[Surprise! I changed the look of the blog! I’ll explain why at the end of this post, if you haven’t already figured it out.]
As it turns out, being the two most-likely-to-be-engaged modes in digital and multimodal texts, accessibility for aural and visual modes are just way too much to address in one blog post. So today we start with visual, probably the number one most-used mode in almost any kind of composition. A visual text can be anything from an alphabetic text to a video to an image to a diagram, and all of these mediums can present challenges to the visually impaired. Further, visual impairment is incredibly common; according to the American Foundation for the Blind, 20.6 million American adults reported vision loss (poor vision, even after the use of corrective lenses) in a 2012 survey.
Disabilities can vary immeasurably, but for the purposes of accessibility accommodation in digital and multimodal texts–and in trying to assist the most people in the fewest moves–it can be helpful to consider three different categories of vision disability: blindness, low vision, and color deficiency. While accommodations for one of these groups may be beneficial to the others as well, they each have unique enough needs that they should be considered individually when thinking about text accessibility.
One of the most significant ways to increase access for blind users is to ensure that your digital text is compatible with text-to-speech programs (as well as speech-to-text, if user input and interaction is required). This can mean a few things. Of course, in the most basic sense, you should ensure that whatever software or platform you are publishing on can be accessed by a text-to-speech reader. One excellent resource for testing this is Natural Reader, a free text-to-speech program that can read a variety of document types as well as web pages. They even offer a button you can add to your web browser, allowing you to simply click it while viewing any webpage and get a text-only version of the site, which can then be read aloud by the program. Another way you can optimize your site for these kinds of readers is to ensure that images are accompanied by text descriptions, so users who cannot view images don’t miss out on important aspects of the text. The Border House is a feminist gaming blog with a policy that all images must be accompanied by descriptive captions; just how detailed those descriptions are is up to the individual blogger, as some images have larger rhetorical significance to the piece they accompany than others do. Finally, consider the way your text is arranged for optimal clarity when interpreted by a text-to-speech reader. This may seem strange at first, but consider the example of Audyssey, a web site, magazine, and mailing list about games for the visually impaired. On first glance, this site almost seems broken to a sighted user; in fact, it is optimized specifically for text-to-speech readers and the visually impaired. Take a look at the archives of Audyssey’s magazine and you’ll notice some interesting characteristics. The things that normally would improve clarity and comprehension for a sighted reader–spacing, varying font sizes and styles, color, etc–have all been omitted from these documents. Instead, they have implemented a text-to-speech-reader-friendly navigation system based on characters, plus signs in this example, that allows a blind user to more easily navigate the sections of the magazine. This system works as follows:
“Note: This magazine uses plus-signs as navigation markers. Four plus signs
are used to denote featured content such as Articles, and the Chatting with
Creators sections. Three
plus-signs are placed above any regular articles or sections like the News
from Developers, or Reviews & Announcements. Within these
sections, two plus-signs denote the start of a new sub-section like the next
letter or game nnnews. Smaller
divisions are marked by a single plus-sign. This allows people to use
their search capabilities to go quickly to the next division they are
interested in. For instance, the “Letters” section is preceded by three
plus-signs. Each letter within it has two plus-signs before it. Answers
to letters if there is a response will have a single plus-sign before them.”
Audyssey; Games Accessible to the Blind, Issue 53, 1st Quarter 2008
Audyssey is an amazing example of how we can rethink the way we create digital texts–even strictly alphabetical texts–to increase accessibility for people with visual disabilities.
Above I mentioned that certain things–spacing, font size and style, color–really enhance the clarity of a text for a sighted reader; for a low-sight reader, these are exactly the qualities we want to target for enhancement and customizability. While using a particular font style for text may serve a rhetorical purpose, Includification recommends game designers include features to allow users to change fonts to something simpler and easier to see (recommended fonts are Arial or Times New Roman–they are often used as defaults for a reason!). When composing a digital or multimodal text, you may not always have this option; we’re not often building a system from the code up. However, you can give a little extra thought to your font choices. What is the rhetorical purpose for the style you are using? Could that purpose be served with a similar but simpler font? At the same time, think about font size. If publishing to the web, most browsers allow you to zoom in and out by holding Ctrl (Command, on a Mac) and using the mouse scroll wheel or the + and – keys. Take a moment to try this out on your text and ensure that your content is still clear, readable, and well-proportioned. You may find that, when the screen is zoomed to make text a readable size for a low-vision user, other content that may be relevant is being cropped out. Playing with zoom is one of the easiest ways to consider accessibility concerns for users with low vision.
Color blindness is interesting because it is so often overlooked, yet it is incredibly common. One of the most striking stories I heard while attending an AbleGamers panel at PAX East was about a game designer who was told his game was not color-blind accessible… and who then replied, “I know, I’m color blind. I can’t play my own game!” I think this story makes a great point, not only about the prevalence of color blindness and other disabilities, but about how we so often design our work for an imagined idealized audience, some generic default viewer whose qualities are dictated by social and cultural values we may not even be consciously aware of. This just makes it all the more important to take a moment (or several, throughout the creation and composition process) to consider your work from a variety of perspectives–including your own!
The use of color is so significant to many digital and multimodal texts, and the rhetorical uses for and implications of color are just immense. It is for that very reason that considering color blindness is so important. There are many different types and gradations of color blindness; some people can’t distinguish between the colors red and green, some can’t distinguish different shades of the same color, others can’t see any color at all. One way to make your text more accessible for color blind users is to consider where it is important to discern contrasts in your work. If it is important to the meaning-making of your work to distinguish clearly between two different colored texts, images, symbols, etc, make sure those two items–whenever reasonably possible–are not red/green, not shades of the same color, and not too similarly toned (a muted slate blue and a soft maroon may look like the same shade of gray to a totally colorblind viewer). Even simple alphabetic digital texts should consider these factors in choosing text, background, link, and highlight colors. Includification offers great examples of how problematic colors can dramatically change a user’s experience: in one scenario, a player finds it nearly impossible to use a game’s targeting system because the green target crosshairs are indistinguishable from the different shades of green found in the game’s grassy environment; in another, team members are indicated with green markers for friends and red for enemies, making a red-green colorblind player feel completely lost.
These are really only a few examples of ways a digital or multimodal text can consider accessibility concerns for those with vision disabilities. I’ve really just barely scratched the surface! Vision impairment is so very common and visual modalities are often essential to our composition, this is one type of accessibility I think it is absolutely necessary to think about. Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, there is no perfectly accessible text, and you cannot be expected to tailor every aspect of your work exclusively to accessibility. But by keeping some of these tips in mind, and stopping to ask yourself some important questions about the choices you are making, I think a little consideration can go a long way to increasing text accessibility for a whole lot of people.
Next up: audio! Stay tuned!
[About the new theme: After writing this post, I could no longer ignore the accessibility issues with my previous theme. Links were bright blue against a pale blue background, the text was tiny (even I struggled to read it!), and as cute as the balloons were, they presented too much potential for distraction and obstruction. This new theme–which is awesome and free, called Hemingway Rewritten–features a simple and clear font in black on a white background, bold headings, and bright blue-green links that aren’t competing with any other colors. I’m especially fond of the header; the image (a public domain find) allows you to add visual interest, but by providing a solid black field for the title text rather than placing it directly over the image, it remains very high-contrast and easy to read. It may not be perfect, but I hope in making this change I’ve taken a bit of my own advice and made this blog a little more accessible for anyone who wants to read it.]