Our Quest for an Accessible Web Conferencing System (AccessComputing News - January 2015)

Terrill Thompson, AccessComputing Technology Accessibility Specialist

AccessComputing regularly hosts meetings with its partners, and traditionally these meetings have been conducted via voice-only teleconference. However, we acknowledge that there are shortcomings with this medium. For example, participants who are deaf or hard of hearing must participate through a relay operator, which introduces a lag time in the communication, can be confusing when multiple speakers are engaged in conversation, and is generally difficult for deaf and hard of hearing individuals to actively participate in the conversation.

Also, a great deal of communication occurs non-verbally, and voice-only meetings lack the non-verbal part of speakers’ messages. Many people find that having a face-to-face conversation is simply more engaging than meeting solely by voice.

Given the limitations of voice-only teleconferencing, we spent time in 2014 exploring available options for web conferencing systems. Our partners are diverse, and include people who are deaf or hard of hearing, people who are blind, and people who are physically unable to use a mouse, among others. Each of these groups of participants has unique interface needs that must be taken into consideration. The following is a summary of our requirements for a web conferencing system:

  • Video quality and performance must be sufficient to support sign language. Our goal was to replace relay operators with a single sign language interpreter that could be shared in a window by multiple participants. The interpreter window must be resizable independently of the speaker window. This would allow users to have both the speaker and the interpreter in relatively large windows compared to other participants. Many web conferencing tools show all participants in small windows, and only one participant at a time can be promoted into a large window. The ideal product would at least allow two relatively large windows, and ideally users would have flexible control of those windows, and could resize and position them individually as needed.
  • The product’s controls must be accessible by keyboard, without requiring a mouse. Most web conferencing systems have a variety of features that appear in different panes. Keyboard users must be able to easily navigate between those panes and use all the features.
  • The product’s controls must be accessible to screen reader users. The panes and controls must be sufficiently labeled so blind users know where they are within the interface, and can easily navigate to particular features and use those features.
  • The product’s interface must be customizable. Individuals using screen magnification software may find it difficult to navigate if their screens are cluttered with information. This can also be distracting for many other users. Flexibility is an important aspect of universal design.
  • The product must be easy for everyone to install and use. As hosts, we at AccessComputing would expect to cover any costs, and our remote users could simply login and use the system without having to purchase software or install plugins, especially those that are dependent on other software being installed first. The more steps required of users for getting up and running, the more likely we are to lose potential participants if they encounter technical difficulties.

We solicited feedback from colleagues, many of whom had undergone similar quests. This helped us to narrow our focus, as there are a multitude of products out there. Christian Vogler, Paula Tucker, and Norman Williams of Gallaudet University had conducted a similar quest, focused specifically on the deaf and hard of hearing perspective, and presented their research at ASSETS ‘13, which can be found at http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2517035.

However, we were ultimately unable to find a single web conferencing system that met all of our requirements. Some systems were relatively strong on customizability, including the ability to independently resize speaker windows; however these products were not accessible for keyboard or screen reader users. Other systems excelled at keyboard and screen reader accessibility, but failed to meet our needs for having both a speaker and interpreter in large windows. Other systems had excellent video quality but failed in other areas.

As of the date of this newsletter, we continue to host our meetings via voice-only teleconference. Rather than actively searching for a replacement, we are now actively working to ensure our meetings are as accessible as possible within this medium. Here are a few of the steps we are taking to ensure the accessibility of our meetings:

  • We ask all participants to state their name and institution each time they speak. This helps all participants, but especially deaf and hard of hearing participants, since their relay operators aren’t likely to recognize speakers by their voices.
  • We ask all participants to limit the background noise as much as possible so that everyone can clearly hear the person who is speaking. With each invitation, we include a list of the touchtone controls for muting and unmuting, and for increasing or decreasing volume of audio.
  • We include a statement in each meeting invitation that invites participants to contact us if they require any disability-related accommodations, and include a specific email address to contact.

We will continue to monitor the web conferencing system landscape and will reach out to vendors in hopes of persuading them to more fully build accessibility into their products. There is clearly a need for such a system, and we look forward to doing business with the first vendor that satisfies that need.