Through the following observations on the current state of accessibility of digital content, I hope to inspire discourse toward making the internet more inclusive for users, with a focus on members of the blind and deaf communities.
To preface the conversation:
Data from 2015 shows that 11.5% of Canadians still do not have in-home access to the internet, as reported by the World Bank[i]. Given the national population from a year ago[ii], this leaves 4.1 million Canadians deprived of the ability to access, participate in, and create content in the digital sphere from their homes. This data represents access based on available infrastructure, and doesn’t take into account those with local infrastructure whose lack of access stems from financial barriers. A Vancouver Metro news article[iii] from February this year cites CRTC data from 2015 indicating that 41% of low-income Canadian households do not have internet access.
The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)[iv] states that half a million Canadians are living with significant vision loss, with 50,000 individuals losing their sight completely each year. The Canadian Hearing Society[v] states that one in four Canadian adults reports some degree of hearing loss, and cites StatsCan data reporting that over a million Canadian adults live with hearing-related disabilities.
For those living without access to the internet at home, local libraries provide users with the ability to access scholarly resources, read online articles, watch videos, listen to podcasts, and participate in conversation on social media platforms and forums. In 2013, the Vancouver Public Library[vi] (VPL) saw 6.9 million visits by users, which included 1.3 million internet sessions and 572,554 searches on databases available through VPL.
However, not everyone is able to visit their local library and access the full spectrum of its offerings. For some, the cost of bus fare to and from the library on a consistent basis proves too expensive, or the library does not have the technology necessary to provide visually impaired and hearing impaired individuals with the same range of access other patrons are able to enjoy.
Individuals without in-home access to the internet are also excluded from submitting their work to many literary magazines and creative writing contests because of the popularity of Submittable[vii], a cloud-based submissions manager used by many publications and organizations. If a publisher or organization only accepts submissions through Submittable, individuals without internet at home are not granted the opportunity to have their opinions and voices heard, resulting in said publications being inclusive only to those with access to Submittable.
Internet Access for the Blind: Available Technologies and Trends
At present, there are multiple devices on the market for blind and visually impaired users: Traditionally speaking, devices like the Pacmate QX 420, HumanWare Apex, and Pacmate BT 400, and more recently, voice-over software for electronic products.
Pacmate QX 420, HumanWare Apex, and Pacmate BT 400
These are Braille note-taking devices drawing on voice recognition as a first point of access, meaning that the user speaks into the device, which then outputs a single line of Braille text on-screen one at a time. But humans do not think in lines of text – they think in strings of phrases and entire paragraphs of joint ideas and images. Bold, italics, bulleted lists, and more advanced formatting options are also not possible, further restricting a user’s creativity and ability to organize content.
Other immense shortfalls of these devices are their mechanical, closed-system platforms that do not allow users to easily edit content or award them with privacy (imagine reading your diary out loud with your family in the room). Moreover, they cannot display full web pages in Braille (display is restricted to what one sees when browsing on a mobile device), or permit the user to read e-books or .pdf uploads. They’re also very expensive – ranging between €4,500 and €6,500.
Seeing Through Sound
More recently, electronic devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones have powerfully integrated voice-over software (Voice Over for Apple products and JAWS for Microsoft products) to enable blind and visually impaired users to access digital content in a way much closer to how others do. Users run their finger across the screen, and the software reads the corresponding names of apps, textual contents of web pages, emails, menu list options, etc. out loud. Navigation on a laptop varies, in that users generally do not rely on the tracker pad and instead employ keyboard commands because of the size and display difference of the screen; full web pages showcase much more information, and these keyboard commands enhance navigability.
Molly Burke, a blind vlogger on YouTube, posted a video[viii] to her channel demonstrating how she engages with digital content on each of her electronic devices. When using social media sites or posting to YouTube, she explains that she prefers using her iPhone or iPad because sites like these are much more difficult to navigate on a laptop, and because she has more control with her finger being directly on the screen. For typing longer documents and emailing, laptops are more useful because of the full keyboard.
Because there is a discrepancy in how easy it is for blind users to navigate on different electronic devices, there is still work needed to ensure that these individuals are not excluded from content published online and in apps. For example, browser extensions and ads that cover up portions of a screen create accessibility issues for users, because the voice-over software is no longer able to read all of the content being displayed. Further, web developers need to consider the accessibility needs of blind and visually impaired users, ensuring that easy navigation via current voice-over software is considered at all times throughout the development process.
An example of fundamental accessibility considerations may be found in the checklist[ix] on Web Accessibility in Mind’s (WebAIM) website. This checklist comprises four key components of web accessibility for both blind and deaf users, stating that all elements of a web page should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Because many blind and visually impaired individuals rely on voice-over software, it’s imperative that online publishers and app and extension developers are trained in these aspects of web accessibility to ensure that users are not excluded due to poor navigability and operability.
Some examples of fundamental accessibility considerations for blind and visually impaired users include:
- Contrast levels
- Instructions existing independently from sounds and visuals
- Colour not existing as the sole means through which meaning is conveyed
- Page functionality is available via keyboard
- Navigational order of links is logical
- Each page contains a descriptive, relevant, and accurate title
- Semantic mark-ups (<strong>, <ul>, <ol>, <h1>, etc.) are used appropriately
The upper version is less accessible for blind and visually impaired users for the following reasons:
- The text is lower contrast, making it harder to read for individuals with vision impairment.
- The labels on the left are a great distance from their corresponding fields, making it challenging for individuals to associate them, especially if the user is needing to zoom in a lot to read the page.
- The “Remember details?” checkbox isn’t associated with the label itself, so it wouldn’t be easy for users to know if they had checked off the box.
A recent article[i] published by the CBC discusses current typographical trends that are making websites less readable. As developer and technology writer Kevin Marks explains, the value of fashionable aesthetics is detracting from practical, accessible choices, with greyer, skinnier sans-serif typefaces being a popular choice among designers. Higher resolution screens on tablets and smartphones drive designers to select these lighter typefaces, but they worsen contrast levels between background and text, ultimately making reading more challenging for visually impaired users. Designers, therefore, should be mindful of choices concerning typefaces and contrast levels when laying out content published online.
Returning to Touch
In recent years, there has been substantial efforts toward re-visiting Braille devices as a way to enable full-page digital display at a user’s fingertips, moving away from voice-over software.
A powerful example of these efforts is the Blitab[ii] – a tablet being touted as “the iPad for the blind.” With a combined 285,000,000 blind and visually impaired people worldwide, co-founders Kristina Tsvetanova, Slavi Slavev, and Stanislav Slavev are driven by their motivation to provide members of the blind and visually impaired community with the opportunity “to grow and prosper, where education, technology, and knowledge are open to them.”
Smart liquid technology is the Blitab’s distinguishing feature, creating instant tactile relief via small liquid bubbles that transmit the Braille text that users pass their fingers along. The bottom of the Blitab possesses a small screen which shows the contents of a web page, and the larger upper portion is the area comprising the tactile relief. Because the Blitab is fully electronic rather than mechanical, entire web pages are able to be viewed by the user rather than single lines or isolated portions. Moreover, the Blitab is capable of converting Word documents and PDF files directly from USB sticks and memory cards, enabling users to read e-book files. Tactile relief also permits visual objects such as maps and geometric shapes to be created, improving accessibility to navigation tools, textbooks, works of non-fiction, and diagrams.
O Captions, Where Art Thou?
Information from Social Media Today’s[iii] “Top 5 Facebook Video Statistics for 2016” reveals that 8 billion video views are generated each day on Facebook, with videos earning 135% greater organic reach than photos. 85% of these views[iv] occur without sound (largely due to the popularity of food gif recipes and branded videos), which greatly opens up accessibility to deaf users and those with other hearing-related disorders; not only does it enable these individuals to watch and share content that otherwise would not be open to them, it also encourages publishers to create captions to accompany their uploads in their quest to attract greater audiences and reach on Facebook through shares. Videos uploaded to YouTube, on the other hand, fail on the caption front.
Offering a multitude of ways to help uploaders with the captioning process, one would think this would not be the case, especially considering companies such as Rev[v] provide creators with closed captions for their videos for $1 per minute of audio, which is quite cheap considering the length of most videos online (3-7 minutes). Rikki Poynter, a deaf vlogger on YouTube, has created a series of videos on the subject, educating other YouTubers and viewers how to caption videos in the most accurate, accessible fashion. She explains the options offered[vi], which include YouTubers uploading a text file containing a transcription of their video (either created by the user or by companies like Rev), manually entering captions into YouTube’s subtitles box, or crowdsourcing captions from viewers.
As she explains in another video[vii], however, crowd sourced captions do not always result in a desired outcome. Often times, these captions include spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors that prove challenging to follow, are not properly synced with what is happening in the video, and can even contain extraneous content such as jokes or commentary added by the person doing the captioning.
In response to the abundance of inadequate captioning, the movement #NoMoreCraptions has gained momentum with the mission of educating content creators about the problems deaf users experience when captioning fails to be mindfully executed. #NoMoreCraptions draws on the regulations for captioning enforced by the Federal Communications Corporation (FCC) in the USA (and the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Corporation[i] (CRTC) in Canada). These regulations do not extend to video uploaded to websites, so advocacy efforts are aimed at educating YouTubers and others who caption videos about these best practices with the hope of improving the quality (and resulting accessibility) of captions in online videos.
One important component of the CRTC’s regulations centres on the delivery and speed of captions:
“Captions must be verbatim representations of the audio, regardless of the age of the target audience. Speech must only be edited as a last resort, when technical limitations or time and space restrictions will not accommodate all of the spoken words at an appropriate presentation rate.”
Because captions are the only means through which deaf viewers are able to know what is being spoken, it’s important to consider the effect when spoken words are edited. People naturally use filler words, start sentences that they don’t finish, and utter swear words and slang when talking. If a person captioning selectively removes these filler words and unfinished sentences, and replaces swear words and slang with other words, the resulting captions will vary immensely from the true contents of the video, providing a false impression of the people in the video to the viewer; in many cases, an individual’s tone, speaking style, and level of articulation will change drastically when captions are not verbatim representations.
A free, open-sourced project boasting the same name has also been initiated by Michael Lockrey, which can be found here[ii]. Deaf himself, he created the site to combat YouTube’s automatic captions (craptions) by providing a fast and easy-to-use way for individuals to fix the captioning errors found in videos. Users begin by pasting a video’s URL and proceeding through four steps to amend all the errors they wish to fix. Users can then download their captions.
In an interview[iii] with Amara[iv], a non-profit dedicated to reducing barriers to accessibility and fostering a more democratic media ecosystem, Lockrey describes his discontent with the present state of captioning on YouTube:
“YouTube has admitted recently that only 25% of YouTube videos have captioning and most of these only have automatic craptioning, which doesn’t provide me with any accessibility outcomes, and I wrote a blog post[v] recently that suggests that this means that only 5% of YouTube videos are likely to have good quality captioning and this simply isn’t good enough.”
This is extremely problematic for multiple reasons. For one, upwards of 95% of all videos uploaded to YouTube are either not accessible at all or are not adequately accessible for members of the deaf community. Second, automatic captions serve as a cop-out for content creators by allowing them to claim they’ve captioned their videos when really they have not. Finally, it means that even some of the largest online publishers such as The New York Times[vi] have not been, or have only very recently begun, captioning their videos.
With this survey of the current accessibility challenges facing blind and deaf users, it’s clear that the emphasis on accessibility standards needs to not only be communicated in the media, but actively encouraged among designers, developers, and creators to ensure all users of digitally published content are granted inclusion.
– References –
[i] CTRC, “Quality standards for English-language closed captioning”, http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/archive/2012/2012-362.htm
[ii] No More Craptions, http://nomorecraptions.com/
[iii] Amara, “YouTube Automatic Captions Need Work: A Chat with Michael Lockrey”, https://about.amara.org/2015/05/01/youtube-automatic-captions-need-work-a-chat-with-michael-lockrey/
[iv] Amara, https://pro.amara.org/ondemand
[v] Michael Lockrey (TheDeafGuy), “OMG! I just found out there’s only 5% captioning* on YouTube”, https://medium.com/@mlockrey/omg-i-just-found-out-theres-only-5-captioning-on-youtube-9bbb8bc604f6#.dtm620kyj
[vi] Margaret Sullivan, “Perfectly Reasonable Question: Closed Captions on Times Videos”, http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/24/perfectly-reasonable-questions-closed-captions-on-times-videos/?_r=2
[i] Google, “Web Fundamentals: Accessibility”, https://developers.google.com/web/fundamentals/accessibility/
[i] Dan Misener, “Having more trouble reading websites? You’re not alone”, http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/misener-web-readability-1.3831009
[ii] Blitab, http://blitab.com/
[iii] Social Media Today, “Top 5 Facebook Video Statistics for 2016 [Infographic]”, http://www.socialmediatoday.com/marketing/top-5-facebook-video-statistics-2016-infographic
[iv] Digiday, “85 percent of Facebook video is watched without sound”, http://digiday.com/platforms/silent-world-facebook-video/
[v] Rev, https://www.rev.com/
[vi] Rikki Poynter, “3 Ways to Caption Your Videos!”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7t-1kFDPceo
[vii] Rikki Poynter, “#NoMoreCraptions: How To Properly Caption Your Videos”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O4YcVQt5NM
[i] The World Bank, “Internet users (per 100 people)”, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IT.NET.USER.P2
[ii] Statistics Canada, Population by year, by province and territory (Number),
[iii] Matt Kieltyka, “Low-income Canadians struggle to afford Internet, bridge digital divide”, http://www.metronews.ca/news/vancouver/2016/02/02/low-income-canadians-struggle-to-afford-internet.html
[iv] CNIB, “Fast Facts about Vision Loss”, http://www.cnib.ca/en/about/media/visionloss/pages/default.aspx#canadians
[v] CHS, “Facts and figures”, http://www.chs.ca/facts-and-figures
[vi] Vancouver Public Library, “Annual Report 2013”, http://www.vpl.ca/about/details/AR2013_text
[vii] Submittable, https://www.submittable.com/
[viii] Molly Burke, “How I use technology as a blind person! – Molly Burke (CC)”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiP7aantnvE
[ix] WebAIM, “WebAIM’s WCAG 2.0 Checklist for HTML documents”, http://webaim.org/standards/wcag/checklist