Blind Folk Don’t Wear Plaid

We at NUblog have never been wild about the Royal National Institute for the Blind’s diktats about Web accessibility. Its report on accessible E-commerce in 2000 evaluated sites on unfair and unrealistic criteria (NUblog passim). Perhaps fortunately, the verdict of history has run along the lines of “RNIB? The RNIB published a report on E-commerce? They did? Oh, well. Guess I missed it.”

The RNIB was able to pry (as our dear British friends say, “prise”) its foot out of its mouth on that one. But POP! in it went again this week.

RNIB committed the single stupidest stunt in the brief, colourless history of Web accessibility – far worse than the previous contender, setting up little MP3 files reading out the text of your Web page for those poor blind people to listen to.

The background? 14 June 2002 was designated Look Loud Day, a sort of Ash Wednesday for sighted people to project their guilty feelings about being able to see. How? By wearing tacky (“loud”) clothing that will cause other people to regret being able to see, too. (Shockingly appropriate and winsome touch: Plaid-lamé-bedecked Überpouf Graham Norton is a spokesgirl!)

As part of the promotion, RNIB commissioned a LookLoud game written in Flash. It’s one of those avatar/mascot things in which you construct some SuperTiny SimCity–style dolly that “represents” you (Cf. StorTroopers). The game is, in essence, one of graphic design: Your job is to use component parts to create a cutesy picture.

Just what blind people are clamouring to do, right?

The strange thing is that this game could easily be made accessible. You start with a human figure and add clothing, hair, and accoutrements. All you need to do is select the clothing/hair/accoutrements; you don’t have to drag them. With proper text equivalents (now entirely attainable in Flash), the game could be played, though nobody but blind 15-year-old schoolgirls who want very much to fit in might even bother.

In any event and for whatever reason, the game works abysmally in screen readers, even the one and only model, Window-Eyes, that works with the little-understood accessibility features of Flash MX.

The RNIB went into high dudgeon. Julie Howell of the RNIB Campaign for Good Web Design went so far as to blurt: “Macromedia needs to recognize its social responsibility – disabled people shouldn’t be locked out of the Web.”

Well, first of all, they’re not.

Macromedia made Flash MX and the Flash 6 player substantially compatible with the only systematic way to communicate between online content and assistive technology like a screen reader, Microsoft Active Accessibility. (There is no comparable accessibility infrastructure on Macs or Linux, though the Gnome project is giving it the old college try for the latter platform.) MSAA compatibility will continue to be improved, but MX/6 accessibility is so heavily improved that thousands of existing Flash sites had at least their text contents “exposed” to Window-Eyes without the original authors’ having to lift a finger.

The responsibility, then, falls to screen-reader manufacturers to make their products compatible with Flash and MSAA, and to Flash content designers to follow accessibility guidelines. Missing from this list of action items is the task of programming a dress-up game.

There is some indication RNIB just didn’t know what it was talking about – hardly a first, but unforgivable with the amount of information available online on Flash accessibility (even at Macromedia’s site) and Macromedia’s willingness to answer any question put to it on the topic. (We speak from experience. They don’t even bother with nondisclosure agreements or similar nonsense. They just tell you what you want to know.)

RNIB received a small avalanche of expert opinion essentially telling them to stuff it and do some homework before opening their yaps. In a stunning reversal, the RNIB was forced to grovel, but was careful to do so in an obscure, virtually-impossible-to-locate venue, namely its own charmingly-named RNIBCampaignforGoodWebDesign mailing list (other source).

RNIB congratulates Macromedia and GW Micro for working together to make the content of Flash files accessible to users of the Window-Eyes v4.2 screen reader. At the same time, RNIB encourages developers of Web content creation software and developers of screen-reader software to follow this example and work together to ensure that all Web content can be accessed by blind people who rely on screen reader technology.

RNIB understands that much work is already in progress in this area, and encourages all parties involved to continue this ground-breaking work.

RNIB fully acknowledges the efforts that have been undertaken by software company Macromedia to develop their product Flash MX so that it is easier for Web designers to create Flash files that are accessible to blind people who rely on screen-reading technology to access the Web.

RNIB acknowledges that Macromedia has undertaken a significant amount of development work to ensure that Web content created for the Flash rich media player is available to screen-reading technology via Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA).

RNIB acknowledges that Macromedia has worked closely with GW Micro, developers of the screen reader Window-Eyes, to enable version 4.2 of Window-Eyes to access the content of Flash files created with Flash MX. [...]

RNIB is very proud to uphold the Look Louder game as a working demonstration of the results of the Macromedia/GW Micro collaboration and would encourage other developers to continue their efforts to create Web content that is accessible to everyone.

A humiliating, flat-out apologia of this sort, though lacking the high profile of the original rash and baseless declarations, is the sort of thing one associates with the outcome of libel suits. It sounds like an apology a satirical newsweekly might be forced to publish.

Could it all have been avoided?

Posted on 2002-06-21