How To Design An Accessible Event For The D/deaf And Hard Of Hearing

Accessibility is a topic we as designers talk a lot about, when we’re making sure our digital products can be consumed by the widest range of people. But that same mindset can be applied to live events, as I discovered earlier this year.  

Earlier this year, AIGA DC planned an event called In Their Own Words: A Panel with Deaf Designers. Held at Gallaudet University, it brought together D/deaf designers Elise Roy, Yiqiao Wang, and Scott Carollo. Having hearing loss myself, I’ve spent some time around the Deaf community so I took the lead in planning the event. I had a bit of an idea of where to start, but there was still much to learn. The biggest challenge of the event was making sure it was fully accessible for both the audience and the panelists. Here are some things to watch out for, when planning your own event for the D/deaf and hard of hearing.

Give Yourself Plenty of Lead Time

Get started right away. Seriously.  Reach out to vendors for the various accessibility needs your event needs. In a perfect scenario where all things go smoothly, two weeks lead time is all you need to secure accessibility services. But as what usually happens in life, most situations need extra margin for unforeseen complications. My recommendation is to give yourself four weeks of margin to work out logistics and take care of last minute details.

Also, timing can affect the cost. Most interpreting agencies have higher rates for last minute requests and fees for cancellations made within 3-5 business days.

Consider Different Kinds of Accommodations  

Figuring out my specific event needs proved to be more difficult than I expected. With a panel of varying abilities, I needed more than just one interpreter. My event consisted of two Deaf ASL users, a deaf panelist who speaks, a hearing moderator, and a mix of needs from the audience.

In the end the best solution was to use a combination of accomodations : several American Sign Language interpreters, along with Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART)

Find a Trusted ASL Interpreting Service

Gallaudet’s design professor Scott Carollo recommended a great resource, Gallaudet Interpreting Service (GIS). GIS informed me that two interpreters would be required for this event: one to interpret spoken word and one to voice for the Deaf clients.  

Since every event is unique, I highly recommend that event planners in the DC-MD-VA area reach out to GIS to get an accurate idea of how many interpreters your event needs. Even if you do not end up contracting with GIS, use their estimate as a guide for how many interpreters to hire. It will alleviate any confusion from agencies giving wildly different estimates.

No matter who you end up hiring, please use certified interpreters! Interpreting is a skill, and it will be a better experience for everyone if the interpreters are professionals.

Now, the money issue. When you submit inquiries, be sure to emphasize that it is just an estimate and not a request to avoid unforeseen charges. If a company gives a request, often there will be a requirement to commit or cancel before a certain date.  For certified ASL interpreters, expect to pay anywhere from $75-100 an hour per interpreter, with a two-hour minimum. Once you have booked interpreters, feel free to add a note to the event description denoting that ASL interpreters will be provided at the event.

Don’t Forget About Non-signers

Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART) provides live subtitles for the non-signing deaf and hard of hearing. It consists of a CART writer who uses a stenography machine to create a live transcript of the conversation. CART is viewed either on a computer screen, presentation screen, or via a website address that the agency provides ahead of time.

There are two types of CART: in-person or remote. An in-person CART writer brings all the equipment needed and can accurately differentiate speakers on the transcription. Remote CART uses a Skype call to capture audio.

In this case, I arranged the panelist, moderator, and voicing interpreter near an iPad that was on a Skype call with the transcriber. A more elegant solution would include mics and an AV system input into the Skype call.

For remote CART, expect to pay around $95 an hour or more. In-person CART is more expensive, but they do bring necessary equipment.

Automatic Captioning Isn’t the Best Solution

There are some technologies that say they can use AI to translate in real time, such as AVA or Google’s Live Transcribe . But if you’ve ever read Youtube’s auto-generated captions, then you know this isn’t going to turn out well. While AI might be able to get a rough estimate of what’s dictated, it still doesn’t replace a human’s ability to differentiate homonyms using context. For an event, use CART for 99% accuracy. Otherwise, you run the risk of leaving out a portion of your audience with confusing AI captions.

Automatic captioning can be helpful one-to-one situations when you want to communicate with an ASL user. It’s not perfect and you may cringe at its mistakes, but you’ll share a laugh with someone you might not have met otherwise!

Don’t Forget About AV During the Event

Interpreting isn’t just for what’s happening live in the room – if you’re going to show any video or other AV, it should also be captioned.

Think About Your Seating Setup

There are a lot of pieces involved – speakers, audience, interpreters and technology. So think carefully about how you’re going to arrange everyone. It is important to avoid seating speakers in front of bright lights as the backlighting makes lip reading and watching sign language difficult, if not impossible, and quickly leads to concentration fatigue. To make audience members as comfortable as possible, position lighting behind the audience and stick with diffused lighting.


With guidance from the interpreters, we found solution that worked. The interpreters sat on the far left of the stage and the Deaf clients sat on the far right. In this arrangement, both the Deaf clients and Deaf audience members could see the interpreters sign and the hearing audience members could hear them voice the clients’ words. Between them we positioned the speaking panelist and the moderator who held an iPad dialed in to a Skype call to feed audio to the remote CART writer. We placed a wifi-connected laptop with the CART transcription in front of our non-signing panelist.

For the audience, we found it helpful to block off the first and second row seating for attendees who need to see the interpreters. This secures a good view for late arrivers.

For those using the CART transcription, it’s nice to provide a link to audience members so they can see it on their own devices, as well as a separate screen in the space displaying the CART transcription. Before the event began, we placed the link on a slide so audience members could set up their devices.

Once your event logistics are planned out and set up, your job continues. Keep an eye on attendees’ needs, to ensure the environment remains inclusive.

While accommodating for the D/deaf and hard of hearing is important, it is only one piece of the puzzle in designing an inclusive event. In order to reach your audience, it is helpful to note in the event description that ASL interpreters will be provided, and that the event will captioned in real time. For example, since our event was on the second floor, we needed to disclose in the event description that ramps and elevators are available.

This may seem like a lot, but don’t let it prevent you from making your events accessible. You will find your audience expands and only improves with practice.

By aiga
Published March 27, 2019