Visual vs. Cognitive Disabilities
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Graphics for the Blind?
Graphics, colors, and other visual elements are not directly accessible to people who are blind. They can't see them, so they can't benefit from them. If you're creating web content specifically for people who are blind, such visual elements are unnecessary. You might say that they even "get in the way" of creating content that is accessible to the blind. People who are blind access web content by using software that converts text into synthesized speech. The software—often referred to as a "screen reader"—reads the text in the web content out loud, but it can't automatically interpret graphics. At most, it can read the text description of the graphic (alternative text, or "alt" text) provided by the person who created the web content. With this in mind, some people advocate creating a text-only version of web sites. These people often assume that "text-only" and "accessible" are the same thing. In the case of blind users, this may be true, but the problem with this assumption is that it ignores other types of disabilities.
People with motor disabilities or hearing impairments probably will not benefit much from a text-only version. In fact, a text-only version may decrease the content's usability for them, since it removes the visual cues and illustrations that may enhance the content's understandability. Nearly everyone who has use of their eyes can benefit from visual enhancements. This is especially true in the case of people with cognitive disabilities.
Text for Cognitive Disabilities?
There are a wide variety of cognitive disabilities, ranging from conditions that are barely noticeable to nearly complete absence of measurable cognitive activity. In some cases, individuals are unable to read text at all, so graphics must perform the same function as the text in order to communicate the same message. See the screen shot below of the the www.peepo.com - external link home page for an example of a site that is created almost entirely of graphics, designed especially for people with cognitive disabilities.
The question arises then: how do you create web content that is usable both for people who can't see graphics, and for those who benefit greatly from them? Is it possible to create a single, universal design that meets the needs of both audiences?
Approaching Universal Design
First of all, it is impossible to design a single version of web content that is equally understandable across the full spectrum of disabilities, or even within the spectrum of cognitive disabilities. The concept of a truly universal format sounds like a wonderful idea, but it is unattainable. Still, it is possible to create web content that approaches the ideal of universal design, even if it doesn't quite succeed in the absolute sense.
Web developers should seek to make their content as universal as possible, recognizing that there will always be a small minority of individuals for whom the content will not be fully accessible.
The conflict between the needs of people who are blind and those with cognitive disabilities is an interesting one. One group has no need for visual elements, while the other benefits greatly from them. Notice the wording of the previous sentence. It may be true that visual elements are unnecessary for those who are blind, but they are not harmful to them. This is the key. Developers should seek to enhance their content to the extent possible by adding appropriate visual elements. As long as alternative text is provided for these visual elements, there is no conflict. Those with cognitive disabilities will be able to view the visual elements, and those who are blind will be able to access the alternative text. The end result is a single document that, in a sense, has a built-in text-only version. There is no need to create a separate text-only version for the blind. Neither is there a need to create a separate visually-enhanced version for those with cognitive disabilities. This is the appropriate approach to take for most web content.
There are exceptions, however. If a web developer seeks to create content that is specifically targeted at users with significant cognitive disabilities, the best approach may be to create a graphics-only version that caters to their needs. Take another look at the screen shot of the home page at peepo.com below.
As it turns out, these graphics are the menu system. By clicking on the graphic of a joystick, for example, users can access a list of games. This list is also entirely graphical in nature. All of the icons represent a different game that the users can play. The site also uses a graphical "bread crumbs" in the upper left hand corner. The cat represents the peepo.com home page. The joystick tells us that we are in the games section of the web site. The arrow in the bottom right corner tells us that there are additional games on the next page.
The truth is that this web site can easily be made accessible to people who are blind, even though there is no visible text on the page at all. Screen readers will be able to read the alternative text that the authors provide for the images.
However, this site is not universally accessible to all audiences. Most people without disabilities don't understand what this site is for when they first look at it. They see a collection of graphics and think that there is something wrong with the page, or they simply wonder what the author had in mind. Without explanatory text, most people will be confused. In the case of this particular web site, the target audience is individuals who can't read, or who can't read well. The addition of text would confuse the target audience. This site is an exception to the rule of creating with universality in mind. The characteristics of its target audience require that the site be simple in design, even to the exclusion of other audiences.
Peepo.com is interesting because of its focus on one particular type of disability, but most web developers are not developing content specifically for people with significant cognitive disabilities. Most of the time, the most appropriate approach is to try to reach the broadest range of users possible. Developers can meet the needs of people with mild cognitive disabilities by providing appropriate graphics, using visual grouping of content, using headings and bulleted lists, and other visual means of enhancing the content. Developers can meet the needs of people who are blind by providing alternative text for these visual elements. The needs of these two types of disabilities are not necessarily in conflict with each other. It's just a matter of understanding each perspective and designing in ways that accommodate their specific needs.