Collaboration

Seeing for the blind

Accessibility is not only about hardware. Software, such as Internet page design, should also be designed in a way to maximise the experience for the vision impaired.



commentary Accessibility is not only about hardware. Software, such as Internet page design, should also be designed in a way to maximise the experience for the vision impaired.

I know I have talked about accessibility before, but I only focused on the topic of assessing hardware accessibility such as "is a photocopier keypad and display aligned so that a wheelchair bound operator can easily view and operate the product?"

However, there is a far more pervasive example of "software" accessibility — the Internet. A little history to set the scene will certainly help.

For the blind and visually impaired the Internet has been a boon, an astonishing wealth of information that was previously not available can be had with a PC and text reader software. News, research papers, journals and even gossip are a mouse click away, millions of pages and facts that never would have found their way into braille publications.

The lives of the visually impaired have been enriched and, from a work and productivity point of view, this has certainly improved job satisfaction for employees with disabilities.

But ironically the very richness of Internet pages, in terms of media content, is resulting in a serious decline in information content for the visually impaired. Now I'm not saying we need to go back to the bad old days with bland text only pages but with a little forethought the non-visual experience can be improved dramatically.

By all means include a photo or even a short animation or MPEG on your Web page but take time to think about naming conventions. Instead of simply naming a JPEG image "IMAGE1.JPG" for example, what about naming the image "TREE.JPG" or, better still "APPLE TREE IN BLOSSOM.JPG"? That way when a read out loud by a text reader the user will have a far better idea of the content.

MPEG's can be labelled in a similar way and you might also like to try to ensure that the accompanying audio also imparts information regarding the visual content. I'm sure by now that many of you are saying "we know all that, it's common sense when scripting". Well just take a look at the HTML code for a few random Web sites and you will find that common sense is not all that common. As much as I'm loath to admit it the Lab's own Web page is terrible in this regard, and it was written by contracted Web designers. We are all so busy in the Lab that we do not have the time to create and maintain our own Web site.

I have to say our site has some examples of exactly what not to do. Navigation buttons for example are scripted as "Button1" and "Button2" — not a whole lot of information conveyed to the blind. We are currently creating a whole new site to remedy these and other issues.

Instead of rabbiting on about the problems a visually impaired person may encounter, it would perhaps be easier just to take a look at an example I found on IBM's web site that quite clearly illustrates several of the problems and their solutions — http://www-306.ibm.com/able/solution_offerings/opera.html.

There are tools available on the Web to check Web page accessibility but I must say one of the best I have seen is IBM's aDesigner which is available for download at the following link — www.alphaworks.ibm.com/tech/adesigner.

aDesigner is able to simulate Web accessibility as would be experienced by the blind and visually impaired so you can get a handle on the types of problems that can arise. But for me the best aspect of the program is its ability to check any Web page for conformance to accessibility guidelines in a graphical manner.

Links and text are highlighted in a particular colour depending on their "ease" of access, the darker the highlight the longer it takes for a blind person to find and access the information using a text reader. If you use the mouse to point to a particular item aDesigner will also calculate how many seconds it would take for the user to navigate to this point just using a text reader. This is a great tool for all Web site designers.

More general information on accessibility guidelines can be found at the following links — www.section508.gov and http://www.w3.org/WAI/

Steve Turvey is Lab Manager of the RMIT IT Test Labs, and can be reached at stevet@rmit.edu.au.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
Click here for subscription information.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox