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Why Remote Meeting Platforms Should Focus on Their Accessibility

An overview of the Accessibility of Remote Meeting Platforms and how there is still much room for improvement
Woman sitting in a wheelchair with her back to the camera. The woman is watching the sunset in the distance.

#blog by Ami Ireland from Undercover Superhero

Accessibility is a fundamental aspect for every disabled person in order to remain independent and to be included. As the Coronavirus pandemic rapidly unfolded, it was evident as to why accessibility is absolutely vital, as most daily activities would transition to remotely. From working, medical appointments, and even socializing.

Did you know about Zoom before the pandemic began? Yeah… me neither.

Remote meeting platforms have opened up more equal opportunities than ever before. Whether or not companies provide people with equal opportunities is an entirely different matter.

What is Accessibility?

Accessibility is the implementation of providing features to enable users to access content, services, and technology with ease. For example, as I am partially sighted, I would need to adjust the brightness of a device that I’m using, and be able to zoom in and enlarge text to enable me to read text. Also, due to my hearing loss, I would need closed captions when watching video content to be able to understand what is being said.

Hearing loss, vision impairments, Autism, and limited mobility are just a few examples of disabilities where accessibility is paramount, it plays a substantial part in everyday life, not just buildings and the environment, but technology and websites too.

Sensory issues, and difficulties with concentrating, and information overload can also be huge factors as to why disabled people find it difficult when in social situations. This is where accessibility and adjustments should be put into place to include us. Furthermore, having an accessible meeting platform can be a gamechanger by needs being accommodated without having to ask in advance for specific accessibility features to be available.

Can you describe accessibility in one or more words? Inclusion. Independence. Empowering.

Types of Accessibility Features

  • Alt Text – Providing text to describe an image.

  • Closed Captions – Providing text that is read by users to be able to understand what is being said.

  • Speech-to-Text/Text-to-Speech – The ability to convert spoken words into written text and vice versa.

  • Voice Recognition – Enables an action to occur by recognising and understanding verbal commands.

  • Keyboard Shortcuts – The ability to use a single key or a sequence of keys that can initiate an action or function.

  • Easy-to-read text – Using straightforward vocabulary, taking into account the length of sentences, font sizes, and styles.

  • The option to remove distractions – Distractions such as flashing and loud noises can cause users anxiety, therefore having the option to minimise or remove completely can prevent causing stress and sensory overload.

Now that some of the accessibility features have been covered, I will share my experience with 3 remote meeting platforms – Skype, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom.

My Experience

Admittedly, prior to 2017, I wouldn’t have thought about the accessibility of video calls as I could both hear and see without any problems – I didn’t think because I was naive to believe that I wouldn’t need any help with accessibility. But then I started experiencing hearing loss and sight issues, and as a result, I’ve never been able to find a fully accessible and inclusive remote meeting platform that could accommodate my needs.

As mentioned above, I have hearing loss, a vision impairment, and I really struggle with information overload, to the point where I start having a migraine and become oversensitive to lights and sudden noises. These symptoms usually continue for the next day or two, and I do believe these symptoms can be avoided if there was more awareness around accessibility and why it is important for society to play its part in helping to prevent triggers that would cause a myriad of symptoms for disabled people.

Note: The device I use is a Samsung Galaxy tablet (Android)

Skype

I am most familiar with Skype, and considering the poll I conducted below, I found Skype to be the most accessible.

Subtitles can be enabled, although I was unable to magnify the text, therefore I struggled to read and was slow in following the pace of the subtitles. Also, I found the subtitles to be temperamental and not always accurate.

When I was reading about the accessibility features on Skype, I came to the conclusion that they provide the very basic of features; definitely room for improvement.

Microsoft Teams

I have only been a participant, and not a host, therefore I can only comment on the participant experience.

I found the chat option very useful, as it can appear over the video call. Unfortunately, I wasn’t made aware that there were live captions or that I had the option to turn them on and off. However, I will definitely be using this feature from now on.

The accessibility features that are listed on the Microsoft Teams website, offer far more variety which can accommodate a spectrum of needs, with additional features becoming available in the near future.

The one downside, personally for me, is that Live Transcripts are only available to certain types of accounts, although Microsoft Teams state that they are aiming for this feature to be available for every type of account soon.

Zoom

Personally, I found that Zoom was the most inaccessible platform. I’m uncertain if this was due to the device I use, but none of the accessibility features worked for me.

After speaking with a few people about their experiences with Zoom, I was disappointed and shocked to learn that Zoom, at one point, charged users $200 monthly for closed captions – why did they think this was acceptable?

According to Scope, a UK disability charity, disabled people face extra costs of £583 a month – we shouldn’t be spending $200 (£141.77) on a feature that should be free for all.

Zoom states in this blog post, that automatic closed captioning/Live Transcription will be available to all users by Autumn 2021. Although, free account holders could get the update now (from 24th February 2021).

Emphasis on the could, there’s a plot twist. Free account holders can obtain the update and have closed captions applied to their account if they request it by filling out a form. Nobody should have to fill out a form for a feature that provides equal access.

In a poll I conducted on Twitter, I asked which remote meeting platforms people found the most accessible. Out of 68 people who voted, 62% chose Zoom to be the most accessible, with Microsoft Teams at 26% and Skype at 12%.

It’s evident that everybody has their own unique experience with accessibility – is asking for something to be completely accessible too much to ask?

What Can Remote Meeting Platforms Do To Help Prevent Barriers?

Disabled people are too often left until last, or even forgotten. When designing or developing products, deter from releasing or launching until you’ve obtained enough feedback from a diverse range of people. Our lived experiences matter just as much as non-disabled people do. Please don’t exclude us.

Upon reading about the accessibility features that some remote meeting platforms have, it was clear that the features were only compatible with specific devices. This should not be the case, every accessibility feature should be compatible with every device, considering how fast technology is evolving.

Although accessibility is not classed as a human right, it is a fundamental part of everyday life for everyone – disabled people, the elderly, and non-disabled people too. It is not acceptable that we are expected to pay for features that could give us access to vital information, whereas it’s free for non-disabled people. How is that fair?

Conclusion

Remote meeting platforms have the potential to ultimately become the ideal way for many disabled people, including myself, to carry out tasks and activities that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do independently, when in-person. This would be due to various elements, for example, the inaccessibility of a building, or an environment.

As I have already stated, remote meeting platforms have led the way throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, by enabling companies to offer equal opportunities for all, thus revealing just how much society can be inclusive.

Lastly, accessibility should be free for all, and not come with a price tag.


Friday, 6 August 2021