During the coronavirus pandemic, as people work predominantly from home, online meetings have become the norm, with workers using a variety of forums and tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, and Skype for Business.
Prior to the pandemic, I would have said that I was not a huge fan of online meeting forums, instead preferring to meet colleagues and have discussions face-to-face, therefore reducing the amount of screen time that I had.
With working from home, however, this has changed dramatically – in fact it changed overnight. I still prefer face-to-face time but I have embraced the new technologies and have learned how to use them reasonably successfully.
This blog will discuss the way in which these forums work, the features they include to aid accessibility, and the challenges of using them – initially from the perspective of a severely sight-impaired screen reader user, but also touching on other impairments.
Regardless of which platform you use, it’s important to remember to embed accessibility into your online meetings, to ask your audience what they need and to manage their expectations.
Microsoft Teams is the main platform recommended to Sightsavers staff for online meetings, and we have used it a lot during the lockdown, since we upgraded our systems earlier in the year to Microsoft365. Most of our internal meetings take place via this format including team coffee catch-ups, one-to-ones, inclusion learning seminars, inductions, and team meetings. It is Microsoft’s tool for collaboration, enabling you to host meetings with video conferencing, share your desktop files and applications. There are detailed guidelines on the accessibility features available here.
Teams is screen reader accessible and features the most common keyboard commands – the same as other Microsoft products, including chat, audio, video and screen-sharing functions. It offers good picture and sound quality along with a simple user interface. It also includes an auto-generated live captioning function (this is being extended as a built-in function) and a recording function to enable you to play back meetings from within the stream, including a transcript when necessary.
Teams allows external users to join a meeting as long as they have a valid business or consumer email address and can host meetings of up to 250 participants.
Teams also enables a user to blur the background which increases privacy and assists those who are lip reading by removing distractions.
When we first went into lockdown, the captions in Teams couldn’t cope at all and would stop working for up to 10 minutes or entirely in some cases. At present it is still officially a trial feature in Teams and hasn’t been released in all countries. Although Teams captioning has improved somewhat in recent months, it isn’t possible to see who is talking.
Over the past few months I have used Zoom quite often, for example to participate in Sightsavers’ sign language practice sessions, deliver a disability awareness training for a partner organisation in Bangladesh, participate in Sightsavers’ annual programme meeting, as well as to attend external conferences and trainings hosted by other organisations. Outside of work I have also used it for family quizzes and choir practices.
Zoom enables keyboard-only navigation and has good picture quality. It also has a chat messaging function for participants and it is possible to phone into a zoom meeting as well as participating via video. Zoom also enables a pinning feature to keep a sign language interpretation video thumbnail stationary. You can also add auto artificial intelligence (AI) to Zoom which will provide very accurate transcripts. For people with visual impairments, there are keyboard shortcuts for functions like raising and lowering your hand (Alt +Y) and the screen reader will announce that your digital hand is raised.
For more information please refer to Zoom’s accessibility pages.
Zoom doesn’t have an in-built live caption system, so therefore needs to have a nominated person to type the captions in. When tested we found that the third-party closed captioning using Otter.ai, although recommended, were not well transcribed. A colleague described the service as “inaccurate at best and therefore rather unhelpful”, although it is important to recognise that automatic captions using AI are rapidly improving. There also is a time limit of 40 minutes on a hosting group with the basic package.
The chat within a Zoom meeting can be read out by a screen reader, but it can’t be selectively muted so that you only hear relevant comments. So it can be a constant stream of distracting conversation if you are relying on this technology.
I have used GoToMeeting for online trainings and webinars during the COVID-19 pandemic.
GoToMeeting includes features like high-contrast mode, colour contrasts, and font size with yellow text on black backgrounds for users with visual impairments. In addition, tab navigation and keyboard shortcuts allow users to move through elements in the software without using a mouse.
You can also enable the smart meeting assistant which enables you to automatically record and transcribe your online meeting. Furthermore, the built-in audio is very clear.
Lastly, I have found it really helpful to have the notes transcribed accurately, which enables me to just concentrate on listening to the trainings I have attended without needing to also take detailed notes.
For more information, please refer to GoToMeetings accessibility features.
Having only used GoToMeeting for organised training sessions and webinars, I have not found any challenges myself. However, it is useful to point out that, while third-party captioning services can be used with GoToMeeting, these are not automated and embedded into the platform – which may be a useful improvement going forward.
At the beginning of the year, Sightsavers used Skype for Business as its main provider for conference calls before we migrated to Microsoft Teams.
It is easy enough to join and participate in a Skype for Business meeting and to pick up and listen to instant messages as a visually impaired user. For me, one of the best accessibility features is being able to key in telephone numbers without needing to use a mouse.
Skype for Business doesn’t have any captions, although Skype does and according to their website it is possible to get transcription services in real time, but you must invite a CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) Transcriber.