I can remember the days of those obnoxious phone conference lines, often used by nonprofits for meetings, or by companies to talk about a new product. For the time, it was a great technology and made it possible to talk to many people at the same time. But phone conferencing has its drawbacks. Inevitably, someone will forget to mute their phone while a dog barks loudly in the background. Poor and delayed connections and muffled audio were largely the norm. But hey, most of these lines were free, so it was hard to complain.
As someone who is often in front of a computer or mobile phone, I am glad to say that modern tools have made it much easier to offer a presentation, provide a webinar, or hold a meeting with clients. While there are a variety of conferencing apps available, Zoom from Zoom Video Communications has caught the attention of many in the accessibility field over the past couple of years for its dedication to accessible design across its products. I like this quote from a 2017 Zoom blog post that sums up the company's mindset.
Zoom is creating new features for our participants with disabilities not just so we can meet or exceed regulatory standards. We are committed to building these accommodations because we want to ensure universal access to our services, so that all meeting hosts and participants can have the best experiences possible.
We'll break down this overview into two parts: Zoom for a user, and Zoom for a host or administrator. If you are interested in joining a Zoom meeting but are unsure on how to proceed, the first section is for you. If you wish to host meetings of your own, then read on to the second part of the article.
Zoom for Users
Perhaps you have seen an email from a company such as Freedom Scientific or Hadley, two major users of the Zoom platform. Their meeting announcements include information about their regular webinars (web-based seminars), and a link to join. While it is possible to attend these meetings using a phone number and an access code, doing so will negate most of the benefits of joining the meeting using the Zoom software.
Zoom is free to install and use. Zoom meetings can be joined on Windows and Mac computers as well as iOS and Android devices. When you select a meeting link for the first time, Zoom will download to your computer or device a small piece of software that is used to access the meeting room. This may come in the form of a plugin for Chrome or Firefox, or an app for your mobile device. The host needs to be present to start a meeting, so if you get an error that the meeting has not yet started, try waiting a couple of minutes and then select the link again.
If successful, you should now be in the meeting. Though the screen may appear a bit different depending on the platform you are using, you will generally be presented with a variety of options once you have joined. The first thing you may want to check is your microphone. If you plan on just listening to the meeting and not speaking, then you can of course leave the microphone off. But if you wish to speak, it is good to know where the microphone button is located. On mobile devices, there is a button that will say something like "Microphone disconnected," which you would select to start speaking. From here, you can change your microphone input to a speakerphone or headset. The text of the button will update to indicate your currently selected status. If you plan on doing a lot of talking, it's a good idea to use a headset with a microphone, especially if you are also using a screen reader on your phone. This will help to prevent the screen reader from bleeding into the chat room.
I prefer to use the Zoom Windows app because it comes with a variety of keyboard shortcuts. One of these is Alt + A for muting and unmuting audio. If using a screen reader, it will speak the current status of the microphone. You can also press Tab to move through the various options of the application, some of which are described below.
You can also choose to share your video, which can either be a feed from your camera or your device's screen. While it is easy to share video, note that there doesn't currently seem to be an accessible way for someone else to read what is on your screen, so it will be necessary to describe what is on the screen for users who cannot see it. You can, however, share the audio from your screen reader on some platforms, which could be useful for technology demos.
In addition to audio and video, Zoom includes a text chat system that can be used by all participants, regardless of whether or not they have been allowed to speak. This can be a great way to ask smaller questions while the presenter is talking or send website addresses for products or features that are being discussed. Chat messages are automatically spoken by the screen reader, and also can be reviewed using the keyboard. On Windows, use Alt + H to show or hide the chat window.
The Participant List will let you see who else is in the meeting room, including whether or not their microphone or video is on. On Windows, you can press Alt + U to show or hide the participant list.
Some meetings may be presented in a way that allows users to ask questions. This can be accomplished by raising your hand, figuratively speaking. On the computer, use Alt + Y to show that your hand is raised. The option is under the More Options menu on mobile devices. The host will be alerted either visually or through their screen reader and can then choose to take your question via voice or text. Not all hosts use this method, and some will prefer you type your question into the chat window.
The Settings section of the Zoom apps for the computer include a more complete list of keyboard shortcuts, useful to meeting participants and hosts. These can be reassigned and also made global, so they will work even when the application is not focused.
Note that most hosts have the option to record their meetings. You will be informed of this fact if the meeting is going to be recorded.
Zoom for Hosts
Zoom is a rather powerful meeting platform, and can fill a variety of needs for a company or organization. Zoom's free plan allows for hosting one-on-one meetings and group meetings up to 40 minutes long. For some, especially those wishing to host longer webinars, the Pro plan for $14.99 per host per month may be more suitable. This allows for group meetings with up to 100 participants that can last for up to 24 hours, the ability for cloud-based meeting recording, and a personal meeting ID that will remain the same for each hosted meeting if desired.
Again, I prefer to host meetings using Zoom's dedicated Windows app that includes more features and settings. It also allows for local recording of the meeting, including separate tracks for each user if desired. To start a meeting, use the "Starting a New Meeting" button. My button reads "with video off" meaning that my meetings will just include audio. This can be changed using the New Meeting Option button. Once the meeting has been started, other participants can join. From here, there are links to share the meeting with others or send an invitation link. If you are on the Pro or higher plan and use the same meeting link every time, you can easily tell your participants the link ahead of time. Remember they can also dial in using a telephone if they are uncomfortable using a computer or smartphone. It is also possible to schedule meetings ahead of time and integrate Zoom with other apps such as Google Calendar.
The commands for users discussed above work for the host as well. As a host, you have some additional tools at your disposal. Under the Participant List panel, you may want to enable the option to automatically mute the microphone of everyone joining the meeting. Users can still elect to ummute their microphones, but starting with everyone muted by default may be helpful. You can also mute all audio from others when you are ready to start presenting, allowing for users to chat before the meeting begins. The participant list panel will also indicate if a user has raised their hand to ask a question.
As mentioned above, you can choose to record audio either locally or in the cloud. I prefer local recording since the file is saved to my computer as soon as the meeting is done, but cloud recording may be preferred as a more stable option for backing up the meeting. Remember, the users will be informed when recording begins, and it is probably a good idea to also emphasize this fact during the meeting.
While Zoom is not the only accessible conference solution available today, it is one of the most popular and versatile, which is why we chose to review it. Both mainstream and access technology companies have chosen Zoom to host meetings and other events, and whether you are hosting a meeting or just joining one, you will generally have a well-rounded accessibility experience. We would love to see even further improvements to Zoom, including more screen reader notifications and hotkeys and the ability to read screens that are shared. We hope the developers continue their solid commitment to equal access.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
- An Introduction to Slack, A Popular Chat App for Teams and Workplaces by J.J. Meddaugh
- Book Review: Windows Keyboard Power User Guide, by Dean Martineau by Bill Holton
More by this author:
- The Hunger Pains: A Review of the DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates, and Uber Eats Food Delivery Apps
- Making Voice Assistants Smart for Seniors: Tips for Optimizing the Amazon Echo or Google Home