An architect designing a new building would have to consider disabled access. Web designers must think the same way.
When you think about the barriers facing deaf and disabled people, it’s easy to think about obstacles in the physical world. You might consider the problems a wheelchair user would have getting into a building with steps, or the issues a deaf person who lip-reads might face talking to a shop assistant who mumbles. Increasingly though, it’s in the online, rather than the the physical world, where deaf and disabled people are battling a lack of access. It’s as though there’s a digital glass wall. The content is right in front of you – you just can’t access it.
Blind and partially sighted people can browse the web using screen readers that convert text into speech or braille. However, websites using Flash can cause problems, along with graphic labels that the screen reader doesn’t recognise (think of the “play” button on a video or audio clip). Then there are sites that use a Captcha (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) – these are the mashed-up letters and numbers that websites ask you to enter when you register for the first time. Meanwhile, for those who are partially sighted, sites that use unusual colour schemes, or certain font types and small sizes can be very hard to read.
So why does this matter? Damon Rose, who edits the BBC’s Ouch! blog and podcast, told me that “an equal society with equal job prospects is increasingly becoming all about technology as we build our lives more and more around the web.” He feels that the government need to recognise that websites that don’t take access into account could make blind people less employable.
Text on websites can also be a serious issue for some people with dyslexia. As a result, like blind people, they need websites to work smoothly with their screen readers or offer voice activation so they can listen to the text. The British Dyslexia Association advises web designers to make site navigation clear, to break up text into shorter paragraphs, use dark print on a pale background, and allow users to set their own choice of font style and size. For deaf people, the internet and the new forms of communication that were developed with it (such as webcam, email, instant messenger) gave us access we never dreamed of. However, as the internet has started using more video clips, which aren’t covered by the same regulations as television broadcasts, we have found ourselves increasingly disenfranchised.
In 2008, the BBC reached a landmark by providing all its broadcasts with 100% subtitling. But in 2012, on BBC News videos or the live feeds for BBC channels, there’s hardly a subtitle to be found. It’s the same on other news websites (including, unfortunately, this one), but what sticks in the craw is the fact we pay a full licence fee for a service we can’t use. There’s also very little subtitling provision on video on demand services such as Netflix and LoveFilm. And on YouTube, the subtitles you do get are often automatically created through voice recognition, leading to some very strange results. In the online world, deaf viewers are a long way down the priority list.
Luckily, some people are stepping up and highlighting the problem. Alison Smith, who set up Pesky People, a website that campaigns to improve access to digital technology (read her brilliant 10 digital commandments). On Wednesday, inspired by an American campaign, Smith launched a campaign on Twitter where deaf people tweeted videos that were inaccessible using the #subtitlesnow hashtag. The tweets reached over 13,000 people, and saw nearly 700 people join the event page on Facebook (check out the comments to get an idea of how they feel about it). She told me: “we are a silent minority locked out in the visual, moving world. I don’t want to be locked out.” Smith was compelled into action after discovering the lack of access on the Arts Council’s website The Space. As she pointed out in her article launching #subtitlesnow, with 10 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK, that’s “one in six of the population that cannot access this new, free on demand access to the arts service.”
An architect designing a new building today would be expected to consider wheelchair access and the needs of people with a variety of disabilities in their plans. It’s time for web designers to think the same way. Smith told me that this can only be achieved if access is part of the thinking from the beginning. She says web designers need to “work with consultants and individuals, engage with disabled and deaf people, budget for 5% of their budget for digital access and plan it from the start. Pay disabled and deaf people to be in your user experience testing – they are your experts.” Time for some change.
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