Taking Symbols for Granted

The Journal of Assistive Technologies (Vol.2, Issue 3) has recently published a paper entitled “Communication with symbols: from the web to the internet and beyond” (see the list of contents and a sample article) by Jonathan Chetwynd.

Chetwynd begins by reminding us of how many symbols there are around us – from road signs in the physical world to emoticons in the virtual world. We use them so much in our everyday life that we take them for granted, even seeing and understanding graphics before (or even without) reading any associated text (c.f. the Apple iPhone interface, which has large symbols for each application and a small text name underneath).

Symbols are useful means of communication for people with low literacy levels or who do not speak the local language (although some symbols may also have localised or cultural meanings, which may be different from the universally understood meaning). Chetwynd suggests that as online computer games almost completely rely on graphics and symbols that games developers may be well-suited to make useful contributions to the development of symbol-based communication.

He also laments the fact that many groups which have an influence on web accessibility are effectively only open to people from large organisations, because of the financial or resource costs required. However, it’s not all bad news. The W3C SVG (World Wide Web Consortium Scalable Vector Graphics) Working Group has opened its work up to the public and has recently chartered a public interest group. Chetwynd’s peepo website is SVG enabled.

SVG is a graphics specification which can include text and metadata descriptions, so that they can be searched. It is a very flexible format and is well-suited to small and mobile devices. Most browsers (with the exception of Internet Explorer) have built-in support for SVG and even some mail clients are SVG-enabled. Theoretically, this means that e-mails containing symbols only can be exchanged and understood.

Chetwynd’s paper reminds that we don’t just live in a text-based world. Symbols are all around us. They instruct and remind us, and help us to communicate and navigate. They can be seen as a common, almost universal language, and provide benefits to people who, for whatever reason, have difficulties understanding text or language. By using them more on web-based resources, alongside text labels, not only will we help others to communicate but we will also help ourselves.

One thought on “Taking Symbols for Granted

  1. Soon (not sure when exactly) the SVG Working Group is going to begin looking at defining roles for diagrammatic and other graphical content, that can be exposed to ATs using the @role attribute and friends. If you would like to help with this, joining the SVG Interest Group would be a good step.

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