Art school helps blind, visually impaired get taste of Web multimedia features

Blind and visually impaired Web users can experience some of the Internet’s increasingly expansive potential thanks to a group of senior design students from the School of Art.

The 23 design, illustration and advertising majors have created among the first Web sites showcasing new accessibility components of Macromedia Flash MX, the increasingly popular authoring tool for Web interfaces, interactive video, Web-based games, streaming music and other multimedia content.

Ben Kaplan (left), lecturer in visual communications, recently led a studio with fellow lecturer Reggie Tidwell on Web accessibility for the blind and visually impaired. The class — including senior Rachel Griffin (right) — created some of the first Web sites to take advantage of new accessibility components of Macromedia Flash MX, a popular Web authoring tool. – Photo by Mary Butkus

For the estimated 7 million to 10 million blind and visually impaired Americans, the Internet has proven to be the most powerful — and most empowering — tool since Braille. Widely available software programs such as JAWS for Windows and Windows-Eyes can read aloud online newspapers, magazines, public records and other previously inaccessible materials, and help simplify daily tasks such as banking and shopping.

Yet as bandwidth and memory improve, businesses have increasingly sought to drive customers to glitzy, graphics-heavy Web sites that are more difficult, if not impossible, for blind users to navigate.

“Sites that are primarily graphics-driven pose real problems for blind and visually impaired users,” said Ben Kaplan, lecturer in visual communications, who led the Senior Advanced Multimedia Studio with fellow lecturer Reggie Tidwell.

Part of the problem is cultural: Web designers tend to be young and erroneously assume perfect vision in all Web users.

And part of the problem has been technological: “Screen-readers are very good at deciphering static HTML text, but Flash content has, to this point, been completely inaccessible,” Kaplan said.

Public attention was focused on the issue of Web accessibility by a pair of high-profile lawsuits — one against America Online in 1999, the other against Southwest Airlines last year. Just last month, the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a group that institutes common Web protocols, issued its latest accessibility guidelines.

Macromedia Inc. released the Flash updates in 2002 — a major boon for accessibility advocates, given that some form of the company’s Flash Player has been installed by 95 percent to 98 percent of the world’s estimated 507 million online users, according to technology analysts International Data Corp.

In addition to making Flash content “visible” to screen readers, Flash MX allows designers to embed text descriptions of multimedia content on Flash pages and to tailor just what is and is not read — the latter a significant improvement over the less discriminate HTML.

“The technology is there to make really good, accessible multimedia sites,” said Tidwell, principal of Curve Theory design. “Unfortunately, examples remain fairly scarce. I’m afraid that some people still see accessibility as a nuisance. Yet given the numbers of visually impaired Americans, why wouldn’t you want to make sites accessible?”

Kaplan and Tidwell hope the student projects — which range from interactive maps, games and e-cards to documentaries, travel guides and instructional videos — will inspire other Web designers to take advantage of that potential.

Currently in final review, the projects will soon be available to the public at, the Web site of the Saint Louis Society for the Blind and Visually Impaired (SLSBVI), a nonprofit agency offering a wide range of rehabilitation and low-vision services.

Also, by gearing projects equally to blind and sighted audiences, they hope to reassure designers that ensuring accessibility does not mean limiting visual creativity.

“This isn’t about isolating the blind in some sort of parallel universe,” said Kaplan, also principal of “act3: designing the story,” a new media design company. “It’s about providing blind and visually impaired users with the same access everybody else has.”

For example, Wesley Gott’s elegant Mapping the Stars provides handsome blue-and-gold diagrams and drawings of both the constellations and their mythic inspirations, organized by hemisphere and season. For blind users, the site provides equally detailed text descriptions that can be read aloud and is easily navigable by keyboard — a necessity for the special commands screen-readers depend on.

Meanwhile, Lori McCaskill’s interactive map of Asia provides both information and a rare opportunity for blind computer users to work with a mouse. As the cursor travels across the screen, a voice calls out the names of corresponding countries and bodies of water, offering a visceral sense of their relative proximities.

Additionally, double-clicking on, say, Iraq or India, activates short, encyclopedia-style histories.

Other projects include a guided tour of the Missouri Botanical Garden and documentaries of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1904 Olympic marathon and the song “Strange Fruit” (made famous by Billie Holiday).

Gennie Eachus, who teaches computer access for the SLSBVI, served as a guest critic and unofficial adviser to the class. She noted that, as the baby boom generation continues to age, demand for online accessibility is only likely to increase.

“As people get older they develop eye conditions, be it cataracts or glaucoma or macular degeneration,” Eachus said. “Those who don’t support accessibility now may need it in 10 years.”

Kaplan compares Web accessibility to the introduction of wheelchair ramps in public buildings or closed captioning on television.

“From a business perspective, integrating accessibility into the ‘ground floor’ is ultimately easier, more efficient and less expensive than retrofitting a finished design,” he said. “For designers, accessibility should eventually become just one more factor in the overall development process.

“Everyone is supposed to be equal on the Web,” Kaplan concluded, alluding to the Internet’s early, idealistically democratic ethos. “It’s about inclusion, not exclusion.”