Chats and Accessibility
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").
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.
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.
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. The best Windows based IRC client
These clients are primarily command based, meaning that the
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to work with Ircle, mIRC, and others, but most are outdated and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
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:
Windows IRC Clients
mIRC - http://www.mirc.com/
PIRCH98 - http://www.pirch.com/
OrbitIRC - http://www.orbitirc.com/
Macintosh IRC Clients
Ircle - http://www.ircle.com/
Snak - http://www.snak.com/
ShadowIRC - http://www.shadowirc.com/
IRC and Accessibility for Blind and Low Vision Users
Ronolog uses Microsoft Agent technology to read mIRC chat sessions
out loud. It is free to people who are blind or visually impaired.
- Listen2 is a Text-to-Speech script for use with the IRC client
mIRC. Listen2 is written specifically to help blind or visually
impaired users interact with IRC.
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.
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.
Chat - http://acropolis.usu.edu/chat
WAPD Chat - http://www.wapd.org/chat/index.html
Chat Forum - http://chat-forum.com/
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
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
Is the interface accessible through the keyboard only?
Does the program work with common screen readers?
Can the user control the scrolling and/or refreshing of messages?
Does sound alone convey important information?
Are the controls easy to use and clear?
If Java is being used, is it designed to work with Jaws and other
learn more about accessible chats and other accessibility tips,
please visit the www.webaim.org site
or contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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