least we let him know, "Hey, hit the brakes. You know, that's a bad color contrast, and here's why."

Tyler Davidson: So, Cvent has brought on a senior product manager for accessibility. Kudos for that. What other steps have you been taking from a product and education perspective to really advance accessibility in the industry?

Carl Aldrich: Yeah, I mean, we can both weigh in there. You know, historically, we've had a lot of grassroots efforts across the organization; different people who are knowledgeable about accessibility, really pushing it, as well our customers certainly demanding that we meet expectations that they have around accessibility. 
And we started to incorporate accessibility training into internal certifications that we do, like around development and testing. And that's really helped kind of level-up our teams. And then Stephen's really helping us better formalize that as a program across the whole organization. 

Stephen Cutchins: Yeah, now we have formalized it. We have our first, I think, 13 people who graduated--yay! But we have a QA, quality engineering, accessibility certification program. We bought over 500 licenses. We're training all of our people; anyone in the software development lifecycle. 
So, traditionally, you're going to train your testers, and then they test for accessibility, and they send it back to developers who don't know how to fix it. There's a giant design issue that goes back to the UX, the user experience, folks, and they don't know how to do a redesign.

So, we made it absolutely mandatory, including Carl, the product owner, so he's not a developer anymore. We're buying in blocks of 500. This year, I think we're gonna go through 1,000 licenses that train everybody on accessibility--it's a third-party vendor.

We're also in the process of getting our people better with this. We have some very good developers, some very good testers, and very good UX for accessibility. We brought in an independent third-party accessibility firm to test our products--and it's what's called a VPAT, Voluntary Product Accessibility Template--but they write this statement of accessibility and we're gonna put it on our public website to let people know where our products stand completely; an unbiased review of our products. They're gonna list all the exemptions, if we pass if we don't, if we're somewhere in between all of these global standards.

Tyler Davidson: And, you know, as I mentioned earlier, I really think when we really get back to in-person meetings, especially, we're going to see a lot of things that have changed. And I think that rate of change is going to be rapid. What kind of solutions and innovations do you see on the horizon for accessibility, and meetings, and in the hospitality industry, and what are your company's goals.

Carl Aldrich: So, I think one thing that I'm excited about--and we talked a little bit about some of the hardware stuff--but there's also some great advancements in the way that mobile operating systems are addressing accessibility.

So, you know, Apple, with iOS, has some really great stuff coming up in in the next version. They're bringing in automated captioning for video that they deliver, for example. We also take advantage of things that are tied into those device settings related to things like text size, so it might seem like a minor thing, but everyone can set a different default text size on their device. And so, we respect that in the experience that we provide in our mobile app.

So, if somebody needs a much larger text size, in order to make things readable for them, they still have a good experience when they're using our app.

So, that's kind of a basic example. But you know, it's good to have these things move into the operating system level, because it takes some of the risk of building software out of it. And that somebody could come along and build an app and not really be familiar with those settings but still have a good experience that they're able to provide people.

Another example would be on the browser. Google Chrome, for example, now allows you to just turn on automated captions for everything. And they'll just show captions every time video or audio content is playing, which I personally find very helpful for myself.

So, I think there's some good things happening just at the platform level. And then also just being able to take advantage of those advancements and things like AI, as you were saying, and also making hardware and other solutions for delivering those accessible experiences easier for people to afford.

Tyler Davidson: Excellent. Thanks for joining us today. I appreciate it. One final question: It's Global Accessibility Awareness Day, how is Cvent commemorating it? 

Stephen Cutchins: So, we're doing two training sessions company-wide. So, an invite sent from our C-level chief technology officer to all 4,000 people. We're doing two trainings on Introduction to Accessibility. 
So, for starters--it's a higher-level, kind of the basics; color contrast, keyboard--but we want everybody to be thinking about it and talking about it, including with their clients.

Tyler Davidson: Excellent. Well, thanks for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

Carl Aldrich: Thank you, Tyler. It's a pleasure.

Tyler Davidson: And that was Carl Aldrich, senior director of product management, and Stephen Cutchins, senior product manager for accessibility for Cvent. I'm Tyler Davidson, vice president and chief content director, of Meetings Today.

Thank you for joining us for this Meetings Today Podcast. If you want to hear more of our podcasts with thought leaders in the meetings industry, head on over to Meetingstoday.com, check out our podcast section, and whatever you're doing for the rest of the day, go out and have a great one.

And let's all think about those who need to be served better by our community and in our industry on Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Thanks.

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About the author
Tyler Davidson | Editor, Vice President & Chief Content Director

Tyler Davidson has covered the travel trade for nearly 30 years. In his current role with Meetings Today, Tyler leads the editorial team on its mission to provide the best meetings content in the industry.