Joe Clark: Media access

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Updated 2003.08.28

Introduction to comments on WGBH guidelines for accessible (talking) DVD/STB menus

WGBH Educational Foundation’s oddly-named Access to Convergent Media Project listed its activities as:

Worked with industry partners to develop solutions that allow blind and visually impaired consumers to navigate the graphics-rich environments of the digital set-top boxes and DVDs.

The “deliverables” included a set of written guidelines on making graphical menus for DVDs and set-top boxes (STBs) accessible.

The guidelines were published, considerably late, in August 2003, and they are rather a disappointment.

Not enough to teach you

The guidelines do not give enough information to teach you how to make DVD or STB menus accessible. A developer could not sit down with the guidelines and alter his or her work practices to make a menu system accessible. There isn’t enough information to go on. The guidelines fail to train readers on how to provide audiovisual menus without further assistance.

The guidelines were professionally written, and that’s part of the problem: The document takes on writerly tones when it should be giving solid, well-documented, easy-to-understand information. I can’t understand who the expected audience is. I assume it would not surprise WGBH if developers read the guidelines, but the feel is one of an expert on the topic imparting just a little bit of information at a dinner party.

The tone throughout is one of “This is terribly difficult.” And the guidelines stop there, satisfied with remarking upon the terrible difficulty. But WGBH’s task was not to complain about how hard it is to make menus accessible; I submit its responsibility involved writing a free-standing handbook that would actually teach developers how to do it. And in an unexpected twist, many of the issues the guidelines raise are not very difficult to solve at all, and WGBH’s own DVD productions solved them handily – facts that are never actually explored in WGBH’s own guidelines. In essence, WGBH even fails to toot its own horn.

What you won’t learn

The WGBH guidelines will not teach you:

  1. how to write a script for a narrator and the exact ways in which such a script would differ from onscreen text
  2. what expertise, experience, or qualities to look for in a narrator
  3. which exact features of the DVD spec to use for specific functions
  4. how to turn multiple sets of options presented on a single graphical menu screen into voice
  5. the full range of known DVDs with audio navigation
  6. what kinds of DVDs are better choices for audio navigation (assuming a general unwillingness to make all DVDs accessible)
  7. how to choose, use, and tweak synthesized speech for audio navigation
  8. how to make a DVD with audio description passably accessible without talking menus
  9. how to adapt your set-top-box system’s database to speech output
  10. how to label a DVD that contains audio navigation
  11. alternatives to WGBH methods

The guidelines do not give you:

  1. any kind of tutorial
  2. step-by-step instructions on how to adapt a project to audiovisual menus in leading authoring systems, like DVD Studio Pro and Scenarist
  3. a true and extensive discussion of the existing accessible discs and how they work
  4. sample files you could emulate, including filename and folder structures
  5. standardized recorded files, scripts, or even text for onscreen menu display that could be used and reused by different producers, just as copyright warnings on DVDs are semi-standardized

Next steps

WGBH should incorporate my comments (and everybody else’s) and release a Version 2.0 of the guidelines.

Read more

Other comments

I’ll link to comments from other developers, writers, critics, and interested parties as they become available online.