Monday, 27 October 2008

Software Solutions To Accessibility

This has been contributed by Girish Managoli, an employee of MindTree.

There are a large number of web users with different needs. How do these people access information? How do they read? What do they actually see? Do they find the web friendly?

There are many types of users with varying needs:
The Visually Impaired: This group typically uses a screen reader (like JAWS) or a screen magnifier (like ZoomText). Pretty layouts, color coordination, nice looking fonts- none of this matters. They look for ways to quickly get to the content not having to wade through a lot of junk. Drop-down menus, pictures without ALT text and not knowing what a link does before clicking are some of their peeves. This group does not use the mouse. They rely on voice inputs. Any website or application that relies completely on the use of a mouse is out of bounds for this group.

The Deaf: This group has no use for sounds and relies extensively on visual content. Non-captioned videos are their pet peeves.

The Dyslexic: Controls that cannot be accessed easily, cluttered links and small fonts put this group off. They would like to have their content organized and the flow predictable.

Other Impairments: This group includes users with motor and neural impairments like cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. Like the dyslexic, this group would like to see their content uncluttered, avoiding unintentional clicks on surrounding links. They would want to quickly access information without having to click or scroll multiple times.

Apart from the above mentioned groups, there are others users like the color blind and the users with multiple disabilities like deaf-blind.

Accessibility is important for all of the above. The web is extremely powerful and has changed lives like never before. It brings them information otherwise inaccessible and enables them to be more aware of the world. It has made them find new interests from around the world. It has made them independent; allowed them to find new vocations and has made a whole new life possible.

Now, it only makes sense to make the web more inclusive.

Software Solutions To Accessibility
I recently stumbled upon an action program that promotes accessibility. It’s called "Scripting Enabled". [1]

The event dedicates the first day to listen to the problems faced by users. The second day is aptly called "Hack Day" where real developers get together to create real working prototypes that solve these problems.

Samples From Hack Day:
The Visually Impaired
The problem: For the visually impaired, Slideshare is difficult to use to find the text. Here’s an example: http://www.slideshare.net/AfshanKirmani/an-introduction-to-graphic-design-presentation

The solution: Easy Slideshare (shown in Figure 1), a hack that extracts and displays only the text from the slides. [2] The figure below shows you the content from the presentation where the tool was able to extract this information.


Figure 1: The Easy Slideshare tool that displays the text of a presentation.

The Dyslexic And The Physically Impaired
The Problem: The controls of YouTube player are small and difficult to access.

The Solution:
1. The Easy YouTube (shown in Figure 2), a hack that displays the video with large controls. [3]


Figure 2: YouTube vs. the Easy YouTube, a hack that displays the video with large controls.

2. YouTube does not make it easy to add captions for videos. Another hack, the YouTube captioner (shown in Figure 3), provides you with the possibilities. [4]


Figure 3: The YouTube Captioner allows you to add captions.

Tips From Developers:
• Using JavaScript to increase accessibility [5]
• Searchability of Flash [6]

Conclusion
How important is accessibility in the context of our day-to-day lives? Is it relevant to us as something more than an academic interest? I would love to hear from you.
Please leave a comment or email me at Girish_Managoli [at] mindtree.com

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References:
[1] http://scriptingenabled.org/
[2] http://icant.co.uk/easy-slideshare/about/
[3] First presentation on http://scriptingenabled.org/presentations/
[4] http://icant.co.uk/sandbox/youtube-captioning.html
[5] & [6] Presentations and links on http://scriptingenabled.org/presentations/

2 comments:

Ravi Tom said...

Nice Article...

Prashanth Kamath said...

Really a very good article on Accessibility. I think you've tried to cover almost every aspect of the issue - that in itself is a commendable effort. I must congratulate you find the same.

I think, we live in progressive times. Things are getting better for everyone in general, even the differently-abled are finding that things are improving around the. The world is becoming more sensitive to their needs.

However a lot more needs to be done. It is just the beginning of the journey that we are witnessing now.

I'd like to bring out just two points here:-

1/ As a member of the 'differently abled' group - every individual also has a responsibility to increase awareness about their own specific needs. It is now equally necessary that we understand and articulate our requirements to the world at large. Only then, we can expect a much more concerted effort in this direction.

2/ It is equally essential to ensure that any such effort towards 'Universal Accessibility' doesn't get cornered in any way. The solutions that result our such an initiative should pass the critical tests of Affordability, Customizability and Freedom of Choice. Any other 'Plus' would be more than welcome.

There is a need for a wider discussion on each of these issues. With those words I'll sign off for now.