Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Flash animation and assistive technology

Is it just me, or has there been a recent explosion by web designers to incorporate Flash plug ins on their websites?

Perhaps Macromedia, the makers of the Flash animation product, have put on a full court press to promote a broader use of their application.

Whatever the reason, Flash seems to be flourishing on the web in the past several weeks. On top of that, in most cases, the controls for the Flash features are just the generic buttons with no description to what their functions are, leaving blind users of screen readers wondering what in the heck those buttons do. So, not only is Flash spreading like wildfire, the ignorance about accessibility is being incorporated in the fold as it does so.

I don’t think that most web designers have any idea that Flash is a difficult speedbump for users of screen readers. It is so much of a problem that Freedom Scientific’s JAWS screen reader includes a function to disable Flash animation when using the web browser.

Speaking purely anecdotally, I have noticed a large number of websites in just the past month that have begun embedding Flash animation as a means to spiff up their sites. I notice it because it makes it difficult for me to read their site’s content. On one newspaper’s site, if I had not been reading the site for the years that I have, I would have not known how the site was laid out and, as a result, when they employed Flash animation about three weeks ago, I would not have been able to read the news without taking a slow and time-consuming method of reading one line at a time with the down arrow. Even then, I don’t know how well the Flash animation would have interfered with JAWS.

Don’t misunderstand my complaint. I’m not a new JAWS user who might be unfamiliar with the program’s operation. I’ve been using this product for more than 10 years and am using the latest version. Also, I’m not a rookie in understanding how to maximize the efficiency of JAWS. I have often been called upon by friends who are also JAWS users for technical assistance.

I’m just noticing a glut of embedded Flash animation that is making my life difficult. I can’t speak for users of other assistive technology software such as screen magnifiers or other brands of screen readers, but I would think that this is affecting their access to web sites as well.

I just read an interesting post related to this subject on a new blog called ,
It is only the second post on the blog, but seems well written and offers good insight to understanding web design.

Hopefully, future web designers will initiate some insight and think about the users of their products as somebody besides the typical, sighted consumer. Universal design would make their web pages readable by a broader audience. Isn’t more traffic what most creators of web content want? There are methods for creating accessible Flash animation. I’ve posted about some training on this specific subject here on previous occasions.

Finally, so you don’t think this post is purely a personal vent, look at your school’s web pages. Are they employing Flash as part of their effort to have the latest in whiz-bang technology? Is it accessible? Does it meet Section 508 standards?

Pardon any self indulgence on this subject, but it is a concern that I see as a growing trend and not dissipating in the near future.

My hope is that the understanding that Flash can be used successfully and also be accessible will begin to spread as fast as the use of Flash has been on the web.

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