Accessibility: creating voice reader elearning for blind and visually impaired people

17th November 2014

It goes without saying that e-learning should be available for everybody. What is more, e-learning environments and courseware should be accessible, useable, and of the same quality for all who participate.

The great thing about e-learning is that the information and knowledge expressed throughout the course is often done so through various multimedia text, audio, visuals, videos etc. and include multi-sensorial elements to create within the user the most heightened levels of engagement and interaction. Unfortunately, for e-learning users with visual disabilities, some of the multimedia interactions cannot be accessed with the same ease as those without. But, importantly, that’s not to say that such users should be excluded from such e-learning material.

Usability and accessibility should always be considered during the design of e-learning courseware to ensure that the collaborative tools and other material produced is done so in a way that will always enable the inclusion of people with a range of visual impairments. Universal access for anyone and everyone should always be at the core of L&D professionals design considerations, and that means in everything from the user interface of the site to the actual learning material itself.

Screen readers

Blindness presents perhaps the most difficulties when it comes to an e-learner completing a task, and indeed navigating a user interface is not least among them. For this reason, assistive technology in the form of a screen reader with a voice synthesizer needs to be implemented into your courseware to enable blind and visually impaired people to interact with the user interface.

A screen reader describes orally the content of a user interface, and the blind or visually impaired user navigates the screen, usually via a keyboard rather than a mouse, to take the appropriate actions.

However, there are some problems and frustrations that arise from using screen readers, and so it normally isn’t enough to simply integrate one without first doing some research into its functionality.

Some of the difficulties of screen readers include:

  • The screen reader can sometimes confuse the structure of the interface with the content, which means the vocalised description can become difficult to translate into actionable instructions.
  • Blind or visually impaired users often have no overall perception of a user interface, and, if accessing the course unaided, the screen reader does not necessarily account for this.
  • Depending on the HTML code that has been used to build the site, the screen reader can sometimes announce information in an incorrect order.

In particular this last point is the one that requires the most careful consideration. The problem of course is one that faces all web developers, no matter what the program different behaviours of different internet browsers. However, the creation of accessible rich internet applications (ARIA) have actually resolved a lot of these issues and there are some that have been specifically designed to make web content and other applications more accessible to blind people.

For example, there is an ARIA that allows a user to perform the drag and drop function using only the keyboard, and also allows courseware developers to define the key regions of a user interface that means that a blind or visually impaired user can navigate to the desired area quickly, without having to wait for the screen reader to list the whole user interface sequentially.

Adoption

Many universities will not compromise on compatibility with voice reader software. Some HTML5 authorware tools are advertised as accessible, but you will need to run a test on them, as unfortunately most are not. Anything built using Flash, for instance, will inevitably incur a whole host of compatibility issues, yet still there is in some institutions a reluctance to move away from this dated delivery system.

There are some bodies that monitor the accessibility functions of assistive technology and software that is used for elearning. Closing The Gap highlights all the compatibility issues with assistive technology products, and publishes a bimonthly newspaper as well as an annual Resource Directory that is invaluable in this area. Here at Marshalls, we recently built a fully accessible diversity training course for UCL, and create our own voice reader e-learning courseware to meet all individual requirements.

More tips for creating voice reader e-learning for blind people

Always with finding the perfect ARIA for your courseware in mind, there are a few other things that L&D professionals should always bear in mind when creating e-learning platforms for blind and visually impaired people.

Screen readers describe the function and type of all controls on the screen, and tracks the cursor as it travels over them. They have access to all the information on the screen, and so, to make things as easy as possible for them to fulfil their functionality, it is important to, when designing your courseware, to implement the following:

  • Embed ALT text, tool tips and other descriptive text in graphic images in such a way as to alert the screen reading software.
  • Define all tools in menus, palettes and toolbars always as separate items. The creation of single graphics that contain multiple images confuses the screen reading software and essentially makes those functions obsolete for the blind or visually impaired user. Keeping all objects separate, the screen reader is better able to identify and name each one for the user to use.
  • Ensure that the names of all of your controls are logical and consistent in their placement and creation. Indeed, the use of predictable screen layouts is always advised.
  • The use of single column text helps in the navigation of the interface for the screen reader.
  • Absolutely make sure that you provide keyboard equivalents for all of the tools that your courseware includes, as blind or visually impaired users normally use the keyboard instead of a mouse.
  • Screen readers can only read text, so it is important not to use non-text menu and navigation items, unless you incorporate ALT text into the item. Indeed, ensure that you include text descriptions in all graphics.
  • Finally, make sure that you include synchronized audio descriptions to play alongside all video content.

The accessibility and usability of all e-learning tools should of course always be created with the end user in mind, and that means that all types of end user with all types of specific learning requirements be kept in mind also. The key thing to remember is that the functionality of your courseware must be 100% compatible with the blind or visually impaired user, and you should design your courseware accordingly.

For more information on how we created our own voice reader e-learning courseware to make our courses more accessible, contact us.

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