People with a disability: left behind by the Media Age? (Part Two)

In the first part of this blog we looked at some of the challenges and barriers facing people with disabilities when it comes to the Internet and other new media. In this final part we turn to possible strategies for making the virtual world fully accessible to all.

Some advances are being made in making new media accessible, though it is largely being done by universities, non-profit organizations and hobbyists rather than the media industry. Mobile ASL (American Sign Language), for instance, is a project at the University of Washington to allow sign language conversations over cell phones. Because North American wireless networks still have a fairly limited bandwidth, special compression techniques are required to be able to carry the real time video needed for sign language. Because the hands and face communicate most of the meaning in ASL, the project lets cameras prioritize the recording of those areas to make the most efficient use of the bandwidth available.

Similarly, the American Federation for the Blind has begun the Cell Phone Accessibility Project to make it easier for people with vision impairments to use cell phones. In the United States cell phone manufacturers are already required to make them accessible under section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996; the Cell Phone Accessibility Project aims to survey which models of cell phone are not accessible and push for changes to their design. Special software, such as Talks and Mobilespeak, has also been developed to allow visually impaired people to send and receive text messages, but these are currently limited to only a few carrier networks. Unfortunately, this removes the privacy of text messages, which are a major part of their appeal, especially to teens; a few companies have begun to market products such as Samsung's Touch Messenger phone that allow texting and other cell phone functions using Braille. These products are not yet widely available, however.

The Web Accessibility Initiative is a project aimed at providing access to the Web to people with disabilities. It provides both Web page developers and designers of browsers such as Firefox and Internet Explorer with information on what issues people with disabilities face while online and techniques for making sites more accessible, such as their Quick Tips to Make Accessible Web Sites They're also at the forefront of ensuring that new aspects of the Web, such as Web 2.0 and mobile phone browsers, are accessible from the start. Primarily, though, they're best known for developing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which aim to provide an international standard for bringing full accessibility to the Web. One Web site that has made particular efforts to be accessible is BBC News, which has created a special site called Accessible Newsreader that can be navigated with a single click and reads news stories through a computer-generated voice.

When it comes to making video games accessible, there are three different approaches. The first is to adapt existing games, such as the modified version of Doom III titled Doom 3C. In this case all of the sounds in the game, such as dialogue with other characters, approaching footsteps and monster noises, have been captioned as they would be in a film or TV show. As well, Reid Kimball, the developer, added a “radar” function that shows players the direction sounds are coming from, allowing them to be used as game cues as they would be by hearing players. (More detailed information is available at the Accessibility Games Web site.) A more recent example is Eelke Folmer's Blind Hero which will convert the video instructions in Guitar Hero and similar games to a buzzing signal in the different figures of a glove controller.

The second approach is to create games specifically to be played by people with different disabilities. For instance, there is a small market of audio games created for people with visual impairments; these roughly 300 games cover the gamut from adventure to action and even a driving game. These games rely heavily on distinctive sounds to communicate what's going on, and use stereo speakers or headphones to help you situate things in the game, such as letting you line up a target before shooting. The Audio Games Web site features an archive of downloadable games such as Sonic Invaders, Pacman Talks and both Star Trek and Star Wars games.

For people with a physical disability, the control schemes of video games – which often involve using one or more joysticks, buttons, or a mouse and keyboard – present an insurmountable barrier to play. One Switch Games creates games that are designed to be played with limited motion. Like audio games they tend towards the retro, mimicking simple games such as Space Invaders and Frogger, but they have the production values of modern games. (The Accessible Newsreader site listed above includes links to a number of such games.) One Switch Games and similar organizations also develop alternate controllers for popular game systems such as the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, but in general game manufacturers are not friendly towards such efforts; Mark Felling, an engineer who founded Broadened Horizons to make new technology more accessible, has said that he has received no help from Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo in his efforts to create accessible controllers.

The third approach is to make games that are as accessible as possible while still appealing to mainstream audiences. There are few examples of games like this so far, but groups such as the Game Accessibility Project provide resources for developers that can help them make each game as accessible as possible to the widest number of people. For instance, captioning is a relatively easy way to make games accessible to people with hearing disabilities, and the option to slow the speed of a game can make it much more accessible to people with physical disabilities. A game studio that has taken up this challenge is Fire Hose Games which created the game AudiOdyssey to be played by sighted and vision-impaired gamers. (This slideshow sets out founder Eitan Glinert's philosophy towards accessibility in games and his experiences developing AudiOdyssey.) AbleGamers is an example of a site that provides support for gamers with disabilities, with news about accessible gaming and reviews of commercial games based on their accessibility to people with different disabilities.

A wider world

It's important to keep pushing for accessibility in all parts of our society, new media included. Not only do people with disabilities deserve to have access to these experiences, there are a number of ways in which new technologies can improve their lives. For instance the Jitterbug, a cell phone marketed at seniors, can be tremendously useful for people with physical disabilities because of its oversized buttons, large text and option for voice commands. As well, recent research has shown that video games – particularly casual, puzzle-based games such as Tetris – can help children with ADD and ADHD deal with their condition. CapAbility Games, a project at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is developing computer games designed to teach people who have suffered brain injuries and have a physical disability ways to increase their independence, such as a virtual world that simulates grocery shopping while in a wheelchair.

With their ability to simulate reality, games can help us make our world more accessible in another way, too: Handigo, a game designed by Handicap International and Ubisoft, shows players what it is like to have different kinds of disabilities; two mini-games show what it is like to navigate the world with impaired vision or in a wheelchair. While these games are somewhat simple, they may just be the beginning of a new era in accessibility awareness. This video, which gives a sense of what it's like to be schizophrenic, is a bold step in using the simulation tools of new media to further the full integration of persons with disabilities into society. Imagine how much easier it would be for people with disabilities if their teachers, employers, peers and families had some experience of what it's like to have limited vision or hearing, to have mobility limitations, to be dyslexic or even autistic? Full accessibility is a challenge for us all, and perhaps in time games can be a help and not a hindrance in that challenge.