Internet Magazine, January 2004
Flash - ah ah!
Sean McManus reports on two pioneering accessible Flash games
For a long time, Flash was attacked for being inaccessible. Since the launch of MX in 2002, Flash files can include descriptions and alternative text for screenreaders. In MX 2004, designers can control how someone tabs through the Flash interface using the keyboard.
RNIB commissioned Nomensa to produce a Blind Date game for Valentine's day last year. Players make multiple choice decisions that dictate how the date goes. On screen, there's a Flash animation with a pre-recorded soundtrack. Screenreaders can access a description of the animation in the Flash file. There's also a HTML version for hearing-impaired players and screenreaders that won't work with Flash.
"We wanted to raise awareness within the Flash community that it was possible to make visually exciting interactive projects," says Nomensa's director of communications Sally Lincoln.
Because there was little knowledge about how screenreaders interacted with Flash, Nomensa had to test them all while building the site. "Earlier versions of screenreaders such as anything before Jaws version 4.5 do not have the capability to read Flash," says Lincoln. "This was a quite cutting edge project and used new functionality of both Flash MX and screenreader software."
The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) has created an accessible Flash game called Little Shop of Horrors to teach people about accessible shop design. (The website that was hosting this game is not available as at June 2009). The DRC's publications and internet manager John Hunt says: "We wanted to break new ground in website accessibility and show that accessible sites need not be 'boring' - they can be interactive, use animation and have 'fun' features."
The Flash version is accompanied by a HTML version for visitors who don't have Flash or don't have a compatible screenreader.
"The main problem with Flash's accessibility features is that they work only with recent versions of some types of screen reading software," Hunt says. "So a lot of blind users don't benefit from them. Because of this we have improvised and created additional routes. For example, we have a prominent Flash animation on the home page of our new campaign microsite and we created an adjacent tiny spacer image with an alt tag describing what happens."
So far, there are few other accessible Flash sites out there. The onus is now on developers to start using the new features and providing feedback to Macromedia, Lincoln says. One barrier to more widespread use is developer ignorance about accessibility requirements. "If the developer using Flash is not aware of a requirement they will obviously have problems making the technology accessible," says Lincoln. "There is no magic wand - the only way to make accessible technology is to understand accessibility!"