Tom Wlodkowski is project manager at the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media in Boston, and is involved with the CD-ROM Access Project as well as with museum and Web access work. A blind computer user he holds a B.A. in Communications from Boston College. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
CD-ROM's interesting multimedia content is not always accessible to the disabled. But access can be achieved if the software has the right stuff.
Advances in computer technology have brought most people as close as a mouse click to a wealth of information. It is no longer necessary to flip through volume upon volume of a printed encyclopedia to access a map of Africa, or to search for information about Babe Ruth. Today, we can simply show up at our local library, ask for our favorite encyclopedia on CD-ROM, sit down at a nearby workstation, and start clicking.
While multimedia encyclopedias have revolutionized how people with disabilities access information, especially individuals who are blind or mobility-impaired, they and other multimedia products also have some pitfalls. Fortunately, there are readily available solutions that, if incorporated into multimedia software during the design phase, will make it universally accessible. But if full access is to be achieved, product developers need to be made aware of these pitfalls and of how to eliminate them, and software buyers need to know what to look for and ask for before making their purchases.
How, for example, can a deaf person access the abundance of audio contained in these products? How can a blind person search for an article when the search controls are contained in an image? How can he or she learn from the array of video clips (an added bonus to the multimedia encyclopedia) if the visual images are not described? How can an individual with a physical disability operate the software with a single-switch device if product developers rely on one's ability to use a mouse in order to navigate? This article will answer some of these questions. I'll also profile work underway at the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) to improve multimedia accessibility. (CPB is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; WGBH is a TV station.) And I'll conclude with a set of recommended guidelines to follow when purchasing multimedia software.
The National Center for Accessible Media is based at WGBH-TV, the public broadcaster in Boston. WGBH has a long history of ensuring that media is accessible to all users. In 1971, WGBH pioneered closed-captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. In 1990, the station launched Descriptive Video Service (DVS) to meet the needs of blind and visually impaired viewers. The onset of the World Wide Web and the increase in popularity of CD-ROM technology have opened entirely new venues for closed-captioning and DVS description.
NCAM's primary mission is to research, develop, and test methods of integrating access to meet the needs of people with sensory disabilities-individuals who are blind or visually impaired, or are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Access techniques include closed-captioning and audio description (the insertion of narrated descriptions of key visual elements into the natural pauses in the dialogue of a video clip). Most of the solutions I mention in this article will address the needs of individuals with sensory disabilities. However, if steps are taken to improve navigation for blind users by implementing an effective keyboard interface, many barriers confronting individuals with physical disabilities will be overcome as well.
Some of the Barriers Confronting Blind Users
Most access barriers common to multimedia software affect blind or visually impaired users. The barriers fall into two categories: 1) the ability to navigate around the product, and 2) the ability to access visual content. Since there is a high degree of customization in the design of multimedia software, and prevalent use of graphics to invoke navigation and to display text, access technologies cannot effectively interact with these products. …