Flash News Flash: It’s Accessible to the disabled
Macromedia Flash designers have a reputation for creating websites that are, well, flashy –- but not friendly to all users.
By Lisa Delgado Wired.com
"Most Flash designers are thinking about how to make things cool, not how to make things accessible (to the disabled). That’s because in the past, Flash was not good for accessibility," said Chris MacGregor,
editor of Flash portal and e-zine Flazoom.
People who design in Flash "consider themselves artists," said accessibility expert Joe Clark. "They find
the idea of a blind person wanting to (use) their site to be slightly weird."
However, Jason Smith defies that stereotype. In his job as a technical director at the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, he helped to design an educational children’s science site
— and he wanted to include some Flash-animated games. But he was concerned about creating barriers
for deaf and blind children using the site.
Flash is considered the killer animation app of the Web because it enables designers like Smith to create
interactive animations with small-size files. However, Flash has been hotly criticized for its inaccessibility
to people with disabilities.
Before the release of Flash MX last month, Flash content could not be read by screen readers, which are
used by the blind to translate information on a computer by reading it aloud or by sending it to a Braille
display. Also, most Flash audio content is not accessible to the deaf because there has been no good way to create Flash captioning.
"Using Flash at all, in Flash 5, made it inaccessible," Smith said.
"We hesitated to use Flash, but we wanted (the site) to be noticed. We wanted it to be bleeding-edge. We had committed to a Shockwave game, and since we were going in that direction, we decide to try to
To make the site accessible to deaf children, he invented a groundbreaking Flash captioning tool that has subsequently been purchased by Macromedia. Soon, the whole Flash community will be able to use
the tool, because Macromedia plans to release it as a free downloadable extension on the Flash exchange within a month.
The tool is an ActionScript component that parses a caption XML file and displays the caption data within a Flash presentation. A caption XML file can be most easily created using software such as MAGpie, a
free multimedia captioning application.
Smith’s tool finally makes Flash captioning practical, said Andrew Kirkpatrick, technical project coordinator for the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media.
"Short of laboriously placing text on the timeline so that people could see it at the right time, there was no way to do Flash captioning," he said.
The advantage of the tool is that it not only saves time, it also allows captioning to be done by someone other than the original Flash developer, he said.
Smith hopes to use Flash MX to retrofit the site so blind children can also use it. Otherwise, he will need to maintain a parallel HTML version of the site for the blind. The disadvantage of having two versions of
the site is obvious: There are two sites to update instead of one.
Unlike previous versions of the software, Flash MX includes an accessibility panel that enables designers to add names and descriptions to objects in Flash movies –- much like the "alt" and "longdesc" tags are
used to describe images in HTML sites.
Buttons, movie clips and entire movies can all be labeled with names and descriptions that are accessible to screen readers. In addition, any text in a Flash MX movie is automatically accessible.
The site, Kinetic City, is still under development. However, examples of captioning done with Smith’s tool can be seen in a Flash piece on zoot suit culture, created by WGBH Interactive.
Macromedia executives Kevin Lynch and Jeremy Allaire praised the zoot suit culture piece for its accessibility at the keynote speech of FlashForward, a Flash design conference held in San Francisco early this
The piece was originally designed in Flash 4 as part of the companion website for a PBS program on the zoot suit riots sparked by racial tensions in Los Angeles in the early 1940s.
The WGBH Interactive Web designers used Flash MX to retrofit the zoot suit culture section of the site, adding screen reader accessibility. They also added 15 video clips on subjects such as zoot suit fashion
and the big band era, and they used Smith’s tool to caption them.
"The main impetus was to demonstrate what the new version of Flash is capable of, in terms of accessibility," said Peter Pinch, director of technology for interactive content at WGBH Interactive.
"It’s very exciting to be able to reach a broader audience than in the past -– to think that blind, visually impaired and deaf users can enjoy our content, as well as everyone else," he said.
WGBH Interactive is the interactive media division of WGBH, a broadcast company with a long history of pioneering advances in accessibility, including TV captioning and Descriptive Video Service. DVS
describes the visual content of a TV program during gaps in the dialogue, so blind listeners can follow the action.
While many multimedia companies treat accessibility as an afterthought, WGBH Interactive has made accessibility central to its work.
Last year, the company produced the first fully accessible DVD, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided. It was the first DVD to include a "talking menu" so blind people can access all the DVD’s features
and it also includes captioning and DVS.
The zoot suit culture piece is only one of many captioned Web video projects the company has created, said Jon Alper, director of technology, research and development at WGBH Interactive.
For example, the company produced a captioned online performance of Latin music band Mango Blue on QuickTime TV. It has also captioned several Nova Online videos, including Cracking the Code of Life,
about the human genome, and Dying to be Thin, about eating disorders.
QuickTime, RealPlayer and Windows Media Player — and now Flash — all support captioning.
When the company’s Web designers retrofitted the zoot suit culture piece, they were able to embed captioned video directly within the Flash movie because unlike earlier versions of Flash, Flash MX does not
require a third-party player such as QuickTime for short video clips.
Smith said he was glad to see his invention put to a new use. "When I created the tool, it was based on animation; but when I saw it works seamlessly with video, I was very excited that it works for both," he said.
While Smith and the designers at WGBH Interactive have been front-runners in creating accessible Flash sites, other Web designers are playing catch-up.
Many Web designers for U.S. federal government websites first became concerned about Flash’s inaccessibility when Section 508 went into effect in June 2001, said Bob Regan, Macromedia’s product manager
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that all electronic and information technology used by the federal government, including websites, be accessible to people with disabilities.
"We had a lot of people whispering, ‘Is Flash going to be accessible?’ We’d say yes, and they’d breathe a sigh of relief," Regan said.
Of course, disabled Internet users are even more relieved that Flash is finally becoming usable for them.
For blind people, coming to an inaccessible Flash site is like hitting a brick wall on the information superhighway.
Curtis Chong, director of technology for the National Federation of the Blind, described his frustration. "I’d go to a site and it would ask me, ‘Do you want to install Macromedia Flash?’ and I’d say ‘No! I don’t
want anything to do with Macromedia because if I install Flash, I won’t be able to see anything on the bloody page.’"
Flash’s screen reader accessibility has come none too soon, Chong said. "It’s late in coming, but that doesn’t take away from the fact I’m glad (Macromedia) did it. I wish they’d done it sooner. I hope they keep
on doing it and set an example for the rest of the industry."
Jamie Berke, a deaf captioning advocate, applauded the development of a Flash captioning tool.
"I think it is great," she said. "I expect that there will be more Web captioning tools developed because of the impact of Section 508."
However, she warned that captioning tools aren’t enough: Web designers need education in using them.
"Tools for captioning have long been available," she said. She lists many captioning tools and services on her site, Closed Captioning Web.
However, only a small percentage of video on the Web is captioned.
"The key is the mind-set of Web video producers, who must learn to automatically include captioning as part of their production process…. Producers have to be made aware of the existence of the tool and
encouraged to use it," she said.
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