A quick guide to web accessibility

How do the deaf and blind communities access videos, podcasts and text?

Many people take internet access for granted, but the reality is that individuals with disabilities can face major obstacles when trying to access information and content.

There are a lot of different groups facing unique challenges when it comes to web accessibility, such as the input difficulties faced by individuals with mobility issues. Deaf and blind users, as well as those with visual or hearing impairments, face a plethora of possible roadblocks when browsing the net. 

Hearing impairment 

Individuals with hearing disabilities, for example, inevitably have major problems accessing audio content. While visual mediums like television - and even cinemas - have long since been able to implement immediate, synchronised captioning, it’s naturally much more difficult for audio mediums. This has always proven a challenge for radio particularly, with deaf individuals relying on the likes of transcriptions to find out what was said during broadcasts.

For the deaf / blind community, it’s even more problematic. It’s only recently that organisations such as NPR have successfully developed more immediate ways of bringing (almost) live radio to the hard of hearing, using a combination of existing resources like voice writers, caption editors and electronic refreshable braille displays to transmit broadcasts to deaf / blind users. However, the tech has not yet been rolled out for the general public.

While voice recognition software has made it easier to translate speech content to text or braille, something like a dedicated player on a website can prove a brick wall if the accessibility software cannot easily ‘translate’ the audio. Similarly, such players can restrict hard of hearing listeners from easily slowing down or playing back the content. The same can often be said for many podcasts - although an increasing amount of mobile devices support video playback or synchronised text display, making captioning an easier process again.

Refreshable braille reader. Image: John Pasden via Flickr

Video

With video content, captioning is theoretically easier and more familiar, especially with tools like YouTube’s automatic and manual captioning options. Unfortunately, these options are not always available on dedicated players - even Vimeo offers no native support for close captioning, instead stating “this feature is still in active development”.

Automatic subtitling itself is a much-needed development for web accessibility - especially for teams without the resources to create ‘manual’ captions for everything they produce - but currently the software is a very mixed success. While the automatic option sometimes achieves a surprisingly high level of accuracy on YouTube, other times whole videos can be incomprehensibly captioned. Accents, naturally, can be a bit of an Achilles' heel. This, it must be said, is likely to improve as time progresses.

People with vision problems, meanwhile, face other issues. Screen readers have become a vital tool for both blind and visually impaired users, with the JAWS (Job Access with Speech) software from Freedom Scientific currently the most widely used, with other popular options including Dolphin Supernova and Window-Eyes. These are usually used in conjunction with text-to-speech software or the aforementioned refreshable braille displays.

Most prominent operation systems - including Windows, Mac OS, Android, iOS and Blackberry 10 - come with their own screen reading software, although these typically offer more limited functionality than the dedicated commercial offerings. It’s also up to developers to ensure applications and software support the tools, rather than just the core OS.

Vision impaired users also make use out of screen magnification to display text more prominently, and there's even dedicated browsers for blind users. Examples of the latter include WebbIE and the Blind 1X browser.

Motor disabilities, similarly, can make many traditional input devices difficult if not impossible to use. Tools available to address this include the likes of head wands and mouth sticks - simple but effective ways of allowing individuals to use head movement to use various devices.

Adaptive keyboards (with raised areas between keys) can help those with unpredictable movement, as can the use of a large trackball instead of a traditional mouse. For those with extremely limited movement, a single giant switch can be utilised, as can eye tracking hardware and 'sip-and-puff' tools. The latter allows users to exhale or inhale to control functions such as mouse clicking. Many of these can be used alongside many of the previously mentioned accessibility tools.  

Web design

All of this indicates significant accessibility challenges for web designers and hosts. It’s important to code clearly defined HTML, to ensure that dedicated software will pick up text, links, images and other individual software elements. It’s vital that information is clearly laid out and easily navigable. These can prove to be very labour intensive tasks, often requiring whole websites to be effectively rebuilt: slick design is not necessarily equal to accessible design. For these reasons, it’s important to keep accessibility in mind from a very early stage in web design.

Ireland, it's worth pointing out, has proven quite progressive in these issues. The 2005 Disability Act, for example, introduced a provision stating that electronic communications from public bodies must be “accessible to persons with a visual impairment to whom adaptive technology is available” wherever practical. The National Disability Authority has issued a Code of Practice on how to conform with this provision.

There has been much progress made, then, in making the internet accessible for people with these disabilities. But as the web continues to grow in size and complexity, more challenges will become apparent. The internet is the most valuable technological resource we have at the moment, and we all have to help ensure it’s accessible to all.