Clubhouse and its clones have an accessibility issue

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Clubhouse took off last year, urging competitors to add their own voice chat rooms that can host hundreds, if not thousands, of people. But the hit app has consistently had a serious problem from the start noted by accessibility advocates: It excludes people with disabilities, with the most obvious problem being that the audio-based app doesn’t have built-in captions. This makes it unusable for deaf people and difficult to use for people who are hard of hearing or have difficulty with audio processing.

Companies will often mention that their products are still in development or still in beta testing when discussing accessibility options, but the ideal development process involves working with people with disabilities from the earliest stages of design. Accessibility to technology has improved significantly over the years, but is still often addressed long after products have been launched. The reality is that people with disabilities often have to use products and services that don’t even have the bare minimum of features that meet their needs.

Clubhouse “excludes millions of people around the world who are deaf and hard of hearing,” said Adam Pottle, a deaf author. “We don’t have access to these conversations, and it’s especially discouraging because a lot of the conversations that take place on this platform are fascinating and cultural and current, but we can’t participate in them.” Pottle notes that a January Clubhouse blog titled “Welcome more voices‘, but made no mention of transcription, sign language interpretation, or subtitling.

With a number of competitors working on social audio features similar to Clubhouse, this is an excellent opportunity to step back and see how everyone approaches accessibility. Some companies, like Twitter’s Spaces, have more detailed accessibility strategies than others. But others, like Discord, already have voice or video features that are at least partially inaccessible and don’t have a lot of details to share. Here is a non-exhaustive list of current and future Clubhouse competitors and how they do it.

Clubhouse

availabilty: Available on iOS and Android by invitation only

Background: In addition to the lack of subtitles, Clubhouse also does not support text format, which is essential for many visually impaired people. Although it was an iOS exclusive until last month, it wasn’t until February that it supported VoiceOver, Apple’s screen reading software.

Accessibility Details: “Our goal has always been to build a Clubhouse for everyone,” says a Clubhouse spokesperson. Clubhouse says it is “grateful” for the feedback from disability-related clubs that have formed within the app, and says it has worked closely with The 15%, a disability and allies club. Clubhouse says it plans to introduce subtitles “in the near future”.

Twitter spaces

availabilty: Host accounts with 600+ followers, anyone can listen

Background: Twitter faced criticism last year after introducing voice tweets without captions, prompting the company to create accessibility teams and be more transparent about its accessibility efforts.

Accessibility Details: Spaces has an option to enable automatic subtitles, although it doesn’t consistently accurate or easy to read. Buttons in Spaces are labeled so screen readers can identify the function of each button. Twitter says it’s working on improvements, including making subtitles more accurate, enabling scrolling and pausing, making the color and size of subtitles customizable, and possibly adding a text input option in addition to speech.

Discord Stage Channels

availabilty: Only in Community servers

Background: Discord already had voice channels, which do not have built-in subtitles. An accessibility section with options for reduced motion, autoplay and text-to-speech has been added to the user settings menu end of April. It already supports screen readers, keyboard navigation, and third-party subtitles and transcription.

Accessibility Details: Like voice channels, Stage Channels currently do not have a built-in subtitle option. A spokesperson said Discord is working on more ways to make Stage Channels accessible.

Reddit Talk

availabilty: Currently in initial test with subreddit moderators, tentative plans for bigger launch in the coming months

Background: Some blind people favor Reddit versus other social platforms because so much of it is text-based. But images still don’t have alt text, leading to a whole subreddit of volunteer transcribers writing image descriptions and video captions for as many posts as possible. Reddit has had live streams since 2019, but so far has no built-in captions.

Accessibility Details: The version under test has no subtitles. Reddit says accessibility, which may include subtitle support, is a priority for the official launch, but didn’t provide additional details.

Facebook Live Audio Rooms

availabilty: Expected on Facebook, including Messenger, this summer

Background: Support for captioning via Facebook for Facebook Live in 2017 and added automatic subtitles last year. It too improvements made to screen reader support, added scalable font sizes last year, and updated the automatic alt text in January.

Accessibility Details: A Facebook blog post says closed captioning will be offered for Live Audio Rooms and other upcoming audio features. Facebook did not respond to a request for more information about accessibility plans.

Slack Audio Conferencing

availabilty: Currently when testing

Background: Slacks accessibility settings including screen reader support, keyboard navigation, adjustable zoom levels, and emoji gesture switches.

Accessibility Details: Slack has confirmed that the audio feature will have closed captioning, livestream transcription, and screen reader support.

Other platforms

More platforms with Clubhouse-style audio rooms are in the works. LinkedIn didn’t share details about its audio plans, but it did add automatic subtitles to LinkedIn Live earlier this year. Fireside, a podcast and live audio app combo slated to launch this year, said in a statement that providing accessibility options is “hugely important” and that it will have multiple features, including audio transcription. Spotify has not responded to a request for information about accessibility plans for the upcoming live audio calls.

So far, none of these platforms has delivered perfect accessibility templates, and it’s hard to find popular sites that meet all web accessibility standard. There are always many elements to consider because disabilities are so diverse. Screen reader compatibility doesn’t mean sites and apps are easy to use without having to see the screen. Automatic captioning is never completely accurate, especially for speakers with accents and speech differences. There are other considerations such as color contrast, notification sounds, and overall layout. A mobile app may be accessible in ways a desktop app or web version is not, and vice versa.

People with disabilities have said time and again that accessibility should be viewed from multiple angles at every step of development. A true commitment to accessibility is akin to hiring people with disabilities, constantly asking for feedback, and being transparent about what works and what doesn’t. It’s easy for companies to make vague statements saying they value accessibility, but they have to prove it by actually doing the work to make their products usable for everyone.