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How video conferencing apps compare for accessibility

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, video calling services have become increasingly important to connect us to friends, family and work.

But how do they compare for accessibility features that benefit deaf people and those with hearing loss?

Jesal Vishnuram, our Head of Technology, reviewed eight video conferencing apps, looking at:

  • audio and video calling quality
  • live captions (also known as subtitles or live subtitles)
  • transcription
  • ease of use
  • cost
  • maximum number of users on a call.

Live captions are automatically generated using artificial intelligence (AI) and appear on the screen as people talk. They are closed captions, which means you can turn them on and off.

Live captions are not as accurate as those created by a real person and don’t allow you to correct any mistakes as you go along, but some apps do allow someone in the call to add captions.

The speed and accuracy of live captions, and the quality of audio and video, can vary depending on:

  • your internet connection
  • the device you’re using
  • the number of people talking
  • the amount of background noise

The accuracy of live captions can also depend on speakers’ accents.

How the popular video conferencing apps compare for accessibility

The following apps were tested across different devices, on a stable Wi-Fi connection.

Microsoft Teams

Launched in 2017, the number of daily users has surged to 44 million during the coronavirus outbreak. Teams is available to organisations who use Office 365, though Microsoft plans to launch a consumer version of Teams later in the year. Microsoft Teams will soon replace Skype for Business.

Microsoft can now reduce background noise in calls. Common noises like cars, drilling, café noises can be recognised and removed making calls quieter and clearer.

Suitable for: business use (Microsoft has announced plans to launch a consumer version).

Audio and video calling quality

Good – but works best on Microsoft laptops and PCs

Live captions

Live captions available on desktop app/mobile app. Only available in English. Not available to all companies

Transcription

Yes

Ease of use

Easy

Cost

You must have a business account – but guests can join

Maximum number of users on a call

250


Zoom

A free video calling service that’s particularly good for larger group meetings. It’s popular with people who require interpreters and speech-to-text reporters.

Zoom can now reduce background noise in calls. Common noises like cars, drilling, café noises can be recognised and removed making calls quieter and clearer.

Suitable for: private and business use

Audio and video calling quality

Good

Live captions

Zoom allows someone on the call to type live captions during a meeting. You can also choose to use another service to do this for you if you prefer. The captions can be streamed into the meeting or you can choose to view them on a separate screen. Read Zoom’s guidance on live captions.

Transcription

Available through an external provider

Ease of use

Easy

Cost

Free basic package (50 minutes maximum if more than two users on the call. Subscription £11.99–£15.99 a month)

Maximum number of users on a call

100 on basic plans (1,000 if you pay for an add-on)


Google Hangouts

A free solution for smaller group meetings. To create a video call, you need to be signed into a Google Workplace account (formerly known as G Suite). To join a video call as a guest, you need the Meet mobile app or you can join through your web browser. You don’t need a Google Workplace account to join a call, but you must be invited by someone who does (having a Gmail account is not the same as being a Google Workplace customer, which is a paid-for service).

In response to lockdown, Google announced in May 2020 that they would be making premium features of Google Hangout free to individuals – including live captions.

Google can now reduce background noise in calls. Common noises like cars, drilling, café noises can be recognised and removed making calls quieter and clearer.

Suitable for: private and business use.

Audio and video calling quality

Good. Noise minimisation function to focus on speaker’s audio and reduce noise

Live captions

Yes – on mobile and desktop

Transcription

Available through an external provider

Ease of use

Easy

Cost and maximum number of users on a call

It’s free to have a video call with up to 25 participants, or a voice call with up to 150 people. There is a paid service for calls with more participants.


Hangouts Meet by Google

The business version of Google Hangouts, this platform requires at least one meeting member to sign up to Google Workplace. Hangouts Meet offers the highest quality live captions of all the providers. Google has recently made Hangouts Meet available to all Google Workplace customers for free (having a Gmail account is not the same as being a Google Workplace customer, which is a paid-for service).

Google can now reduce background noise in calls. Common noises like cars, drilling, café noises can be recognised and removed making calls quieter and clearer.

Suitable for: business use.

Audio and video calling

Good. Noise minimisation function to focus on speaker’s audio and reduce noise

Live captions

Yes – high quality, but only in English

Transcription

Available through an external provider

Ease of use

Easy

Cost

Free but 1 person must have paid for Google Workplace (£4.14-£8.28 a month)

Maximum number of users on a call

250


Skype

A free service which specialises in video chat and voice calls. It can be downloaded across a range of devices.

You can also make a call from Skype to someone on their mobile or landline with a subscription or Skype Credit.

Suitable for: private and business use

Audio and video calling

Good

Live captions

Yes – on mobile and desktop. Live captions are available in Skype version 8 or higher for Android, iOS, Windows and macOS. Read Skype’s guidance on live captions.

Transcription

No

Ease of use

Easy – but captions need to be enabled

Cost

Free. There’s also a paid-for premium version which has features such as voice mail, SMS texts or calls to a landline or mobile outside of Skype.

Maximum number of users on a call

50


Skype for Business

Skype for Business integrates with Microsoft Outlook and Office 365 products. Closed captions can be viewed in Skype meeting broadcasts, but must first be enabled by the meeting organiser. Skype for Business will soon be replaced by Microsoft Teams.

Suitable for: business use

Audio and video calling quality

Good

Live captions

Yes

Transcription

Available through an external provider

Ease of use

Difficult and fiddly

Cost

Free to user – organisation has to pay per user

Maximum number of users on a call

250


WebEx Meetings

A full video and content-sharing cloud solution that you can join through desktop, mobile, web browser, and video devices. WebEx allows users to host or participate in video conferencing, online meetings and screen sharing, with up to 1,000 participants in a virtual meeting room.

Suitable for: business use

Audio and video calling

Excellent. Can detect background noise and remove distractions

Live captions

No

Transcription

Available from external provider

Ease of use

Mostly easy – some fiddly functions

Cost

Paid for service (free trial available)

Maximum number of users on a call

1,000


Other information

You may be able to find more helpful advice and information from the following places:

  • The Big Hack has reviewed the best video conferencing apps and software for accessibility
  • The Limping Chicken has a blog with useful tips for working remotely
  • AbilityNet can assist with IT support at home, digital accessibility and workplace services.

Read our tips for communicating effectively on video and voice calls if you or your colleague is deaf or has hearing loss

Hearing Ambassadors has produced a video with video conferencing tips for deaf people and those with hearing loss and tinnitus. Watch Hearing Ambassadors’ video on YouTube


Get support with assistive devices online

Find out about the different types of products you might benefit from if you have hearing loss – from smoke alarm systems to devices to help you enjoy entertainment.
Get support online


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