Exclusive: Talking Accessibility with Cvent’s Stephen Cutchins

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Cvent accessibility booth
Cvent Senior Product Manager of Accessibility Stephen Cutchins talks accessibility at the company’s accessibility booth at Cvent Connect

Cvent is celebrating Global Accessibility Awareness Day with a webinar, the launch of an ebook on accessibility, and a tour through some of the accessibility features baked into its event planning software products.

Cvent takes accessibility seriously — so much so that it has an internal group to ensuring its workplace, and its event management software products, are accessible to all. The company now is taking it to the next level by hosting a two-hour accessibility webinar, titled No Attendee Left Behind: Making Events Accessible to All, on Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), May 16, from 11 am to 1 pm EDT. The company has also been busy compiling a comprehensive ebook on accessibility that will be available for free download after the end of the webinar.

“It has taken many months of work to compile the ebook, and we can’t wait to launch it on May 16,” says Cvent Senior Product Manager of Accessibility Stephen Cutchins. Cutchins, who has Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder, will participate in the panel discussion being held during the first hour of the webinar, along with others with disabilities. The panel will be followed by another hour of demos of Cvent products’ accessibility features and the launch of the ebook.

Prevue recently caught up with Cutchins to learn more.

Prevue: How did you get into the accessibility field?

Cutchins: My Tourette’s Syndrome doesn’t really impact my ability to consume electronic content or use the web, but it does make me more sensitive to people with all kinds of disabilities. But early on I had experience helping my mother, who had to have a leg removed from the hip due to cancer. This was in the 1970s and things weren’t as accessible as they are now. After she died when I was seven, I spent summers with my aunt and her two children, both of whom had cerebral palsy. We would go to Disney because that was the only place that could accommodate people with disabilities back then. Accessibility is very personal to me. 

cvent accessibilityPrevue: Why is accessibility such a key concern for Cvent and its meeting and event professionals?

Cutchins: Fifty years ago, people started realizing that we have to have roadside curbs that people in wheelchairs can use, and ways to open big, heavy doors. Now in today’s world where everything is online, accessibility on the web and with software is just a human right needed to function in today’s society.

Outside of it being just a basic human right, we have to remember than around 26% of adults in the U.S., and around 22% globally, have a disability. I believe it’s around 3% who have vision or hearing impairments, 8% are colorblind, and around 10% have some sort of mobility impairment. They want to come to our conferences and spend money. We have to enable them to register, to get on the stage in a wheelchair to present a keynote, to follow a presentation using captions if they have a hearing impairment. We in the disabilities community talk to each other, and if someone has a bad experience, they will talk about it. If they are the attendees we want to come to our events, we have to enable them to be able to do it.

Prevue: What are some of the disabilities planners should be accommodating but may not be thinking about?

Cutchins: Neurodiversity issues are one are we are becoming more aware of now. And we need to, because there are a lot of people with neurological challenges who want to come to our events. Someone with autism may want to come to our events, but going up to the front desk to register may be too terrifying. Even a small thing, like offering to let them check themselves in for the event at the hotel, can make a big difference. Low sensory “quiet” rooms also can be good for the neurodiverse, but also for everyone who wants a space where they can shut their phones off and just recharge.

Prevue: What are some of the assistive technologies that can help ensure that Cvent’s software products, and the events planners use the software to manage, are truly accessible?

Cutchins: Someone who’s fully blind may need a way to read a screen. Someone with a mobility issue may not be able to use a mouse. Captions are good for people with hearing impairments, but sometimes captions, usually automated using AI, don’t go far enough. The best is to have a human doing the real-time captioning, but that isn’t always possible. Sign language interpreters also are a good option. There also are apps you can download — I’m not making an endorsement, but I love the Microsoft Translator app, which is free — that can output however you want, in spoken words or so you can read it. It’s also great for people who don’t speak English as their first language to translate speech in real time. If you had this app available at registration, it would be so good for so many people.

Prevue: How is Cvent ensuring that its workplace and its events are accessible for its own employees?

Cutchins: We have an employee resources group called Enable that identifies use cases for adaptive technologies. For example, we have someone here at Cvent who has a cochlear implant for hearing impairment. We noticed at one of our internal events that she kept turning around to read the speaker notes on the screen behind her — the captioning on our mobile app wasn’t keeping up. It’s great to run captions on the mobile app, but if an attendee’s battery dies or they’re having problems with connectivity, that’s not going to be enough. Now we run two monitors, one on each side of the stage, that run dedicated captions. And we can advise our planners based on our own experiences.

It’s a painful way to learn, but it’s also the best way to learn because you’ll never forget.

Prevue: How else is Cvent working to ensure that its software, and its clients’ meetings and events, are accessible?

Cutchins: In addition to the Enable group, we have the QT Accessibility Task Force. The “Q” is for quality, which includes the user experience (UX) team, the website designers, the software engineers and coders, and the quality testers. The QT Accessibility Task Force tests our products to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Now everyone is trained on accessibility, but it all started with quality.

Now we have an Accessibility Guild whose members are in UX and user research. These software and quality engineers get together to share best practices around accessibilities. If someone is running into an issue they don’t know how to resolve, they can go on our company Slack channel to get answers from a technical perspective.

Another area we put a lot of effort into is our Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates, or VPATs. VPATs started with an anti-discrimination law that said if federal funds were being spent on something related to digital content, it has to be accessible to all citizens — including those with disabilities. VPATs are statements outlining how you meet those Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. We have VPATs on each product, so there’s one for registration, for the attendee hub, the mobile events app, Passkey, etc. Of the 1,500 or so companies in the event software space, I can only find a handful that have any VPATs at all. But it’s the only way to verify that the software actually is accessible for all — we have ours audited by an independent third party, and if they find a defect, we get to work fixing it. We redo the VPATs every time we do an update.

It’s not enough to just say, “Trust me, it’s accessible.”

Another easy update involves the registration site. Include a list of specific accommodations someone may need, from large print to captions to bringing a personal assistant or service animal. But don’t have a yes/no radio button for each of those accommodations, because someone may have multiple needs — they could be blind and have a personal assistant, for instance. Even better, ask if they need accommodations and, if they say yes, say you will contact them within a specific timeframe to learn which specific accommodations they require.

Prevue: What do you see as the next step when it comes to increasing accessibility for events?

Cutchins: I’d like to see some of the accessibility features become more automatic. But we have to be very careful in how we do it. For example, the Web Accessibility Guidelines have standards for the color contrast between the text and the background (it’s 4.5 for normal size text). If it doesn’t meet the guidelines, a notification pops up. We also have something called Safe Color Mode, so if you have, say, pink text on a red background, it can change the hues to those that conform to the Guidelines. Some planners don’t want that to happen automatically, so they can override it, but planning is stressful enough without having to know the color contrast number on top of everything else.

I want to make software that can automate this type of thing so they’ll have one less thing to stress about — we just let them know it’s out of compliance and they can fix it themselves or we can do it automatically.

But we have to be careful about how we do that. For example, because assistive technology that people who are blind or have low vision use can’t read images, it’s important to fill in that “alternative text” field so they can get a sense of what’s in the image, rather than just a file name. So we should make the alt text field mandatory, right? Great idea. Except for a client that had 400 images on their site from an event that happened six months ago and just wanted to make a small update but couldn’t do it without updating alt text for all of those 400 images. So we changed it to only make it mandatory going forward.

We’re trying to do the right thing, but we’re still learning and improving as we learn.

Check out the Cvent GAAD webinar here.

The ebook, called The Big Book of Event Accessibility, can be downloaded for free here.

You May Also Be Interested In…

Accessibility at Events: 5 Top Tips

What I’ve Learned From My Temporary Disability

Neu Project Aims to Make Events More Neurodiverse


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