Accessibility of Online Chat Programs
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Online chats and instant messaging will soon account for more personal and corporate communications than the telephone. Nearly 800 million instant messages are being sent each day. By 2004, that number will increase to 4.4 billion (See "Instant Gratification - external link"). The accessibility of these communication tools to all users is important. When individuals with disabilities are blocked from using online chat programs, they are cut out of one important communication channel.
This article will evaluate the accessibility of three types of popular synchronous communication tools:
- IRC - Internet Relay Chat was an early communication technology. It allows users to send and receive messages from the central server using client software.
- Web-based Chats - These typically use Java to display and control a chat interface within a Web page. No additional software is required.
- Instant Messengers - Software for managing and communicating with others. The most popular are ICQ (I Seek You), AOL (American Online) Instant Messenger, MSN (Microsoft Network) Messenger, and Yahoo! Messenger.
To participate in an Internet Relay Chat, you need an IRC program, commonly called a Client. There are a wide variety of IRC programs available, with varying levels of accessibility to those with disabilities. The most popular Macintosh IRC client is Ircle - external link. The best Windows based IRC client is mIRC - external link. These clients are primarily command based, meaning that the user must manually enter text commands into the interface to go to different chat areas, change preferences, and chat with others (for instance, '/JOIN #mychat' would log you into a room named 'mychat'). The accessibility of IRC clients varies and accessibility programs have been developed to work with Ircle, mIRC, and others, but most are outdated and do not work with newer IRC clients. Because of the limitations of IRC and the difficult to learn and use interfaces, it is not as frequently used as other chat tools.
General sources of information on IRC include:
- http://www.newircusers.com/ircchat.html - external link
- http://cws.internet.com/irc.html - external link
Windows IRC Clients
Macintosh IRC Clients
IRC and Accessibility for Blind and Low Vision users
- Ronolog - external link - Ronolog uses Microsoft Agent technology to read mIRC chat sessions out loud. It is free to people who are blind or visually impaired.
The use of synchronous communications through a Web page interface is quite powerful. Most Web-based chats use the programming language Java to create an updateable region of the screen that can be used for chatting with other users that are at the same Web page. Because most users already have a Java-enabled Web browser, there are no other software downloads or installs. Unfortunately, the implementation of Java inside the Web browser is not very accessible. Unless the Java programmer has specifically designed the chat interface to work with screen readers, the screen reader will not be able to use the interface. Newer versions of Jaws are currently the only readers capable of reading Java output, however the author is unaware of any Java chat interfaces that have been developed for them. For users with disabilities other than vision problems (cognitive, motor, hearing, etc.), there are design principles that can make Web-based chat interfaces more accessible, such as use of clear/consistent navigation, not relying on audio for content, and easy-to-use interfaces.
Some Web-based chat programs have been developed to output HTML (HyperText Markup Language) only. These chats can be quite accessible to screen readers, because no additional software is required and the output is easily read by the software. HTML chats are also cross compatible and work with all new web browsers. HTML chat programs must allow the user to control how new messages are displayed - if new messages are automatically displayed, then the user may become confused. HTML chat windows must be automatically or manually refreshed to view new messages, which can be tedious or confusing to users.
Accessible HTML Chats
Instant Messenger Chats
In general, Instant Messenger chat tools seem to be reasonably accessible, although there are compatibility issues between versions of assistive technology and versions of IM tools. The Jaws screen reader was designed to work with versions of AOL Instant Messenger and has been used with each of the major instant messengers with varying levels of success. The user in many cases must learn to 'trick' the IM program into working with their assistive program and must learn how to control and manipulate the program which is not inherently accessible. IM settings can be changed to make the program more accessible, such as viewing one message at a time, keeping the IM window from automatically opening, and designating sounds for various notifications.
Despite the wide-spread use of chat programs, few are fully accessible to those with disabilities. Though the situation is not satisfactory at this time, most chat interfaces could easily be made accessible with a few modifications and design changes. If you are designing, implementing, or looking for a chat program, these are a few questions to ask:
1. Is the interface accessible through the keyboard only?
2. Does the program work with common screen readers?
3. Can the user control the scrolling and/or refreshing of messages?
4. Does sound alone convey important information?
5. Are the controls easy to use and clear?
6. If Java is being used, is it designed to work with Jaws and other screen readers?