As people adjust to remote working and self-isolation from Covid-19, the need for accessible technology is even greater.

More than ever, people are relying on video conferencing technology to learn, work and socialise. Many users are rediscovering the power of video calling platforms. Others are learning how to use them for the first time to talk to family. But the rise in remote working and living is presenting barriers as well.

Mental health and loneliness during the Covid-19 outbreak is a concern. For people at home, audio and video conferencing can help reduce feelings of isolation. Government advice recommends keeping in touch with loved ones online for your mental health and wellbeing.

Video calling services like Zoom, Teams and Google Hangouts have all seen a spike in usage since the Covid-19 pandemic. Microsoft Teams has seen a 775% rise in users in Italy alone as a result of Covid-19. As a response, many have offered free versions of their premium tools to help people keep in touch.

But with so many services available to help, it can be hard to know where to start.

Who this guide is for

People with access requirements

The nature of video calling means that it disproportionately affects people with sensory impairments like deafness or hearing loss. We hope this guide will be useful for deaf and hearing-impaired people who want to find the best video conferencing platform to work or socialise.

People with elderly relatives

It may also be useful for people wanting to keep in touch with elderly relatives more easily. Elderly people with hearing loss may benefit from live captions and other practical features like ease of setup.

Businesses and organisations

It may be useful to businesses who want to make their video conferences as inclusive as possible. Especially for students or colleagues who are deaf or hearing-impaired, though it’s worth noting that captions benefit many people. They can provide a better experience for people with developmental disabilities like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. They can also help understanding for people whose native language is not English.

Every person with access requirements will have their own individual needs. It’s always better to ask what they would prefer instead of assuming.

What are Live Captions?

When we refer to live video captions throughout this guide, we mean automatically transcribed closed captions that appear on the screen as people talk. Also called subtitles, live subtitles, closed captions and automatic video captions.

As with any artificial intelligence (AI) technology, live captions have limitations. Often they are not perfect, and the quality varies according to the provider.

Some platforms have better captions than others, whereas some don’t offer it at all. Often, when the functionality does exist, like in Microsoft Teams, many people don’t know how to turn them on. Even for the tech giants, there is inconsistency as to which of their products have live captioning capabilities and which do not. We’d like to see more businesses sharing this technology and licensing it to others.

Gideon Hoffman

Live captions work best for one to one meetings or small group conversations. They will become less accurate if more people, voices and noise are added to the call. Automated caption technology often struggles to pick up strong accents and speech impairments too.

But they can be helpful for people who are hearing-impaired, deaf or elderly. They also help improve understanding for non-native English speakers.

Video conferencing apps and services

Most video calling apps offer the same basic features. A screen-sharing option to let other callers see what’s on your computer, a mute button and instant messaging. But they differ in the access services they provide, like live captions. And how readily they make those services available.

Below you will find an overview of the main video conferencing services and the functionality they offer.

Skype

Free service which specialises in video chat and voice calls. Can be downloaded across a range of devices. Live captions and subtitles are available in Skype version 8 or higher for Android, iOS, Windows and macOS. Accessible through computer, mobile or tablet, with a WiFi connection or mobile data plan.

You can also make a call from Skype to someone on their mobile or landline with a subscription or Skype Credit. Some premium-rate numbers, geographic or country-specific numbers are not supported by Skype.

Price: Free

Advantages

  • Live captions available on desktop and mobile (for video, audio and traditional phone calls)
  • Closed captions are attributed to specific users
  • Screen reader accessible
  • Users can blur their background for privacy
  • Censors swear words
  • Can be accessed in web browser
  • Anybody can join a call, even if they do not have a Skype account
  • Skype to Skype calls are free anywhere in the world
  • Supports up to 50 call participants
  • Chat messaging function

Disadvantages

  • Does not remember preferences for captions, so they must be enabled each time
  • Users must pay to use premium features like voice mail, SMS texts, making calls to a landline, or mobile phone outside of Skype

Sign up to Skype
How to Use Skype
How to turn live captions and subtitles on during a Skype call

Google Hangouts

Quick and easy to set up, Google Hangouts is a great, free solution for smaller group meetings. Accessible through computer, mobile or tablet, with a WiFi connection or mobile data plan. To create a video meeting, you need to be signed in to a G Suite account. To join a video meeting as a guest, you need the Meet mobile app or a supported web browser. You do not need a G Suite account, but you must be invited by someone who does.

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

Price: Free

Advantages

  • Live captions available on desktop and mobile
  • Anyone with a Gmail account can join a Google Hangouts call
  • Screenreader accessible
  • Can be used in web browser
  • Keyboard shortcuts for video calls and within chat function.
  • Good picture and sound quality
  • Chat messaging function
  • Supports up to 25 call participants
  • No limit on call time
  • Noise minimisation feature focuses audio on the speaker’s voice and not background noise

Disadvantages

  • Non-Gmail addresses can only be added to the video meeting if the user who invites you has a G-suite account.

Sign up to Google Hangouts
How to start a video call in Google Hangouts
Suggested browsers for using Google Hangouts with a screen reader

Hangouts Meet by Google (Google Hangouts for Business)

The business version of consumer Google Hangouts, which requires at least one meeting member to sign up to G Suite. Hangouts Meet offers the highest quality live captions of all the providers on this list.

Google has recently made Hangouts Meet available to all G Suite customers for free. (Note, owning a Gmail account is not the same as being a G Suite customer, which a paid-for service).

Price: G Suite offers a free 14-day trial which requires no software download.

Package pricing starts at £4.14 per user per month for the Basic package, £8.28 per user per month for Business and £20 per user per month for Enterprise.

Screenshot of Google Hangouts Meet video call in process. The key speaker's words are transcribed live beneath the video window.
Screenshot of Google Hangouts Meet video call with live captions.

Advantages

  • High quality live captions available
  • Widely reported as the highest quality closed caption provider among regular users
  • Keyboard shortcuts for video calls and within chat function
  • Screenreader accessible
  • Integrates with both Microsoft Outlook and Gmail
  • Simple, easy-to-use interface
  • Can be used in web browser
  • Customers can make use of full-page zoom magnifier, high-contrast colour, and accessibility extensions in Chrome browser
  • Any user can mute anyone else on the call
  • Supports up to 250 call participants
  • Offers a free call-in number for those without video to join the call
  • Censors swear words

Disadvantages

  • At least one call participant must have a paid-for G Suite account
  • If you record a video meeting, captions are not recorded and don’t appear when you play the recording.

Sign up to G Suite
Sign up to Google Hangouts Meet
How to use captions in a Google Hangouts Meet video meeting
How to work from home with G Suite
Supported countries for dialling into a Hangouts Meet by phone

Zoom

Free, powerful video conferencing software. Particularly good for larger group meetings. Accessible through computer, mobile or tablet, with a WiFi connection or mobile data plan. Popular with people who require interpreters and speech-to-text reporters. 

Price: The basic package is free, Pro subscriptions range from £11.99 to £15.99 per month.

Unlimited one-to-one video meeting calls with the basic, free package, with a 40-minute limit on group call times. For longer meetings, one meeting member must be signed up to the Pro subscription for £11.99 per month.

Advantages

  • Accessible with screenreader
  • Keyboard-only navigation enabled
  • Good audio quality
  • Good picture quality
  • Anyone with an invite can join a Zoom call
  • Does not require a mobile or desktop app download for attendees. Users can use through a web browser.
  • Users can change their background
  • Supports up to 100 call participants
  • Chat messaging function

Disadvantages

  • No Live Captions available

Closed Caption support for real-time transcription must be provided through a third-party service or by typing yourself. The process is complex and requires the user to copy Zoom’s API token and then find another service.

  • Closed captions must be enabled in meetings settings before meeting starts
  • Concerns over data privacy
  • 40 minutes limit on hosting group video meetings (of 3 to 100 people) with the basic package
  • User interface sometimes difficult to use
  • Only the host can mute everyone
  • Due to increased demand from Covid-19, dial-in by phone audio conferencing capabilities may be temporarily removed from free basic accounts.

Sign up to Zoom
How to get started with Zoom
Zoom video conference pricing
Supported countries for dialling into a Zoom meeting by phone

Microsoft Teams

Launched in 2017, Teams is Microsoft’s answer to rival platform Slack. The number of daily users has surged to 44 million during the coronavirus outbreak.

Krissie using Live Captions on Microsoft Teams

Teams is available to organisations who use Office 365, though Microsoft plan to launch a consumer version of Teams later in the year. Microsoft Teams will soon replace Skype for Business.

Price: Free

Advantages

  • Live captions available on desktop app and mobile, but only as a preview feature. This means that not all companies who use Teams will have this functionality yet. Captions are not available in government clouds.
  • Screenreader accessible
  • Good picture and sound quality
  • Simple user interface (UI)
  • External guests can join as long as they have a valid business or consumer email address.
  • Chat can be accessed within web browser
  • Audio, video and screen-sharing activity can be recorded in Teams meetings. Automatic transcription allows users to playback the conversation and search within the transcript.
  • Users can blur their background for privacy
  • Supports up to 250 call participants
  • Chat messaging function

Disadvantages

  • Browser-based web app version doesn’t support real-time calls or meetings
  • Live captions only available in English

How to setup Microsoft Teams
How to turn on live captions in a Teams meeting
How to start a video call from a chat in Teams
Phone numbers for Audio Conferencing in Microsoft Teams

Skype for Business

Integrates with Microsoft Outlook and Office 365 products. Closed captions can be viewed in Skype meeting broadcast but they must be enabled by the meeting organiser beforehand. Accessible through computer, mobile or tablet, with a WiFi connection or mobile data plan.

Price: Free to the user (organisations must be signed up and pay per user)

Advantages

  • Supports up to 250 call participants
  • Closed captions can be enabled in a Skype meeting broadcast
  • Chat messaging function
  • Users can blur their background for privacy

Disadvantages

  • Users must have a Skype for Business or Lync account through their organisation
  • Not compatible with the consumer version of Skype
  • Live closed captioning not supported within the product

Closed Caption support for real-time transcription must be provided through a third-party service or by typing yourself.

  • User interface is difficult to use
  • Users must download desktop or mobile app
  • Charges call-in fees on top of per month per user fee

How to sign into Skype for Business
How to set up closed captions in a Skype Meeting broadcast
Supported countries for dialling in to a Skype for Business meeting by phone

Other video calling services

There are other services that provide basic video messaging functionality. All of the following services are free but require you to download an app to your device.

Facebook Messenger

If a family member has a Facebook account, and a device with video and a microphone (like a smartphone, or laptop), they will have access to Facebook’s video messaging service, with group calls enabled. Available on iOS and Android.

Facetime

Offers voice calling as well as video calling. Requires a WiFi or 4G connection. Useful for people who want to sign with interpreters. Group calls enabled. Available on iOS only.

Whatsapp

Offers voice calling as well as video calling, with group calls enabled. Requires a WiFi or 4G connection. Useful for people who want to sign with interpreters. Offers the ability to send and receive audio messages. Available on iOS and Android.

Google Duo

Free to use, enables one-to-one video and voice calls and it works across both iOS and Android devices unlike Apple’s FaceTime. Group calling limit is 12. Ability to send and receive video and audio messages. Google Duo seems to be preparing live caption functionality at the minute.

Workarounds to get live captions for video calls

There are some apps that will give you live transcriptions of what is being said around you. These apps can be used in conjunction with other video conferencing software and may work well in one-to-one video meetings or small group chats.

Live transcription apps and software

Some apps are limited in what they can transcribe. But the technology is always improving so it’s worth checking for new apps and updating the ones you use.

  • Live Caption, free, easy-to-use app which transcribes speech in real-time. Users can upgrade to Live Caption Unlimited to keep listening for longer than 60 seconds, without being interrupted for $2.99 per month. Available on iOS only.
  • Roger Voice, basic free service which adds captions to voice calls in real-time when using the app. Users can upgrade to £5.49 per month subscription plan or unlimited package for £27.49 per month. Both packages allow calls to landline and mobile numbers but vary on the number of minutes offered. Available on iOS and Android.
  • Google Live Transcribe for Android offers real-time transcription of speech and sound to text on your screen.
  • Otter focuses on meetings transcription but it also transcribes conversations. Available on iOS and Android.
  • Just Press Record app for iOS transcribes audio recordings, such as lectures, talks or meetings.

Live caption by Google is an integrated feature on selected Android phones and the Google Pixel 4, 3a, 3 and 2 models. It transcribes everything it can hear, from speech to podcasts and videos.

Sound amplifiers

Some apps are available to help you hear what’s happening around you more clearly. This might be by reducing background noise or boosting the sounds you want to hear.

You can find more technology advice in Scope’s guide to apps that make life more accessible.

Tips for better video calls

Whether you’re video calling for work, or to keep in touch with family, there are ways to get the most out of your video conferencing technology. Follow these tips to make your video meetings more accessible and inclusive.

Remove background noise
For example by turning off the radio, muting the television or going to a quiet room if there are others in the house.

When using live captions, speak clearly with a natural flow

It may seem intuitive to speak more slowly as you wait for the words to appear on the screen. But AI technology is generally trained to hear natural, flowing speech. This also depends on the provider.

And if one person on the call relies on live captions, it’s a good idea to ask everyone to turn them on, too. If a person is speaking too quietly or too fast and can see that the captions are not appearing properly, they can see how to adjust their speech.

Use a good, external microphone if possible
The audio output is much higher than built-in microphones found in a computer or mobile. Using an external microphone will improve the sound quality for everyone else on the call.

Sit close to the microphone
This allows automated caption technology to pick up your words more clearly.

Make sure you have a good internet connection
This is important for high video and audio quality. Sit closer to the WiFi router, or consider purchasing a WiFi extender to improve your internet connection.

Headphones and headsets improve the sound quality for everyone
If all call participants can use headphones, the better the experience will be. Many new headphones have a built-in microphone too, which will make your audio output clearer.

Ask everyone to mute their mics when they are not speaking
This will help reduce unwanted noise.

Take your video call in a well-lit environment
This helps makes facial expressions clearer for everyone, but also for people who are hearing-impaired, signing or lip-reading.

Digital phone services provide higher quality sound than phone networks
Even if your phone network signal is good, calls through WhatsApp, Facetime or Skype will generally offer higher quality audio.

This is because regular analogue phone calls compress the sound to a limited part of the audio spectrum. Digital calls compress sound differently, allowing you to hear everything in clearer detail.

Mobile 4G and 5G data is better than most home WiFis
The service tends to be better for video conferencing, but more expensive.

If sharing a presentation for work, send the slides and speaker notes over before the call so people can read along.

Further resources

Tips for meeting the video communication needs of patients who are deaf or have hearing loss (Action on Hearing Loss)
Technical tricks to make video conferencing work better from a home office (Blog post by Will Perrin)
Recommended Apps from Action on Hearing Loss
9 Useful apps for people who are Deaf or have hearing loss (AbilityNet)
Best tablet devices for elderly people to start video calling (The Guardian)
Coronavirus: How can we stay in virtual touch with older relatives? (BBC News)

Please note, we have included apps and software to support people with different access needs, but some apps might not be inclusive of all access needs.

We are not responsible for websites we link to and we do not endorse or accept liability for the apps used as examples.

Which services do you use? Let us know if you have any additional suggestions of your own in the comments.