Philip: I’m speaking with Dr Scott Hollier, the digital accessibility director for Media Access Australia. Webinars continue to grow in popularity, and Scott has put them under the spotlight to see just how accessible or inaccessible they really are. The idea of a webinar is appealing to many, as it allows businesses to engage with prospects at low cost, and participants to catch up with the latest developments if they can’t travel to a conference. However, many people with a disability or impairment are locked out of the room. Scott, did the level of accessibility that you encountered surprise you?
Scott: In some ways it did Philip. We weren’t too surprised that a lot of webinars were very challenging in how to use them, be it presenter or attendee, we’re seeing a lot of accessibility challenges. But what did surprise us is that there were a few different abilities and quirks between different products. And some products were certainly better than others, even though broadly speaking they were all quite challenging.
Philip: Okay, well what are the main aspects of webinars that failed the access test?
Scott: The main thing when it comes to webinars is that the very nature of the product makes them inaccessible. So the way a lot of webinar software works is that it makes you feel like you’re seeing something that a presenter is presenting. So the way it achieves this is often by having a series of images that refresh really quickly and because of that, it feels like you’re engaging and interacting with the presentation. However, because it is a series of images, screen readers and other assistive technology products often have trouble with that. So we noticed that across the board, it’s very difficult for attendees to use their assistive technologies, especially screen readers, in trying to access that software but broadly speaking there are a few different nuances, if you like, between different products which made the testing really interesting.
Philip: Okay, and which of the products outperformed some of the others?
Scott: So when we looked at the range of products, we saw that, broadly speaking, Adobe Flash based products were very challenging. And the main reason for that is that when you turn on accessibility features like a screen magnifier, Flash products will often have boxes that are difficult to click on, and there are a few documented bugs. So certainly the Flash-based products, and there were a number of those, they were particularly challenging. But in terms of some of the more positive products, we found that certainly Cisco WebEx was quite a positive experience broadly, especially from a presenter’s point of view. Most of the media options were accessible, you were able to use screen readers to at least get to a number of the menus. The magnification generally worked well and the actually quality of the webinar itself was quite good. So broadly speaking if you have a disability and you want to at least access the webinar, even if you can’t access the content of the webinar, that’s a pretty good choice. We found that GoToMeeting was pretty good as well in terms of ease of use. Most webinars required a lot of plugins to have to set them up in a difficult set up process. While GoToMeeting probably won out in terms of the ease of set up, so that was a plus for that one. But in terms of really good accessibility in terms of the controls, Google Hangouts was a surprise winner. So we looked at Google Hangouts because it is free, and whilst people do need a Gmail account to interact with that, the fact you can share out your screen meant it could be used for webinars. And we were really pleasantly surprised to find that all the controls were very keyboard accessible and worked well with a screen reader. So again, the actual content of the webinar itself wasn’t very accessible, but in terms of being able to drive the webinar, at least you could use it.
Philip: Have you found any webinar software that is WCAG 2.0 compliant?
Scott: No, and it’s a really important point to stress that no webinar software in our testing, and we looked at a substantial number of tools, are WCAG complaint. And as I was saying before, the main reason for that is the very nature of its technology. We did find that Adobe Connect was able to produce a little bit of accessible information in the chat window but essentially none of the presentations were able to be picked up by users with screen readers. The nature of the product is very difficult. The tricky thing from a lot of peoples’ point of views and why we really wanted to look at this area was because there’s a lot of documents out there, such as the one produced by Adobe, that infer that there is some accessibility compliance to certain standards when it comes to these types of software packages. But the reality was found that in our testing was there might be some options around colour contrast or things like that. To be honest the, across the board, accessibility is very challenging. And I think there’s a good thing to be throwing out there to anyone developing webinars that yes, at the moment pretty much all products are challenging and it would be great to see some innovation in this area.
Philip: Okay Scott. Well you mentioned that screen readers and other AT devices struggle with webinars in general. Or is it just some forms of webinar?
Scott: What we found is that across the board, no webinar software was accessible in terms of someone running a presentation and someone else being able to access the contents of that presentation. You could turn on magnification, you could certainly tweak colour contrast and things like that but in terms of screen readers, there’s no webinar that we were able to test and or in our research beforehand, that would suggest a screen reader user will be able to access a presentation. So I think it really comes down to well can a person using a screen reader at least be able to participate in the webinar and get online and be able to access the controls to join the webinar. And so we looked at it from that point of view, at least if you’re able to get on the webinar, you can listen to the presenter and you still have some limited options. And we found in that case there’s Hangouts and WebEx were probably the best options in that regard. So in terms of an all-round package, we think Cisco WebEx is the best compromise candidate at the moment, but yeah, if anyone wants to get on board and really work in this space, I think there’s a lot of potential.
Philip: Sounds like it’s crying out to be done.
Philip: Any quick tips, apart from reading your in-depth article?
Scott: Firstly from a presenter’s point of view, most webinars have the ability to share screens and so because of that we stress that rather than using the inbuilt portal that can often be used, so the very cut down and proprietary interface, using screen sharing at least gives you the option as a presenter to use your own controls, your own technologies, and also in some respects you can actually demonstrate how assistive technology works, if that’s part of your presentation. From an attendee point of view, really the key is to work out if you can access the controls, for example GoToMeeting, as I was saying, it’s quite easy to set up but from a screen reader point of view we couldn’t get to the controls but from a screen magnification option of view it was quite straightforward to use. And also at least stay away from any webinars that use Adobe Flash.
Philip: Okay, good advice. And finally to mirror a question that you yourself posed in your W3C column, is there actually any good news about webinars and accessibility?
Scott: Well look to be honest, going into this my colleague Matt and I, we thought that all webinars would be terrible and there’d be no accessibility functionality within any of them that would be supported. So from our point of view, we were pleasantly surprised that in the case of Hangouts, there was really good control access for screen readers and WebEx was as I was saying, they’re probably the best compromise candidate across the board. But I think there’s still a long way to go in the webinar space. So I think there is some good news that there have been dabbling around the edges when it comes to accessibility. It was nice to see with Adobe Connect that their chat window at least had some accessibility functionality. But there’s a long way to go into this space and it’s certainly my hope that in the not too distant future, we’ll see great access improvements.
Philip: Well maybe then we’ll have a webinar ourselves in addition to a podcast. Thank you very much for your time today Scott.
Scott: Thank you.