Are chat rooms accessible to people with disabilities?

Date Updated
5/18/17

Chat rooms can sometimes present a difficult web challenge for people with disabilities.

For screen reader users, the accessibility of chat rooms depends in part on how they are developed. The World Wide Web Consortium's Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) specification makes it possible to enhance HTML with markup that, for example, notifies screen reader users as new content is added to the chat area. Some chat rooms include additional audio features such as sounds that indicate when someone has entered the room, left the room, is typing, or has posted a new message. Accessibility features for screen reader users have been added to several mainstream instant messaging applications as well as chat rooms that are included within learning management systems such as Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, and Desire2Learn.

Despite the improvements in technical accessibility, chat rooms can still be difficult for screen reader users and can present a confusing, difficult-to-navigate interface, particularly when new content is continually added to the page. Also, since communication in a chat room tends to be fast-paced, people who type slowly may have difficulty keeping up, and people with cognitive or print-reading disabilities may have difficulty tracking the multiple simultaneous threads of conversation.

Voice chat products, such as Microsoft Skype, Google Hangouts, and Apple Facetime, are popular and allow users to chat verbally through their computer's microphone and speakers. However, software that only provides access via a voice-based interface denies access to users who are deaf. Choosing products with interfaces that combine text, voice, and video offers the most flexible experience for all participants.

Finally, mainstream companies, such as Facebook and Slack, are working hard to assure that their products work with assistive technologies. But because these products are frequently updated, the best experience sometimes changes, depending on the goals for using them. It is frequently helpful to try both the web interface, as well as the corresponding application for a mobile device, to see which one is easiest to use.