After developing educational technology products for Pearson and Scholastic, I’ve come to appreciate the value of creating products that are accessible to users with vision-, hearing- and learning-related disabilities.

Whether because they are English language learners (ELL), have auditory or visual deficits, input/output disorders or other issues,  it’s not only good karma and good business to enable everyone to use your product, it’s also the law (ADA, Regulation 508, et al.). The latter is an issue not lost on Target stores which has spent the past two years defending against an ADA lawsuit over the inaccessibility of their website. However other companies, including IBM and Google, are taking a higher road.

Google’s T. V. Raman, a pioneer in customizing technology for blind users, has been developing solutions for the visually impaired since loosing his sight to Glaucoma when he was 14, including a Rubik’s Cube covered in Braille and a version of Google search for blind users. Mr. Raman, 43, is now working to modify a touch-screen phone that he says could make life easier for blind people. “Mr. Raman’s approach reflects a recognition that many innovations designed primarily for people with disabilities have benefited the broader public,” said Larry Goldberg of the National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH.

Good karma and legal matters aside, one of the biggest challenges facing developers of advanced digital media is how to make immersive virtual worlds, games and simulations that depend on navigating a 3D or 2D graphical space accessible to the blind and visually impaired users.

Recently, IBM’s research and development effort, the Alphaworks Emerging Technologies group, tackled this problem head on — at lease as regards the world of Second Life — and in December released  a prototype virtual world interface for the blind:

Virtual Worlds User Interface for the Blind is a prototype “accessible rich Internet application” (ARIA) that gives blind users the ability to participate in many virtual world activities. It provides basic navigation, communication, and perception functions using GUI (graphical user interface) elements that are familiar to blind computer users. As a way of enriching the virtual environment with descriptive semantic information, sighted users contribute annotations of virtual objects and places using a scripted gadget equipped by their avatar. These annotations are then made available to the blind users through the special user interface.

Although this interface for the blind is a GUI and can be used by sighted people, the virtual world space is not rendered pictorially. Instead, all information flowing to the user is text-based in order to allow compliance with ordinary screen-reading technology. Recorded verbal descriptions are also played for the user.

Currently, the application interfaces only with the Second Life platform; however, as a long-term goal, it might be possible to make this user interface portable to more than one virtual world implementation. If successful, that portability would enable blind users to learn only one client application that is specifically tailored for their needs rather than learning a separate new application for each virtual world. (Read more…)

For more on accessibility in digital media:

Read about T. V. Raman’s work in For the Blind Technology Does What a Guide Dog Can’t in the NY Times.

Learn about IBM’s prototype in IBM Creating Virtual Worlds User Interface for the Blind in Serious Games Source.

Demo IBM Alpha Works’ Virtual Worlds User Interface for the Blind

Visit CaptionMax.

Visit CAST.

Follow the ADA vs. Target class action lawsuit.