Using Zoom Video Conferencing Platform to Provide People with Visual Impairments Instant Access to Visual Information

Zoom is becoming a leader in video conferencing worldwide and features an accessible interface for use by people who are visually impaired. Zoom can be used not only for traditional video conferencing by people with visual impairments but also for instant access to visual information. Zoom can be used to provide real-time access to everyday experiences, objects, and printed items that are not readily accessible to people with visual impairments. For example, a high school student who is blind can use Zoom to video conference with a sighted relative or friend and the sighted individual can see what the high school student who is blind sees in real-time and talk with the person who is visually impaired about whatever situation they may be in or whatever visual information they may be seeking instant access to at the time (e.g., letters in the mail, colors of clothes or accessories, labels on containers).  When used in this way, Zoom can enhance independence and activities of daily living in the lives of people who are visually impaired. 

A series of simple steps can be followed to use Zoom for real-time Access to information. It can be as easy as 1-2-3.

  1. A person who is visually impaired connects to a sighted friend or relative using Zoom video conferencing.
  2. A person who is visually impaired provides the sighted person with visual access to the information they would like more information about from the sighted person.
  3. The sighted person provides the person who is visually impaired with this additional information they are seeking in real-time.

Screenshot of Zoom with Dr. Kapperman holding a $20 bill and Dr. Kelly identifying the bill.

The picture directly above shows these three steps in action. The picture above shows a screenshot of a Zoom video conference in sessions between a person who is visually impaired holding a twenty-dollar bill in the view of their web camera and a sighted individual providing a verbal description of the currency displayed. 

The following are examples of ways to use Zoom for real-time access to information. The person who is visually impaired can display the following on camera during a Zoom session with a sighted person to acquire instant access to the non-visual information:

  • Clothes and related accessories
  • Currency and handwritten checks
  • Household cleaners
  • Ingredients
  • Intersections (indoors or outdoors)
  • Labels on containers
  • Mail (e.g., letters or any items received in the mail)
  • Make-up
  • Over the counter medication
  • Pet food or pet medications
  • Photographs and pictures (i.e., photographs taken with a camera, displayed pictures that include but not limited to artwork, pictures or photographs of any kind in a book)
  • Prescription medicine
  • Receipts
  • Signage while traveling indoors or outdoors
  • Tickets for transportation or to special events with or without assigned seating (e.g., concerts, movies, musicals, airlines, trains, other public transportation)
  • Your own ideas and additions to this list

Tips for Aligning the Camera Field of View and Additional Considerations

It can be tricky at first with near vision tasks (e.g., medication or labels on containers) for the person who is visually impaired to place the object they would like more information about in the field of view of the camera for the sighted person to be able to see and describe easily. Using a stabilizing object of some sort can help with this. For example, placing the object the person would like described on the flat part of a bowl that is turned upside down and moved around until it is in the field of view of the camera can help. This takes some trial and error with smaller objects but it can be accomplished with only a little bit of practice and feedback from the sighted individual about what is and what is not within the field of view of the camera. 

Also, the sighted individuals who are engaging in the Zoom video conferencing for the purposes outlined here have not been specifically trained to provide real-time access to information or people with visual impairments. The descriptions provided to people who are visually impaired by the sighted individuals they connect with via Zoom are only as helpful as the person can be who is providing the description of the visual information. However, with practice and feedback it is hopeful the person who is visually impaired can establish a network of a few reliable sighted Zoom contacts that could be called upon from time to time for the purposes outlined here. There is no better time to practice than while many of us are using Zoom on a regular basis anyways for traditional video conferencing purposes. Now would be a good time to consider expanding the possible uses of Zoom to include the methods outlined in this posting.

Features of Zoom that Make the Instant Access to Real-Time Information Handy

The basic Zoom meeting plan is free of charge and includes an unlimited number of meetings. All meetings on the basic Zoom meeting plan are limited to 40 minutes or length in duration. The limit of 40 minutes is well within a reasonable amount of time the purposes of visual access to surroundings or quick access to otherwise inaccessible materials that a person who is visually impaired may hold up to the web camera for a description. Zoom can be used from a smartphone application on the go or a personal computer. 

Stacy Kelly and Gaylen Kapperman

Visual Disabilities Program

Northern Illinois University