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Five Steps to Effective Video Calling & Conferencing

Maximize your video communications

5/6/2020 12:01:49 PM

ASL version

If you are DeafBlind or prefer to watch the video in a slow-paced, high contrast format, watch the DeafBlind friendly ASL version instead.

English version

With the current situation relating to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, many of our communications have been moved online to web-based videoconferencing platforms and/or videophone communication. Using those technology channels presents a set of challenges, and as deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing users, how can we best maximize our use of those tools? Whether participants use ASL, spoken English, Pro-Tactile ASL, or a combination of the above to engage in direct communication between deaf, deafblind, or hard of hearing users or connecting through a sign language interpreter via VRS or VRI, here are five suggestions that may aid you in best communication practices to get your messages across.

Before starting your call, go through a personal checklist. Check your wardrobe, your lighting, your background, framing, and eliminate any possible distractions.

This will help reduce eye strain and frustration on both you and the person on the other side of the screen, whether it be a deaf, deafblind, or hard of hearing peer or a VRS/VRI interpreter. Let’s go through the checklist together.


Wardrobe: First of all, are you dressed? Yes? Good. Now, look at your shirt and check to make sure it contrasts with your skin color. If you’re a light-skinned person, wear darker colors. Dark-skinned persons should wear lighter colors. Try to avoid patterns, graphics, or reflective clothes.

Think of times where you had a hard time focusing on the person signing because of what they were wearing - did they wear a plaid shirt? A shirt with multicolored graphics on front? A shirt the same color as their hands? Skip over those in favor of plain shirts that will help you and the person watching you on the screen.

Now that you’re properly dressed, let’s check your spotlight - after all, you’re the star of this one-person show on screen.


Lighting: Turn on the camera on your device and test the lighting. Can you see yourself signing clearly? Is there adequate lighting or do you need to add more light?

Too dark? Add more lights. Make sure the light source is in front of you, or slightly off to the side in front.

Too bright? Turn some lights off or find a better spot. Bright lights will wash you out and make you appear like a white shadow on screen.

Avoid sitting in front of a light source such as a window, lamps, ceiling lights, etc., as they will make you appear as a dark shadow on screen.

Try not to have light sources in the picture with you as they will produce a halo effect and make it difficult to see you. This is especially true for nighttime calls where there is no natural daylight available.

Now that you’re figured out how to shine the light on yourself, let’s check the scene behind you.


Background: Look at the screen of yourself. What’s behind you can make or break your ease of communication. While we may want to show off our homes, now is not the best time to do it. Think of your shirt - plain shirts are easier on the eyes, so the same goes for your background as well.

Opt for a plain background free of distraction - a wall, the back of a couch, or a portable screen, for instance. If possible, hang up a cloth behind you, and make sure the color contrasts with your skin color. Try not to pick the same color as your shirt or you will appear as a floating head and hands on screen.

Now that your background is visible and clear of distractions, let’s check yourself on the screen again and make sure that you’re visible, which brings us to framing.


Framing: Look at yourself on the screen. Are you looking at the camera? Can you see your head and upper body? Now - what about your sign space? Are you a projector, signing big as if you were standing on a stage for all to see? Or are you a small signer? Make sure you have ample space to sign, and that the camera doesn’t cut off your sign space.

Opt for a comfortable distance from the camera - not too close that you’re sharing your innermost thoughts with the person on the other end, nor too far where the person has to squint to see you properly. Make sure your head and upper body (waist and up) are visible, and that you’re looking directly at the camera and not over (no ceiling view) or up (from the floor).

Add a bit of empty space around yourself as a buffer zone for those bigger signs so the person watching you can catch every word you are saying.


Distractions: While we love to see pets and small children, and know they are inevitable in this time of crisis, now is a good time to make sure they are offscreen and occupied instead of trying to steal the show from you. Seeing them in the background can distract the person on the other end of the call from focusing on you and your message.

So shoo the cat off your lap, toss a treat to the dog, place the toddler out of view with something to occupy them, and clear your sign space of distractions (phone in your hand? Drinks that might be prone to spillage if you knocked them over while on a call?)

The less obstacles in your space, the better and effective the communication will go.


Now, here’s a bonus tool - accessibility. Communicating via a screen can be challenging, and group situations even more so. Messages can get lost, and sometimes we miss messages. There are tools built in videoconference platforms such as Zoom, Skype, etc., that can enhance your communication experience.

Several platforms have captioning available. When using captioning in group conference situations, be sure to establish ground rules such as only one person can speak at a time. Ask the speaker to speak as clearly as possible.

In addition to captioning, use the messaging feature to send important information and/or keywords. For instance, names to spell out, addresses and phone numbers, email addresses, vocabulary, etc., that can be misheard or misspelled by the speaker. This has the added bonus of serving as notes at the end of the call!

Now you’ve got five things on your checklist to consider when starting your next videoconference or VRS/VRI call. Make a habit of reminding yourself of the five considerations when starting a videocall or videoconference - wardrobe, lighting, background, framing, and distractions - and you’re good to go!


The Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing thanks:

Mary Beth Elchert and Dee Ramnarine for the idea to make this video.

James Paul Beldon III for ASL talent.

Patty McCutcheon for voiceover.

Keystone Interpreting Solutions for film production.

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