At long last, an accessible screen sharing solution: Zoom

By the time you read to the end of this post, if you are a screen reader user, your employability potential could be vastly improved. At long last, there is an accessible screen sharing platform that can make the difference between participating in mainstream work, running a remote demonstration independently, leading a video conference, or giving an online presentation, without sighted assistance. What’s more, this is not a work-around. It’s cutting edge, elegant, and best of all…mainstream technology.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the pervasive unemployment situation in the blindness community has been the inability to access some of the most commonly used technology that is standard in many businesses around the world: Screen sharing. the most widely-used platforms, referred to by names such as Go To My PC, along with Go To Webinar and Go To Meeting iterations, Web X, Log Me In, and others, have long been inaccessible for screen reader users. If you have ever found yourself forced to reject a job opportunity, or being forcibly excluded from one, simply because you cannot use this type of technology, you are not alone. Years ago, I had to leave a lucrative position because the job duties included the implementation of a screen sharing program, and I was no longer able to do the work. There was no accessible solution, and at the time, no amount of plying the development team with requests for accessibility support proved fruitful. this heartbreaking situation is no doubt repeated throughout the community, as the technology landscape seems to widen the so-called digital divide.

Recently, I found myself in a similar position. I was presented with a remote teaching opportunity that, seemingly, I would be unable to accept, thanks to the inaccessibility of the platform being used, one of those mentioned above.

The job requirements included that I not only teach my content, but that I also interact with the students, fielding questions, taking a regular roll call, keeping tabs on who was focused on the presentation screen, as opposed to surfing the web, launching video, using on-screen handouts, and reporting on student activity statistics. As the “host,” or moderator of the class, content producer and presenter, I would be required to manage all these tasks while teaching extended continuing education courses lasting several hours. Aware that the platform already in use by the company with which I was contracted was inaccessible, I hired a consultant to assist me in finding an alternative. I was told that if I could find such an alternative, the job was mine. Otherwise, the job would go to a sighted educator.

The consultant evaluated a half-dozen screen sharing products, from well-known tech brands to blindness-specific conference room chat platforms. If one of the options suited the technical specifications of the company I would be working with, such as attendee size, real-time uptime support, or audio/video quality, it failed on the access piece. If accessibility to any degree was supported, then it seemed to favor the attendee, rather than the presenter. If a platform proved to be usable with a screen reader, it failed to meet my audience management or interactivity requirements. Frustrated beyond belief, I interrogated my consultant friend, demanding to know why there was no accessible platform available. None of his answers were satisfactory on any level. This was not, however, for lack of trying. Accounts were opened, or, borrowed. Developers were contacted. Support tickets and bug reports were submitted. Mock presentations were crafted. Apps were downloaded, remote screen reader control was used, calls to colleagues were made. Finally, he concluded, there was just no accessible solution to be had.

I was livid. I ranted and raved and paced the room while I had him on the phone, railing at the injustice of it all. It was maddening to me that but for an inaccessible video player/launcher, or some such triviality, I would be denied meaningful work. this was totally unacceptable to me. My consultant offered to create a work-around, something that would enable screen sharing that re-routed the audio from my screen reader and video in such a way that the audience could hear one, but not the other. Something about a mixer…a second sound card…I don’t know…I was in a rage fog. “It may be too complicated,” he warned me. “You’ll have to manage all this on the fly. And if it goes down, there’s no one to get you up and running.”

In a fit of fury, I pounded three words into a search engine: Accessible video conferencing. Insert clouds parting, glittering golden rays of sunshine pouring forth while the angels sing an alleluia here.

Enter Zoom. Zoom is the first mainstream accessible screen sharing platform that is robust, mainstream, feature-rich, mainstream, and accessible to both presenter/content originator and attendees. Did I mention it’s mainstream?

This is the solution you’ve been waiting for… this is the answer to the interview question, we use X Y Z product here, and the job requires you give presentations…or demos…or consultations…or product training…or teach classes…or collaborate with team members in a satellite location…does that sound like something you can do?”

Now, with Zoom, the answer can be yes.

The Zoom web site is loaded with lots of what you would expect with regard to features and benefits, but this is what jumped out at me right away: The Accessibility page. I only have three words for you…compliance, compliance, compliance. Zoom is not new, but their accessibility improvements are. From the Zoom web site:

“Zoom is committed to ensuring universal access to our products and services, so that all meeting hosts and participants can have the best experience possible. Zoom’s accessibility features enable users with disabilities to schedule, attend, and participate in Zoom meetings and webinars, view recordings, and access administrative features across our supported devices.”

Here’s the link to the Zoom home page:

Click here to go to Zoom home

Zoom actually has a dedicated accessibility team, and the update notes are logged as recently as February in some cases, and last week in others. Zoom services are compatible with standard screen readers such as VoiceOver on iOS and OSX platforms, TalkBack on Android devices, and NVDA for Windows platforms. Check it out on the Zoom accessibility page:

Click here to go to the Zoom accessibility page

Apologizing in advance for my use of hyperbole here, this product is revolutionary. For me, it is going to make the difference between being able to do work or not. As with many similar platforms, there are several levels of feature sets, all with tiered pricing, but there is also a free basic level that is better than just a trial version or a limited-time demo. For those of you who have been trying to solve the problem of interviewing multiple people in different locations while recording everyone for a podcast without sounding like one or more of you is talking from the bottom of a trash dumpster, this is your solution. Want to start up a speaking business? Offer classes? Show off your work product without compatibility concerns? The free, basic level lets you interview or screen share/chat with one person with no time limit, or more than one person for 40 minutes. You can record directly from the dashboard. Need to present to 100 attendees? 1000? 5000? You can…for any number of competitive pricing models.

I don’t know who I could contact on the Zoom team to thank them for what amounts to a technological miracle for me, but I am thrilled. And did I mention it’s mainstream?

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I did apologize to my consultant for yelling.

LL

8 Comments

  1. Laura, thank you for letting us know about this program. I’ll be sure to share this information with my coworkers at Comcast. I hope to give this client a test spin one of these days.

  2. Thanks for finding this, I’ll be looking into it. have used those others you mention but they weren’t good at all.

  3. Ben Watson says:

    My company just tried Zoom for the first time on Monday for our regular weekly meeting for study and prayer and will likely use it in May for our monthly staff meeting. I was impressed when I opened the app for iPad as to how well it worked. then when I opened it in Windows using JAWS I was just as impressed. will have to try it with NVDA. but thank you for pointing out the accessibility link which I had not seen. I will be forwarding this on to our president and administrator. fortunately, they are committed to our ministry being accessible to disabled persons. we’re looking to move our courses to Moodle in the next several months. we’re just looking for an acceptable hosting situation for that before we begin the migration. thanks again for sharing this exciting news.

  4. So are you saying your about to use zoom as an accessible screen sharing solution? If so, how are you able to present this content to the people who are viewing your presentation? I assume this is what you mean by stating that it’s an accessible screen sharing solution?
    Just for future reference, you can share your screen using hangouts with Google, which does integrate with other platforms and registration systems for course delivery.

    I am glad that Zoom has made a commitment to accessibility, and look forward to seeing what type of changes they may make in the future… However at least on the Mac there are some improvements that definitely could be made.

    When you’re hosting a webinar for example, if your webinar is in broadcast test mode, when you’re using the tab key you can tab to the”broadcast button”, however with voiceover are unable to select this.

    You are also unable to select this by using the voice over cursors either, as voiceover never finds this button.

    Workaround, set iPhone as alternative panelist, and start speaking of screen sharing, I’m extremely disappointed that the web view while doing screen sharing from iOS is in accessible, voice oversees all of the buttons around the web view however it does not see the web view of itself.

    Just a few things to consider, and I appreciate your excitement.
    Hears a message I forwarded from zoom support, maybe you may have tips for Cara as mentioned below?
    Good Day:
    As I know it’s likely your team doesn’t monitor forms like the one below, I thought I should send this to you and give it to your team for feedback.
    I’ve seen this type of behavior when trying to use the “broadcast”button on the Mac with zoom for webinars, as Voiceover doesn’t ever allow me to press it.
    I suggest someone form your team subscribe to this form and to
    http://applevis.com/
    To acquire feedback from the users of your platform who are using it on a daily bases.
    Hoping this finds you all well.
    Best.
    Michael

    From: Cara Quinn
    Subject: Re: Accessible web conferencing: zoom.us
    Date: April 20, 2017 at 6:00:41 PM PDT
    Reply-To: macvisionaries@googlegroups.com

    Karen and All,

    I have also been using Zoom with a corporate account pretty much every day for about a year now but unlike everyone else posting here so far, I have encountered a number of really bothersome accessibility issues.

    So I am wondering if you or someone else in this thread may be able to tell me what the heck I am doing wrong! lol!

    Firstly, in scheduling a meeting on the Mac, choosing a date causes VO to get stuck in the date area.

    Once I figured out that I needed to interact with the date again, I was not able to hear which field I was editing with up and down arrows. More accurately, I can hear the items which are changing but once I have selected an item and use the left or right arrows to move to the next item, no time or date elements are announced until I start using up or down arrows to edit them.

    So I basically need to just guess at which time or date element I am editing at any given moment.

    this is further complicated by the fact that once I am done editing the time and date, Voiceover still seems to be stuck in the date area and it is only by luck that I am able to get out of this area and not change anything I have just set.

    Once I get through that horror show, then I need to be careful when moving through the rest of the scheduling window so as not to accidentally get caught in the date area again.

    So finally, once I have scheduled the meeting successfully, I then go to my meetings tab and am greeted with a grid of unknown cells which I then need to interact with to see which contains my scheduled meeting. Once I do that, there is no obvious way to add participants to it.

    If I click on the Contacts tab to access my company contacts I find a really funky table that seems to cause Voiceover to keep jumping in the list of people as if the list is constantly refreshing.

    Once I am able to select a person, I am placed into what looks like a chat window and again, Voiceover gets stuck in this window. I.E. I can press Escape to get out of the chat window but as soon as Voiceover moves out of the window its focus is immediately brought back into the chat window again.

    This insanity also sometimes happens when I am just moving through the table trying to locate a person. I.E. I will be looking for someone and suddenly I will just end up in a chat window with a random person I am passing by in the constantly refreshing list of contacts.

    I am assuming this list keeps refreshing to keep up with coworkers statuses and such but for God’s sake, there needs to be a way to turn this off. lol!

    Needless to say this is all just hellishly annoying to say the least when I just want / need to get work done. So I am really curious at what others’ are doing to make this app usable.

    I have not even gotten into the squirreliness on the iOS client or the window juggling I seem to need to do when hosting a live meeting or presentation on the Mac where I need to do screen sharing. It’s all just a bit much for me. :) -And certainly is not ready to be called accessible at a corporate level in my opinion.

    So for me personally, calling this accessible is really kind of a stretch. It’s sort of usable but not what I would consider accessible or at all enjoyable. :)

    Just my opinion of course and as I say, I am more than excited to hear others’ feedback if it can help me tame this beastie! lol!

    thanks bunches All and do have a lovely evening / morning / day, wherever you may be on this little blue-green ball of ours.

    Cheers!

    Cara

  5. L. Legendary says:

    Hi Michael! This is fantastic. Thank you for sharing the thread, as well as for sharing your own observations. I’m grateful to have so many others in the community, more expert than I, who can share their own experiences. I’ve heard from blind and visually impaired students who are using the platform in independent living centers and schools for the blind, as well as in major universities. I’ve heard from private consultants as well as accessibility practitioners, and there has been some really valuable and thoughtful feedback. In the post above, I described a somewhat specific use case where I must check off quite a few check boxes for not only my access requirements, but those of the company with which I will be working. If I were teaching independently, and teaching blind students, I might choose a number of other options, such as that which you have suggested, or TC Conferencing, or, for that matter, even Skype, or one of those phone-based conferencing options. However, in the instance I described in my post, I had more than my own needs to take into consideration. We must be mindful that accessibility is not only about screen reader users. As I mentioned in my post, there didn’t seem to be a “one size fits all” answer to a nuanced problem. Further, as mine was not a professional testing environment, I have only my own gear with which to test, and I am not a Mac user. On the accessibility page, referenced above, I did notice mention of OSX, however, it is curious that JAWS wasn’t mentioned at all. Even on Windows and with NVDA, the platform isn’t perfect. Sadly, unlike a diamond, accessibility isn’t forever. How many times have we all used an accessible product, only to have something critical break at the next update? I am so heartened by the fact that the article has gained some traction, at least enough to attract the notice of real pros and power users who can contribute to the conversation. On we go, making accessibility improvements one feature at a time. We’ve got this. Thanks to all of you who have taken the time to comment, experiment, test, and open your own support tickets in an effort to assist in making a good product even better for everyone. LL

  6. Lauren says:

    I am using JAWS with Windows 10, and tested the free version of zoom. My colleagues have been using Skype or GoToMeeting previously. Zoom is slightly more accessible than GTM, but still not accessible enough for me to encourage our team to make the switch. When I tried using the shortcut keys listed, I was put into a window which I couldn’t interact with – even the JAWS cursor said it was blank. The only way I could get out of it was to restart my computer.
    The iPhone app is a little better, but there is still much work to be done. Like one of the other commenters said, am I doing something wrong? I was excited when I read this blog post, and disappointed when I downloaded the product. I’m going to keep persevering though, and will be sending an email to the developers with detailed feedback.

  7. L. Legendary says:

    Hi Lauren. Thank you for your comment. As I mentioned in my reply to the previous comment by Michael, my testing environment was using my own laptop, with Firefox and NVDA. I am not able to duplicate your experience, because I have not tested using jaws. However, as I also previously mentioned, I see no reference to Jaws anywhere on the Zoom website, so I wonder if the omission was deliberate due to known issues. A colleague who is a Jaws script writer by trade mentioned that some scripting would have to be done for the platform to work well with Jaws. I have now experimented with Zoom along with a group of others, some using the NVDA screen reader, others using the ZoomText (no relation) magnifier, and we did not encounter the issue you did. I agree that the Zoom platform still has a way to go, but it definitely seems to have vastly better functionality with NVDA than jaws, according to the feedback I’ve received so far. Thank you so much, though, for taking the time to message the developers, as all of this activity will certainly result in greater accessibility for everyone.

  8. Prasanta Shee says:

    Yeah, zoom is good. Additionally, you may also try R-HUB HD video conferencing servers for conducting online video conferencing. It provides 30 way HD video conference and works from behind the firewall, hence better security.

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