Our MC never said a word. He was brilliant!

By Christine Hemphill | 11th October 2018

Ed never said a word as he MC’ed our web accessibility event earlier this year. However, he was wonderfully eloquent all day. Always insightful, often funny, he thoughtfully introduced each speaker and kept the event to schedule with the perfect mix of anecdotes, idea consolidation and moving us forwards.  As a British Sign Language (BSL) user who is Deaf, Ed is heard and hears through his interpreter, Tony. What a team!

Most people consider a Master of Ceremonies (MC) as a role requiring a strong English language vocal capability, at least in the UK or other English language regions. In this case that wasn’t required. Considering what people are, rather than what they are not, allowed us to engage the best person(s) for the job.

Ed (Edward Richards) was a pretty obvious choice in many ways, he is smart, funny and at ease in front of a crowd. He is also a member of the core Open team and very well educated and experienced in the two worlds of inclusion and design that were relevant to the content of the day.

What may be less obvious was that in selecting him, we had chosen an MC who doesn’t share his thoughts vocally or who is able to hear the content directly. As a BSL user, English is his second language and he communicates to the audience in English via his BSL interpreter, who on that day was Tony. Ed and Tony are a team that very regularly work together.  We were delighted to have them jointly provide the connective tissue between the sessions and facilitate the panel discussions for our biggest event of the year.

Those attending who are fluent in BSL (there were a few participants in the audience) got the message directly from Ed. Those of us without this skill but who are hearing, had Tony’s clear intonation as he voiced Ed’s words for us, including the humour delivered with impeccable timing. For people who were hard of hearing, non-BSL speakers or who just missed Ed’s or other presenter’s comments in other noise or through distraction, we had Orla from My Clear Text provide live verbatim captioning of all sessions and comments (from Ed, the speakers, and participants). This way everyone could absorb the day’s content in a way best suited to their needs and preferences.

Speech to text screen from WALL18 event

Live text captioning at the event

The day was a fabulous success with over 100 people enjoying;

  • a very funny but also super informative Keynote from Bruce Lawson on the past, present and future of coding for accessibility
  • an engaging and at times very sparky panel discussion including industry, government and academic leaders in the digital inclusion field on the topic “The Future of Digital Accessibility”
  • “Inclusion Speed Dating” in small groups with Open panel members sharing their very varied digital access needs, lived experience and personal adaptation approaches
  • a session from Tom and I on how to gain valuable insights for improved prioritisation and decision making by combining inclusive user and market research
  • Bryn from SiteImprove sharing the changing legal landscape and user expectations, and
  • a wide range of activities for participants to engage directly with assistive technology or try out immersive experiences to better understand physical, sensory or cognitive variance

Through this packed agenda Ed introduced us to each speaker, kept us focused on the key messages, aware of what was coming next, and kept us to time, with Tony voicing for him. This was a truly inclusive experience that allowed us to ensure we got the best MC for the job.

I’ll now let him share his side of the experience.

Author: Edward Richards. Open Inclusion’s Panel Community Lead

I’m a passionate advocate for deaf awareness and equality, and very interested in accessibility innovations – particularly those that make a difference to deaf people. In addition to my work for Open as Panel Community Lead – Hearing Impairments, I run my own graphic design business and give British Sign Language (BSL) talks at Museums and Art Galleries.

Preparing for the event

My experience as a deaf public speaker must have been why Christine and Tom from Open approached me to MC the Web Accessibility Live London 18 (#WALL18) event, co-hosted at the Shard by Open Inclusion and Site Improve. WALL18 is an exciting forum that explored innovations and challenges in website accessibility. I had an absolute blast being its MC!

As a deaf public speaker, I’m used to translating from English materials to BSL. I didn’t know how many BSL speakers there would be in the audience that day, but I figured there would likely be at least one or two present (there often is at accessibility events). And no doubt non-deaf speakers in the audience would find having a deaf MC signing to them in BSL an eye-opening experience. One more opportunity to illustrate diversity and the power of inclusion!

After several emails from Tom and Christine, I had all the information I needed for the #WALL18 event. I read through everything and decided to rejig the English into a way that would work better for me. It’s a Deaf thing!

On the day

I was really excited at the opportunity to MC the event. From the moment I arrived on the 35th floor of the Shard, everything became a blur as I was introduced to person after person. I met people from many organisations, a few of the speakers, and had a brief catch up with Tom before it all started.

View of the networking space on Lv 35 Shard

Networking space between sessions. Not a bad view!

I was thinking: how can I use my skills from previous talks with some tweaks to accommodate additional elements such as facilitating a panel discussion, managing these specific speakers and audience, plus making sure that the event did not overrun and there was still time enough for questions?

I imagine when participants found out that a deaf person was going to MC a major Web Accessibility event, their first question was: HOW? For me, the opportunity to show hearing people that deaf people are capable of MC’ing at a hearing event was something I felt I couldn’t miss. The fact that my mode of communication is British Sign Language shouldn’t mean that I am unable to hold the interest of attendees or manage a panel discussion.

When I first stepped up to the podium as MC, I observed the attendees near to me starting to think, “What’s happening here?…” This was because when you have voice-over interpreting, there is a time-lag from translating the sign language into spoken language. When the attendees began to hear the voice of my interpreter (who was standing a few meters to my right), they first tried to find where the voice was coming from. The room was lined with speakers – was the voice coming from them? It was interesting for me to see hearing people looking around the room to find where the voice was coming from.

I was able to show that deaf people have a sense of humour! I started off explaining to the attendees that it is my first time MC’ing an event even though I’ve given talks at art galleries. I asked them not to shoot me if I do something wrong. This prompted people to laugh. Once that was over, everyone started to relax and the show began.

Just as I suspected, one of the attendees in the audience was also deaf and used hearing aids. They had a “Roger” pen which is a microphone linked to their hearing aids. I had to ensure that the event was accessible and remind the panel members and attendees to use the pen when they spoke.

I really enjoyed moderating the panel discussion, which featured Alistair Duggin, Head of Accessibility at Government Digital Services, David Caldwell from Barclays Bank, Kath Moonan who works at Sainsbury’s, Dr. Catherine Holloway from University College London, Bruce Lawson a longtime web accessibility advocate and expert and Jonathan from Open Inclusion. I made sure that every panel member had their say and sometimes prompted them to say a bit more about their work on accessibility and how they feel inclusion may progress in the future.


On the whole, what I really enjoyed about managing the event was that I was able to use the skills I had previously gained to a roomful of receptive, mainly corporate guests interested in web accessibility. Whether you are a deaf or hearing MC, the most important parts of the job are the same: to ensure that everyone is engaged in the event or talk, to observe their body language, introduce and respond to the speakers and facilitate a balanced panel discussion. That way, you can help guide the event to a successful and interesting conclusion, and hopefully people come away feeling they enjoyed themselves and learned something in the process.

Most importantly, I hope that my presence at the Siteimprove and Open Inclusion WALL18 event raised awareness that deaf people can MC an event. I would do it again in a heartbeat if asked to.

If you would like to know more about the range of inclusive events that Open Inclusion offer, involving people with specific access needs from our panel and expert speakers, please contact us.