One Person’s Strategy is Another’s Barrier

Accessibility is very personal – what works for one person may not work for another.  The “one size fits all” approach has been tried and although admirable in its intentions has often proved difficult to implement.

The W3C WCAG (World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Guidelines) v 1.0 tried a technical approach to accessibility by setting out a number of accessibility guidelines, which could be automatically tested by online validators such as Bobby. Whilst this automatic validation can validate the HTML code, many of guidelines require human input and common sense.  For example, whilst an automated accessibility validator can check that an image has an alt text tag, it cannot check that the tag actually makes sense.  People who don’t use images, such as those using mobile technologies or visually impaired people still need to know whether an image is important to the content or not.  An image with an alt tag of “image01.jpg” gives no information to website users, whilst an alt tag of “Photograph of Winston Churchill” would not only aid navigation through a web page, but it would also provide information that the image does not provide additional information to the text, so the user knows they are not missing out on anything.  As well as this, users could hover a mouse over the image to see the alt text.  This could be useful where an image doesn’t have a text caption underneath.

Difficulties with adhering to such guidelines and standards can cause barriers for people because content developers may then try to produce content to the lowest common denominator, i.e. text only.  Although text can be easily accessed by people using screen readers, it can be difficult for people with dyslexia to read and is visually unappealing.  So in this case, whilst the content is accessible for people using screen readers, it is less accessible for people with dyslexia.

Despite the drawbacks, this standardisation (“one size fits all”) approach is important.  Without a set of guidelines, developers may not know where to begin with accessibility and may not approach the basics in the same way, thereby reducing interoperability with assistive and other technologies.

One way to complement the standards approach is to produce alternative but equivalent versions of content.  For example, transcripts can be provided for podcasts, text heavy content can be offered as with animations or images or in simple language for people with learning disabilities or language learners.  This holistic approach has been proposed by Kelly, Phipps, and Howell in Implementing a Holistic Approach to e-Learning Accessibility.  This approach also takes student learning styles and pedagogy into account as well as technical and usablity issues.

Standards and guidelines are important but they need to be used with common sense and in combination with other approaches. Standards and guidelines can help with the physical presentation of the content, whilst holistic and other approaches can help the user to interact and use that content in the format best suited to their needs.

Adding Value: Providing Transcripts for Podcasts

I’ve just listened to a podcast by EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) on RSS/Podcast Basics.  As well as covering the basics of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds and podcasting, it also briefly touched on podcast accessibility.

Podcasting can consist of either audio or audio and voice (video).  Both Section 508 and the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) recommend that alternatives are available for auditory and visual content – e.g. a transcript for an audio podcast; captions and/or transcript (and possibly a description of the video, depending on its format) for a video podcast (this could take the form of a presentation with voice-over or an actual video).

Podcasts can be of particular value to people with visual disabilities or physical disabilities, and people who want to learn on the run, such as travelling into work on the bus, exercising, waiting for a train, etc.  However, including a transcript of a podcast, particularly in the educational environment, will not just benefit people with hearing impairments but it can also benefit all students. 

One example given in the EASI podcast was of lecturers making their lectures available as a podcast for students to download.  The presenter suggested that students would probably only want to listen to a podcasted lecture once (or twice, if they had a high boredom threshold) and that, as in a normal lecture room situation, the student would make notes as they went along.  However, if a transcript was provided of the podcast, the student could print it off (as well as listen to the podcast) and make notes in the margin.  The transcript and annotations could easily be carried around and used as a useful revision resource at exam time.

Another problem is that it’s not always easy to find one’s way around a podcast – there are no headings or marker points (although maybe this will come in time) as in a large document – so the listener is forced listen to the podcast all the way through in order to find the relevant bits.  Providing a transcript alongside the podcast allows for easy navigation, it can printed by a Braille machine, and allows for annotation by the student.

Although there are obviously the cost benefits of writing a transcript, providing an electronic resource in two different formats could greatly increase the value of that resource and will benefit a greater number of students.