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NCDAE: The National Center on Disability and Access to Education

Increasing universal access by
developing educational resources

NCDAE Tips and Tools: Online Communication Tools

Created: May 2007

Table of Contents


There are a variety of tools that are used in an online setting to communicate and collaborate. Because many of these tools are used in real-time settings, rely on different media (visual, auditory, etc.) and can have complex interfaces, they face a number of accessibility barriers.

The following resource introduces a few of the most popular technologies used to communicate on and over the web.


Online forums have several names: forums, bulletin boards, discussion boards, discussion groups, etc. They are basically a place for users to post questions or comments. Other users then reply to these posts to create an online discussion. The discussion posts are stored and sorted chronologically to form threads.

Accessibility challenge Disability type(s) Solution(s)
The forum must be keyboard accessible. Blind, Motor
  • Ensure that the user can navigate through the forum, read and post content without the use of a mouse.
Images, avatars, and emoticons need appropriate alt text. Blind
  • Make sure that your forum requires the user to enter appropriate alt text for all images. Avatars should probably have null (alt="") alt text.
  • Ensure that the forum provides appropriate alt text for emoticons (e.g. smile, frown, etc.).
Forum registration often use inaccessible CAPTCHAs, (distorted words or letter-number combinations that the user has to enter into a text field) to keep bots and spammers out. Blind, Visual, Cognitive
  • Avoid CAPTCHAs when possible.
  • Ensure that any CAPTCHAs are accessible. One approach is to provide an image and an audio equivalent.
Pages on a forum contain a great deal of information (thread/topic names, dates, posted by, last post) Blind, Visual, Cognitive
  • If the threads are listed in a table, make sure that the table has appropriate headers.
  • Ensure that the forum can be searched easily, and that the search feature provides helpful results.

There are many programs that can be used to create forums, and the accessibility of these varies widely. PunBB is one example of a free forum tool that is quite accessible "out of the box." Make sure to test the accessibility of any forum before implementing it on a large scale.


Chats are real-time online text conversations. They are usually conducted in one of three ways:

Accessibility challenge Disability type(s) Solution(s)
Chat content may refresh automatically causing the user to miss part of the conversation. Blind, Cognitive, all users
  • Allow the user to choose to refresh the conversation.
  • Allow the user to manually scroll through a conversation.
  • Provide a mechanism for displaying only unread messages.
The interface may not be keyboard accessible. Blind, Motor

Ensure that all tasks can be completed with the keyboard.

The interface may not be compatible with screen readers. Blind Test the interface with common screen readers (JAWS, Window-Eyes).
The interface may be cluttered or confusing. Cognitive Ensure that the interface is clean and easy to use.
Multiple conversations may be carried on simultaneously, making the chat difficult to follow. Cognitive, all users
  • Clarify which user you are responding to.
  • Minimize the number of separate conversations in a single chat window.


Many electronic whiteboards exist allowing users to draw, write and collaborate using an interface that simulates a physical whiteboard. Whiteboards are by nature full of accessibility barriers, many of which will be very difficult, or even impossible, to overcome.

Accessibility challenge Disability type(s) Solution(s)
A user must typically be able to use a mouse to add content. Blind, motor
  • None, if the user intends to add content, although it may be possible for the user to view content created by others.
Almost all of the content on a whiteboard is graphical, and much of it is created in real time. Visual, cognitive
  • Practically speaking, there is very little that can be done to make most of this content accessible.
  • Possible solutions include
    • Describe (either textually or with captioned audio) all of the visual content in a whiteboard.
    • Make the content available in another, more accessible format, such as accessible PowerPoint or HTML. This is impractical for much of the content being created on a whiteboard.
Multiple collaborators may work on the same whiteboard at the same time. That can make it very difficult to determine the flow of the content. Cognitive
  • Different colored "markers" could be used by each user to aid in differentiating content.
  • A rule could be made that only one person, or one person at a time, can add content to the whiteboard.

Voice Over IP

Voice over IP, or VoIP, is a term used to describe a voice conversation that takes place over an internet connection instead of a traditional phone line. Many large organizations use VoIP in place of a conventional phone line, often without the user recognizing the difference.

VoIP calls can also be made over a computer, usually with a USB headset or handsets.

Accessibility challenge Disability type(s) Solution(s)
VoIP calls are audio-based. Hearing
  • Provide real-time captioning.
  • Provide a sign language interpreter.
Programs may be inaccessible, or simple tasks may be more difficult to accomplish, without the use of a mouse. Motor, Blind
  • Test the keyboard accessibility of the program.
  • If possible, create keyboard shortcuts to simplify common tasks.
In a conference call with many users, it may de difficult to recognize who is speaking. Cognitive, Hard of hearing, All
  • Users should identify themselves before speaking, especially if they have not been part of the call for a while.

Skype is currently one of the most popular VoIP programs. Very little accessibility information is available on Skype's site, but there are many reports of screen reader users that are able to use Skype very successfully. Skype does allow you to enable and customize keyboard shortcuts for simple tasks like calling someone or hanging up. To enable and modify these shortcuts, select Tools > Options > Hotkeys.