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E-Training 4: Accessible Multimedia II

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In an earlier post we began a discussion of accessible multimedia by focusing on streaming video and the accessibility challenges it presents. Providing a range of accessible orientation videos is a great start to ensuring that your work force receives appropriate training. However, many newer sites also include additional interactive elements.

One of the most common methods of presenting interactive material on the Web is via Adobe Flash. Flash elements allow site designers to include a full range of audio and video components in a single, integrated package. Unfortunately, it also presents a whole new set of accessibility challenges that must be addressed with care.

Flash provides site developers with a number of additional options for jazzing up site design and including non-traditional media. Foremost among the benefits of Flash is its ability to integrate unique media types into a single cohesive package, including audio voiceovers, animated schematics, live action video or game-like interactivity. Using the Flash plugin, all of these mulimedia streams can be presented within a single window.

Additionally, Flash graphics are vector-based, and scale very well to multiple resolutions and monitor types. Flash also utilizes its own scripting language, called ActionScript, which can be used to develop complex behavior suitable for interactive browser games or branching menu structures.

These are just a few of the advantages one can gain by integrating Flash into a training program. Unfortunately, using Flash also presents a wide range of accessibility challenges. Key among these is that Flash is almost impossible to make natively accessible to screen readers. This can make using a Flash-enabled site extremely difficult or outright impossible to access for new workers who are blind or visually impaired. Keyboard controls for interactive elements can pose similarly dire challenges for users with motor impairments.

The bottom line is that no matter how hard developers try, Flash content may never be made fully accessible. The same aspects of the format that provide its versatility and strong customization also make it virtually impossible to account for every accessibility challenge. However, if you do choose to use Flash content a few guidelines can help you avoid the most difficult access barriers:

  • When developing Flash content, follow all HTML accessibility guidelines as well.
  • Provide the user with as much control over his or her experience as possible. Allow users to turn your interactive content off or access it in another format.
  • Make sure your interactive content provides plenty of contrast, and that it scales well to a variety of screen sizes. Flash’s robust toolset makes both of these tasks very easy.
  • Double check all key inputs and multimedia. If it isn’t accessible, and it probably won’t be, you’ll need to provide an alternative.

While having to provide text alternatives is never an ideal solution, right now it’s one of the only ways to ensure that Flash content remains accessible to all users. Screen readers are still a major concern, but you can alleviate the problem somewhat by providing an integrated audio track, removing the need for screen reader access in many cases. You will need to keep a plain text version on hand, just like you would for any other multimedia content, but an integrated audio stream may reduce the number of users who must resort to alternative formats.

Even though Flash currently suffers from a number of accessibility challenges, it remains a popular tool for creating interactive content. Content developers owe it to themselves to be familiar with the format, if only to prepare for a future in which Flash can be made more accessible to users with disabilities.