In my last post I talked a bit about why accessibility is so important, and hopefully you were totally convinced. But the question remains: how do we increase accessibility in multimodal/multimedia compositions? So here’s the one perfect way to make all your media completely accessible for everyone…
There is no magic trick to make your work 100% accessible for every person. Mark Barlet, founder and executive director of AbleGamers, suggested in a talk at PAX East that accessibility is like a spectrum. No one work is going to be universally accessible, covering the entire spectrum, but you should still strive to cover as large a chunk of that spectrum as you reasonably can. Additionally, we should think about the bigger picture and work towards having a wealth of accessible media available at every point on that spectrum. So rather than looking at something as either accessible or not, there are gradations of accessibility, as well as different types of accessibility to be considered. So let’s look at some of those, and some of the ways we can begin to address them.
In the panel I attended, as well as on their excellent website Includification, representatives from AbleGamers discussed four general categories of disability: mobility, hearing, vision, and cognitive. While specific individuals may have widely varying needs depending on their particular abilities, these categories provide a great framework for starting to think about ways you can increase accessibility.
Before I go on, I think there’s an elephant in this room we need to talk about. AbleGamers is an amazing organization… but what if you’re not making games? Isn’t this blog about writing? How is any of this relevant to composition?
Well, of course creating a game is an act of composition, but you don’t need to be a game developer to find these tips useful. Working with any kind of digital or multimodal composition will always come with issues of accessibility, as disabilities can prevent people from receiving information and actively engaging through all possible modalities. When you compose in one mode–say, plain text–it’s much easier to find an accommodation for that mode (text-to-speech programs, for example) and unlock access to the entire message. When you compose in multiple modes, the problem becomes more complex, and you risk losing part or all of the intended message and experience of the work if one or more modalities can’t be accessed. But all is not lost! Digital and multimodal media also comes with a wealth of options for increasing accessibility, and for providing rich and engaging experiences, when the affordances of those modalities are carefully considered and employed wisely.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk a bit about these different categories of disability and how we can increase accessibility in those areas.
Disabilities that fall into the mobility category include any condition that can limit, impair, or alter physical mobility and motor functions. In the gaming world, this can cause a wide variety of problems, as games are designed to be deeply interactive and mobility disabilities can be incompatible with the game’s designated methods for interaction. For example, some people with muscular dystrophy have an extremely limited range of motion, such that they can only move a computer mouse about 1/16th of an inch in any direction. Meanwhile, people who experience tremors may have a great deal of difficulty making precision movements with a mouse and instead tend to make larger, more sudden movements. One way game designers are asked to address this problem is to allow users to set their own level of mouse sensitivity; a very high sensitivity setting will allow a user to move around the whole screen with only the slightest of movements, while a very low setting will require a significantly large movement to move the mouse a moderate amount, thereby filtering out a great deal of involuntary movement caused by tremors.
So again, what if you’re not making a game? When composing a digital work, you are likely using existing software and not designing your own system from the ground up, so what can you do to help an audience with mobility disabilities? Are they even relevant? To answer that, let’s look at a digital text with some significant interaction: Erin Anderson’s The Olive Project [disclaimer: this is ONLY being used as an example and is in no way meant to be critical of this particular project]. On the main page, the areas to be clicked on are relatively large, and I can also navigate to each of them with the keyboard by using the tab key and hitting enter to click on the link I want. A good start. However, once I enter the main interactive part of the work, my access becomes more limited. I can still select and click links by using the keyboard (especially helpful because clicking on a small word in a paragraph requires some precision of movement), but to play the accompanying audio clips I have to use the mouse to click on the very small play button of the audio player. There is no way (that I can find) to access the audio player with keyboard commands. This means I only have one way into that content, and it requires some degree of fine motor skill.
Some helpful questions to ask yourself when creating a digital work: what interactive elements of this work are essential? how many ways are there to interact with those essential elements? can I access it with a keyboard, with a mouse, with a voice control program? can I increase the number of ways my audience can access/interact with this content? what am I requiring my audience to do?
In my next post, we’ll talk about two more categories of accessibility essential to digital and multimodal composition: audio and visual.