Friday, November 2, 2007

Each One Teach One: The Issue & Fears

Adaptive and assistive technologies.
The web is fantastic for finding and reading all kinds of information quickly. All that print and all those graphics, movies, images and flash graphics are fantastic ways of delivering information to a broad audience. But, what do you do if your vision limits how much of that information you’re able to read? What if you’re unable to see entirely? What kinds of adaptive and assistive technologies exist to help those with low-vision, no vision or difficulty reading moving screens? I’m looking for solutions that go beyond simply needing a pair of reading glasses to read the screen. I’m interested in discovering what technologies, standards and organizations exist to help develop and improve the Internet experience for users who are hindered by declining ocular health.

Ever go to a website and have trouble reading the point size of the type? If you use the roller ball or change the default font settings on your browser, you can increase the point size. The result is often that the web pages don’t always read as the designers and authors intended. Also, how do web developers take graphics and moving images into account when they’re designing for the visually-impaired?

Full disclosure: I’m by no means blind, but this is an issue that has been on my radar lately. I have keratoconus, a disease that causes the cornea to become misshapen and distorted. The disease is treated through contacts and, in my case, a combination of contacts and glasses. I’m also faced with frequent changes to my prescription due to the dynamic nature of my corneas. As my prescription keeps changing, I find I sometimes have some trouble seeing the monitors at work. While I’m not to the point where I can’t use a computer, I’m interested in learning what tools are out there and in development for people who have difficulty with reading screens.

Top 5 Fears about Websites not paying attention to the needs of the visually-impaired:
1. Web sites will continue to develop with more and more high-tech formats like Flash and video and won’t contain comparable content for visually-impaired readers. Developers must make sure they’re building alternate pages built for readers with limitations.

2. I worry that developers and organizations do not budget and plan for alternate pages for users with limitations. Companies must treat alternate page development as they would installing ramps or handicapped accessible bathrooms.

3. Visually-impaired users who are unable to read the screen and highly-designed websites might not stick with the Internet. As more information becomes available on the web only, those users who abandon the web will be unable to obtain that information any other way.

4. A personal fear, as my own vision worsens, I fear I won’t be able to see the screen, and therefore fear I may not be able to continue with a career that puts me in front of the computer more than 8 hours a day. I want to know what things I can do now to help protect my vision when I’m using the computer. And, I want to know what’s available to assist me as it becomes more difficult to read the screen.

5. A similar fear stretches beyond just visual limitations. How many websites in the U.S. have a main page, a page for users with disabilities and how many include a Spanish version of their content? Developers need to be working to make sure their content is accessible to users in any number of different formats.

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