In February 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic, the team at the Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB) was already debating whether their annual Connecting the Dots conference should be hosted virtually. This was still a time when in-person meetings were a reality. So the team nestled in their conference room and began brainstorming on how they could make this possible. Wayne, National Head of Come to Work, April, Lead of Operations and Special Events, and the rest of the CNIB team were slowly inching towards establishing a foothold in the virtual world. But as fate would have it, COVID-19 brought social gatherings to a screeching halt. In such a scenario, CNIB had an important decision to make. Should they cancel Connecting the Dots 2020? Should they take on the challenge of delivering an event in unprecedented circumstances? With a strong mission in mind and a powerful, dedicated team, the latter is what they decided to go for. They were not deterred by the lockdowns. Rather, the team, who were already adept at evolving and adapting with the tide, decided to take the ban on social gatherings in stride and move ahead with Connecting the Dots 2020. What is Connecting the Dots? Connecting the Dots is Canada’s largest educational and professional development experience for people who are blind, partially sighted, deaf/blind, and people who want to open doors to newer opportunities. It is focused on three pillars: Literacy and Education Technology Employment This annual conference provides opportunities for attendees to: Learn about current trends and innovations in the sight loss community via workshops and panel discussions. Network with industry experts. Experience the latest advancements in braille and assistive technologies. Meet a community of braille transcribers, technology experts, academics, and entrepreneurs from diverse organizations and institutions. Connecting the conference with CNIB Founded in 1918, the CNIB Foundation is a non-profit organization driven to change what it is to be blind today. The organization delivers innovative programs and powerful advocacy that empower people impacted by blindness to live their dreams and tear down barriers to inclusion. Assumptions and misconceptions about the abilities of people with sight loss has resulted in an unemployment rate that is a staggering 14.5 per cent, triple Canada’s general unemployment rate. CNIB hopes to change that. Connecting the Dots provides attendees with an unforgettable learning experience to share knowledge, research, and ideas about issues affecting people with sight loss. The conference also aims to provide a platform for employers, hiring managers, and HR professionals to learn more about creating an accessible and inclusive work environment and meet new potential job candidates. The theme “Did You Know?” seeks to dismantle myths and misconceptions that people have about people who are blind or partially sighted. So, did you know that visually impaired individuals can be artists, can work in skateboard parks or pursue a career in business? Did you know that virtual conferences should and can be accessible to people living with sight loss? Did you know that people who are blind or partially sighted are thriving in diverse careers? From academia to skating and so much more. As the above video clearly establishes, everyone should have access to quality full-time employment opportunities. These opportunities provide personal and financial independence, a sense of identity and pride and lets them pursue their dreams. Why virtual, then? CNIB’s team of extremely passionate individuals wanted this conference to be accessible to people all across Canada. Even before the coronavirus brought the world down to its knees. However, COVID-19 did give the CNIB team the nudge to fully embrace virtual events. Canada is a vast geography, spanning provinces and territories. The virtual component would enable people from Alberta to Ontario to Manitoba to easily participate. Standing true to its name, ‘Connecting the Dots’ was all about accessibility. Moving to a virtual event meant connecting people across Canada. One attendee vouched for this by saying, “the fact that it’s virtual allowed me to attend. I would not have been able to travel to go there because of the distance”. Why vFairs? For CNIB, the journey was nothing short of road blocks and a few occasional bumps. A series of challenges awaited the team in their quest to host the conference virtually for the first time. Firstly, finding a provider who would create a digital platform that would be virtually accessible to the blind community. Integration of screen readers, smart technology to navigate by gesture, or reverse-in-contrast features were essential to help accommodate the participants. Wayne and the CNIB team started their hunt for someone who would meet these requirements. But alas, this hunt was unsuccessful! That is when vFairs offered to partner with CNIB with a single promise: “We will not leave CNIB hanging”. vFairs was the only platform that offered accessibility features such as reverse contrast, larger fonts, more space for text in booths and chat/voice enablement. The vFairs team and CNIB then began brainstorming on how to enable and completely support the community, providing ease and accessibility to the participants. There were, however, limitations and obstructions, yet what united vFairs and CNIB was one common denominator: “Willingness to adapt, grow, learn, and the openness to do what was in their power to accommodate” Thus began a partnership, or rather a friendship, that ultimately delivered a tremendously successful two-day virtual conference in English on October 7-8, 2020, and a two-day virtual conference in French on October 16-17, 2020. vFairs had a wonderful experience collaborating with CNIB. Muhammad Younas, CEO at vFairs was delighted with the team’s contribution to a cause that is extremely important. He expressed his gratitude by saying, “making our platform accessible to all has been a mission dear to our hearts and we appreciate the opportunity to work with a team as passionate as CNIB to make that happen.” According to Younas, this event has also opened up opportunities for the vFairs team to make their platform and future events accessible thus allowing us to have a greater impact. To listen to the keynote speaker Ricardo Wagner from Microsoft Canada and experience more of the phenomenal event, please click here. It was a challenging task, to the say the least, creating a virtual venue that would allow a partially sighted or blind individual to: choose the session they wished to attend come out of the session or head into another explore the vendors alley talk to exhibitors A participant expressed how happy he was to independently manage his way around the platform. He voiced his delight by saying “I am able to participate without anyone’s help in this virtual event. Total independence!” But with constant collaboration and a solution-oriented mindset, vFairs and CNIB made this possible. Let us now dive into features of the virtual venue for ‘Connecting the Dots’, to experience the fruits of vFairs and CNIB’s hard work. ACCESSIBLE WEBINAR SESSIONS The webinar sessions for the event in English were easily accessible at the top of the menu bar. They were categorized along the three pillars that the conference stands on: literacy and education, technology, and employment. This provided a clear distinction between the sessions, so the participants could go into whichever one they preferred. Read more about the accessibility features offered by vFairs. NAVIGABLE EXHIBITION HALL Each vendor’s name was displayed in a vertical list and the vendor alley was designed into the homepage. Vendors consisted of: Event sponsors such as Bell, Microsoft Canada, and AMI. Exhibitors such as HumanWare showcasing accessible technology (e.g. large keyboards, braille, magnifiers, and much more). Entrepreneurs from the community displaying their work. For instance, Say Hello 2 Blindness Accessories, which creates accessories for everyday life. Partner employers like The Brick, who wanted to maximize awareness about the opportunities their organization had for the partially sighted or blind individuals. These and so many other vendors had their individual booths, which were customized and branded as per their specific needs. Using these booths, vendors could clearly describe their business, showcase their products, interact with visitors and add extra resources such as videos and documents. There were greater challenges involved in setting up a virtual booth. With a booth in a live event, the partner is responsible to set it up themselves and take care of the branding. However, with a virtual booth, considerations such as accessibility to screen readers, etc., have to be accounted for. For this, the exhibitors, vFairs and CNIB team had to collectively decide what could be leveraged in the virtual booths so they were accessible to the community. ADDITIONAL AID THROUGH VOICE DESCRIPTION The digital platform had a voice description feature built in. This allowed for a clear description of the page a participant was visiting, detailing the features and what is available. It even entailed describing individual details of the booths and what is in front of the participants. This was in line with CNIB’s principle of inclusivity and accessibility for anyone who wished to attend the conference, without restrictions. This feature also brings attention to another issue – uploading a simple PDF document does not get the job done, so we had to make sure it was reader-accessible. Riding the storm translated into resounding success for CNIB and vFairs alike. Positive feedback came pouring in, in addition to numerous follow-up discussions with participants and community members. The event itself saw 800 registrants and 280 concurrent people as participants, all with varied levels of vision loss. This was a groundbreaking step for CNIB and Connecting the Dots conference, as well as vFairs. The collaboration between CNIB and vFairs opened doors for a crucial conversation around accessibility and broke all notions that previously acted as barriers. CNIB is already looking forward to hosting hybrid events in the future. These hybrid events will have some in-person capacity and the rest will be virtual, to allow for greater reach. The in-person element of future events will facilitate tactile engagement among vendors and participants. With this, attendees have an opportunity to touch and feel products before purchase. This, paired with the need for remote accessibility, creates an ideal use case for hybrid events. It all comes down to one driving force, and the ethos of CNIB: Always shoot for the stars. This same zest to make the impossible possible energized vFairs to not take no for an answer during the event’s development. They created a virtual venue that was easily navigable and engaging for all. Together, always found a way around the challenges. CNIB was all praise for the vFairs platform, the team’s remarkable customer service and their “problem solving approach”. They never shied away from any hindrances along their collaborative journey. Wayne, the National Head of CNIB’s Come to Work program, viewed the vFair team’s “willingness to adapt and learn” as a trait that made this partnership a reality. The hugely successful virtual event has paved the way for future collaborations between vFairs and CNIB, and hopefully many other accessible, inclusive virtual events. About vFairs vFairs strives to deliver top-class virtual events for all audiences, with an intuitive platform that recreates physical events through an immersive online experience. With a range of powerful features and dedicated support for users around the world, vFairs removes the hassle from organizing, exhibiting at, and attending events such as conferences, trade shows, and career fairs. Contact the vFairs team to learn more or request a demo to see a virtual event in action.