Open season

The Internet is an invaluable resource for the visually impaired, but elaborate design can compromise this inclusiveness.

In digital media circles, design has always concerned itself with usability. With the issue of inclusivity now at the fore, the testing bed has become the Internet itself.

The public has been using the Web for almost a decade, but website developers are just starting to recognise the relevance of designing for all. They have spent the past ten years just trying to make things work, so usability design has dealt with the majority rather than those with special needs.

Sometimes usability becomes hopelessly sidelined as a marketing tool to encourage brand loyalty. In other cases, it has become faddish, such as usability guru Don Norman’s new focus on ’emotional design’. This has diluted the more pressing issues in the accessibility debate.

Since the Web industry has been guilty of ignoring the issues, it has been special needs groups that have taken up the battle via other channels. The Internet is still in its infancy and it represents an opportunity to set standards that will encompass the whole medium when it grows to maturity.

One of the core usability issues concerns blind and partially sighted Web users. Computers have the power to turn words into voice and vice versa. For the poor-sighted, colour-blind, partially sighted and totally blind, the Internet is a boon. Web users can enlarge HTML text and change colours and contrasts just by resetting their browser preferences. Special software can convert text into a voice played through attached speakers. Text can even be printed out and converted into Braille.

For the two million partially sighted and blind people in the UK, this makes the Internet a primary information and communication tool with all the advantages of immediacy and person-to-person communication. However, HTML is crude and developers use other software on top of HTML to give websites more functionality and good looks. ‘Non-standard’ software such as JavaScript makes it difficult to read pages as basic text. In short, the technology created to make websites more usable for the majority is the very thing that excludes the minorities.

To address this problem, interest groups are starting to campaign more actively for inclusivity. Technology itself is too fuzzy to pin down legally, so campaigners have been highlighting legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act. Section 21 of the act states that it is a legal obligation to meet the needs of the blind and the partially sighted. A test case emerged when blind campaigner Bruce Maguire’s complaint that the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games website (which could not be ‘read’ by a voice interpreter) discriminated against him was upheld by The Australian Courts.

Compliance to the DDA has forced developers and, indeed, the UK Government itself to conform to whatever guidelines are available to make the Internet inclusive. Guidelines are centred around the World Wide Web Consortium, the self-styled guardian of the Internet. It has created a Web Accessibility Initiative and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines using advice from organisations such as the UK’s Royal National Institute for the Blind. The guidelines are considered to be European standards of compliance that the UK Government supports.

But they’re not without problems. At their worst, the guidelines are vague, with conflicting interpretations for different audiences, believes RNIB website manager Margaret O’Donnell. As a result, the RNIB campaigns separately.

O’Donnell has created an RNIB campaign called See It Right and runs an in-house Web design consultancy to create sites for clients and the RNIB itself that comply with its own criteria for inclusiveness. She practises what the RNIB preaches. ‘As manager for our own website, we have to obey our own rules,’ she says.

‘We adhere, of course, to the W3C consortium guidelines, but they are not precise. For instance, when using [layout tool] Nested Tables the W3C advises caution. That has led to website developers using alternatives that for some of our audience cause even greater problems.’

O’Donnell believes it is best to just try things and then test them out. ‘We user-test to a normal standard like other developers,’ she explains. ‘But in our case we also test with people with sight problems.’

John Corcoran, director at Wire Design in London, is an active participant in inclusive design. Wire represents a recent trend in design groups that specialise in support for sustainable and inclusive design programs. It is currently creating an on-line inclusive design resource in co-ordination with the Royal Society of Arts based on work developed with the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre and the Design Council.

‘We create a lot of local government and public sector design programmes,’ says Corcoran. ‘It’s difficult for them to interpret the guidelines for accessibility because they are written for technical people. They come to us because the Government insists the public sector complies with European standards. Project leaders don’t want to assess complex technologies. They just want a pathway towards compliance.’

Interest in digital inclusivity stretches beyond just the Internet, however. Because computing can provide so well for people with disabilities, it is becoming a key development area for inclusive communications. Students at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy are already looking to the future. For instance, Valentina Novello is developing a system to increase awareness for the partially sighted and the blind while on the move, sponsored by Fiat.

Novello found that during a car ride, ‘a blind person may want to know about where they are, but are embarrassed to repeatedly ask the driver’. Her design allows tagging of road signs that supply information to the car when it passes. The information could be about location and it could denote how much of the journey has elapsed, but it could also point out interesting references and local interests. Novello’s project shows how considerations of accessibility can push, rather than constrain, the boundaries of interactive design, and that bodes well for the future.

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