Google Meet/Hangouts as a Visually Impaired User

In times like this in society, the visually impaired community needs a way to remain socially distant yet a way to communicate with people in their daily lives. One way the visually impaired can communicate with each other is through Google Meet/Hangouts. Google Meet is available through business and educational G-Suite offerings, and Google Hangouts is available to most Google consumers.  The two similar, listed applications are developed by the company Google. The one question many visually impaired users may have is, “How accessible are the programs?” Please read further to discover my research and testing results of Google Meet/Hangouts and the accessibility for the blind and visually impaired. 

The main topics that I researched were as follows: use as a participant; use as a presenter; web browser compatibility and program navigation.

Participating in a Meet/Hangouts video conferencing works completely fine. I can grant access to my camera and microphone very easily by using the prompted shortcuts when entering the virtual conference room. I can turn off my microphone and camera for privacy reasons. As a participant I can also use chat features to send files or send messages to other participants. 

As a Presenter, using the presenter feature in the applications worked well with little difficulties. A presenter can use the presenter portion to share their screen to demonstrate documents, presentations, or for trouble shooting equipment with sighted assistance. The issue with the Presenter function is that a blind person would not be able to see the presented object because of how it is displayed. The files are virtualized into a frame which a completely blind user would not be able to access independently, even using OCR features. A user with low-vision may be able to use it with magnification tools. The work around for this problem would be for the sighted assistant to read a loud the presented files, or to share the files prior to the conference for screen reading use. The screen sharing tool was very user-friendly. I tested the function and was able to display my screen when using the text to speech software. One problem would may be audio feedback, but a solution for this would be for the user to use a set of headphones or mute the software. The bottom line is that being a participant or presenter is accessible, but acessing the screen shared material is not accessible.

Program Navigation

I discovered many resources for my experiment and revealed many interesting discoveries. In my testing research, I used two different text to speech software programs. I used JAWS and NVDA to see if navigation was accessible. The basic navigation commands of using tab, arrow keys, and general built-in commands for the assistive software worked very well. I explored the screens of the applications to find important buttons and labels. I discovered that the buttons were easy to find and the buttons were labeled. The screen readers were able to access the button and labels with no issues. Opening and closing dialogue boxes for the main function of the applications were performing perfectly when navigating and using enter or the spacebar to access the menus. Using the virtual PC cursor with JAWS did make navigating to start a hangout conference a little easier. The NVDA software also had to use the virtual function, but it is known as the browser or focus mode. The virtual PC cursor and browser (or focus mode) are native functions built into the screen readers. 

One particular issue that I faced was using keyboard commands to simplify the navigation process. I searched on the web for resources and the results were just some basic navigation commands. I believe if there were some navigation commands, the experience of maneuvering the screen would be a little easier. 

Tool Bar Error

With assistance from my sighted peer, we discovered a hovering screen share bar that was not accessible or collapsible. The floating toolbar may possibly be a viewing issue for users with low-vision. While the navigation seems accessible, I believe that there could be some work or resources to assist users when using the programs. 

Web Browser Compatibility

Some users with visual impairments may use different web browsers when using their computers/laptops. I tested Google Hangout and Google Meet with Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. I first tried to use the applications with Firefox and ran into one particular issue. The issue was the audio was not being heard when loading Google Meet into Firefox. I researched to see if there was a quick fix for this issue. After trying all the suggestions, nothing really worked. I tried the applications with the Chrome web browser, and everything worked properly. I would recommend for users that are blind and visually impaired, to use Google Chrome when using Google Meet/Google Hangouts. I discovered a different performance when using Google Hangouts with Firefox. The navigation and basic usage with Hangouts worked very well. Using the virtual PC cursor with JAWS or the browser and focus mode with NVDA makes using Hangouts a little easier when attempting to start a conversation from Gmail for Hangouts. In my discovery, both browsers seem to work fine with Google Hangouts, with minimal issues.

My research with Google Meet and Google Hangouts with different screen readers was very interesting. I believe the two applications can be used by someone with visually impairments. The applications are functional, but need more work and resources to assist the user for more fluent and independent usage. I performed the experiment to help others, so that everyone can be socially distant and still be able to have some social communication with friends, family, or for work. My experience with application was great and I would recommend many people use it. As a visually impaired user, I found almost everything to be accessible, with minimal issues. My research and testing indicate that the screen share is not accessible, with what I discovered in my usage of Google Meets/Hangouts is that the applications are great tools and can very useful for anyone that has a visual impairment.