Webinar software round-up – are there any accessible options out there?

The idea of a webinar is a good one. If you’re a business, the fact that you can present important information to people across the globe without the need for expensive travel is very appealing, especially if you include the real-time chat capabilities and session recording. For participants, webinars also offer tremendous benefits if you can’t get away from the office but still want to participate in industry-related developments in real-time, or catch up with the recording when time permits.  All in all, it’s a great thing…except for its accessibility.

The accessibility of webinar software has not only been something I’ve been looking at broadly, but has also resulted in some personal challenges. As a legally blind assistive technology user, I’ve often ended up in situations where I’ve been asked to present or conduct training which requires webinar software, and it’s a request that always makes me a little nervous. While I’ve managed to work out the best way to give presentations in person, what does it say about my capability if I suddenly can’t do my job because enabling the screen magnifier results in being unable to click on a button, or I can’t unmute my audio because the setting doesn’t display in my colour scheme? What about screen reader capability, or lack thereof?  A quick search reveals that I’m not alone in my webinar anxiety, and the real concern that this type of software has the ability to impact on the perceived competency of a person with a disability.

In case there’s any doubt, it’s important to stress right out front that to the best of my knowledge no webinar software is WCAG 2.0 compliant despite corporate blurbs that try to infer otherwise. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Adobe!) I’ve hunted high and low for one that meets basic accessibility criteria, so if you do discover a tool that has resulted in a positive webinar experience that’s not on our list that you think should be here, please get in touch and we’ll check it out.

However, while none of the tools are accessible as such, there are definitely some webinar software applications that are better than others. Given that it’s more a case of choosing the least-bad rather than the most accessible, it’s important to explain why this is the case.

Why webinars are so tricky for people with disabilities

Webinar software is very clever. It has the ability to provide you with video and audio over a low-bandwidth connection and creates the feeling that you are seeing the presenters’ computer in the same way they are. As a result, many people rightly ask the question ‘If the presenter can use the computer with accessibility features, why can’t I use my assistive technology such as a screen reader with what I’m seeing?’  While different webinars work in different ways, what is often going on is that what you see as the presenter’s screen is actually just a series of rapidly updating images sent to your computer of what the presenter is doing. As a result, it seems like you’re interacting but actually you’re just seeing a whole lot of pictures at once. As screen readers can’t easily read out the text that is buried in an image, likewise screen readers struggle with webinars, and broader accessibility issues are very hard to address. Other assistive technologies can also get foiled by incompatibilities with the plug-in technologies used to create the webinar, such as the documented bug across many versions of Adobe Flash where enabling a screen magnifier means you’re unable to click on pop-up alerts, preventing access to the webinar.

Is there any good news about webinars and accessibility?

While webinar attendees with disabilities are likely to find every webinar software difficult, there are certainly some which can at least provide you with accessible controls to join in, and from a presenter view there are quite a few options that can allow you to use your computer pretty much the way you do now when giving a presentation, including accessibility tools. This is not only great for giving presentations, but also provides an opportunity to demonstrate some accessibility features over webinar if that’s part of your presentation.

Webinar software selection and testing criteria

We initially selected 14 different webinar products for testing, but quickly discovered that for a variety reasons it would be difficult to test them all. The main reason was that many webinar software products such as Megameeting, OnNova, binardo, iLinc Anymeeting, Redback, and Blackboard Collaborate all required a demonstration before we could try the software so due to time constraints they were removed from the list.  In the case of Redback, the website for requesting a demo was so inaccessible that it’s unlikely we could have asked for one anyway!

We were also unable to complete our testing with ReadyTalk due to its reliance on needing to call a North American conferencing number.

This left six webinar products that we were able to test effectively thanks to their either being free software or offering a free trial. They include GoToMeeting, Cisco WebEx, Onstream, Adobe Connect and ClickMeeting. Google Hangouts was also included as while not formally recognised as webinar software, its ability to share out a screen and the fact that it’s free, make it a worthy contender for webinar use.

With most webinar packages there are a variety of different ways you can give a presentation, but most options come down to two choices: using a sandboxed built-in cloud-based presentation portal or sharing out a desktop in which people can see a mirror of everything that you do which can include presentations. The presentation portal is generally unusable by either presenter or attendee and requires significant challenges in getting the slides up to the interface. So for this test, the focus was primarily on the ability to share a desktop and run any presentations or demonstrations in that context. To confirm the results in both presenter and attendee view, my colleague Matthew and I spent considerable time going through each software package in turn to determine which was the most accessible.

From the presenter view sharing out the desktop, the focus was on confirming if the presenter could use all the assistive technologies they needed to run a webinar such as using the webinar controls with assistive technologies, and if AT features could be demonstrated. From the attendee view, the focus was on what local assistive technologies could help them to access the webinar controls and, if at all possible, the webinar content itself. For the test, two Windows 10 computers were used with Microsoft Edge, Internet Explorer and the latest Google Chrome web browser, and for screen readers both Narrator and NVDA were used.  Magnification and high contrast colour themes were tested using the ones built into Windows 10.  

The hardest part – initial setup and plug-ins 

As mentioned at the start, no webinar software we tested was particularly great when it came to accessibility and one reason for this is that each one was a pain to set up.  It ranged from GoToMeeting’s minor inconvenience which required plug-ins for Citrix and its own GoToMeeting software, through to ClickMeeting which seemed appropriately named as you had to click through a variety of warnings and plug-ins. Just when you thought you’d finished them all, it asked you to install Adobe AIR for good measure, and it seems like after all the plug-ins the computer has never run quite as well since despite uninstalling most of them. For people with disabilities, this is likely to be an extra challenge, especially if you’re in a hurry to attend a webinar and didn’t realise just how much time is required to install all the various software packages when using any tool for the first time.

The second broad issue we noticed is that the performance of Adobe Flash-based webinar tools was generally inferior to tools based on other technologies such as Citrix. Most people with disabilities who have been using the web for a long time will be painfully aware of the challenges Flash-based content can present for assistive technologies, and its incompatibility with assistive technology tools such as being unable to access webinar controls with a screen reader and magnification issues suggest that other non-Flash packages are likely to be a better option more broadly. And with more browsers and operating systems dropping Flash, it’s likely that this will be unsupported in the not-too-distant future anyway.

Results

The results are in and while all tools have their accessibility challenges, it’s clear that there were some surprises.

FEATURE TESTED

WEBINAR SOFTWARE

 

GoTo-Meeting

WebEx

On-stream

Adobe Connect

ClickMeet-ing

Google Hang-outs

 

PRESENTER VIEW

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ease of setup

Moderate

Difficult

Difficult

Difficult

Difficult

Moderate

Slides

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Desktop

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Web Browser

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Video playback with captions

Yes (no audio)

Yes (no audio)

No (lag)

Yes (no audio)

Yes (no audio)

Yes (no audio)

Screen reader for webinar controls

No

Some

No

No

No

Yes

Screen reader demonstration

No (no audio)

No (no audio)

No (no audio)

No (no audio)

No (no audio)

No (no audio)

Magnifier with webinar controls

Yes

Yes

Yes

Some (Flash issues)

Some (Flash issues)

Yes

Magnifier demonstration

Yes (when not using slides)

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

High Contrast Webinar controls

Yes

Yes

Some

Some

Some

Some

High Contrast demonstration

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ATTENDEE VIEW

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ease of setup

Moderate

Difficult

Difficult

Difficult

Difficult

Moderate

Screen reader for webinar controls

No

Some

No

No

No

Yes

Screen reader for webinar content

No

No

No

Some (chat window)

No

No

Magnifier use

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

High Contrast use

Yes (invert mag-nifier)

Yes (invert mag-nifier)

Yes (invert mag-nifier)

Yes (invert mag-nifier)

Yes (invert mag-nifier)

Yes

(invert mag-nifier)

Setup

In terms of setup, GoToMeeting was by far the easiest. While it still had the plug-ins that had to be installed, its simplistic three-button approach made it quick to set up and there were good visual indicators about enabling the microphone and video sharing. Hangouts was also relatively straightforward although you had to already have a Google account set up, as does whoever you want to bring into the webinar, so this is likely to complicate things if you want to use a webinar beyond very basic use. The other products were all complicated to set up. With WebEx’s you needed to install several things followed by a number of prompts, but the most difficult by far was Adobe Connect which took nearly an hour to set everything up from scratch on both computers. This was mainly due to a series of issues around the accessibility of settings and trying to make sure the correct audio source was used for the microphone and correct speakers were used for the audio, and complicated screen sharing settings. By contrast, on Hangouts, there was no need to change any setting by default, and the options were quite straightforward if we wanted to. As noted earlier, the winner of most convoluted setup though would be ClickMeeting. While it was quicker to instal than Connect, the sheer number of plug-ins and pop-ups meant that your whole computer would grind to a halt while everything was installing which wasn’t encouraging.

Presenting

There are two different accessibility concerns for presenters. Firstly, are the controls usable in the webinar to control the presentation? And secondly, can you use your AT to deliver the presentation, and perhaps even provide a demonstration of the accessibility features to attendees if your presentation is accessibility-related? The Flash-based products are much more difficult due to incompatibilities with the features, but the other products work well from the presenter view whereby a screen reader can be used to keep up with slides, and magnification and high contrast can both be used and demonstrated in most circumstances. The main issue is the accessibility of the webinar interfaces, where several did not work with screen readers at all in our testing, some would provide limited functionality such as WebEx, but only Google Hangouts provided full-screen reader functionality to use the webinar features. In our magnification tests, we noticed GoToMeeting was a bit sluggish in how it appeared to attendees but still worked, and in terms of overall quality and stability WebEx won out from the pack. The biggest issue we had was that we couldn’t work out a way to broadcast audio from the PC which meant our ability to show videos or share the audio of a screen reader was unavailable.  A number of products indicated that if we selected ‘Stereo Mix’ on our PC it would work, but neither of our PCs could do it and the selection of Stereo Mix resulted in no sound at all. Researching this online suggests it is possible under particular circumstances and third-party software can help, but for general purposes sending audio is limited to your microphone.

Attendee View

Using the webinar controls is basically the same as presenter view which means that for screen readers, Google Hangouts is king and GoToMeeting wins for simplicity but not accessibility, leaving WebEx the best compromise candidate. The quality of the webinar is won by WebEx as well and while an attendee can use their magnifier on the webinar display on all packages, it scales best on WebEx and the built-in colour inversion in Windows Magnifier works well too on the webinar content.  Only Adobe Connect provided some limited screen reader access to actual content with some of the chat window being available, but still no access to the presentation itself for screen reader users on any of the platforms.

Conclusion: WebEx for now, but there’s a long way to go

Based on our tests, WebEx seems to be the most stable webinar software with enough screen reader support to get by with the controls, and the magnification works well regardless of presenter or attendee views. However, if you are a screen reader user and don’t mind making everyone have a Gmail account, the free Google Hangouts is the best option in that all controls are accessible. While others like GoToMeeting get an honourable mention for ease of use and set up, it’s clear overall that webinars broadly are still fledging products and until someone finds a way to make it a simple, quick and accessible experience for presenters and attendees alike, it is likely to remain a challenging space for some time to come.