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Flash MX Accessibility Issuesby Jason Michael Perry
When usability expert Jakob Nielsen proclaimed Flash was 99 percent bad, he was right on at least one account: accessibility. Until the release of Flash MX and the Flash 6 player, about 41 million disabled Web users could not take full advantage of Flash Web sites (According to World Bank in 2000). Even with Macromedia's move to support Section 508 guidelines, the government's plan for Web accessibility, the majority of Flash developers have not adopted the necessary best practices.
In previous versions of the Flash player, disabled Web users were unable to view any content generated by Flash. The Flash 6 player took a big step in this regard by retroactively providing text equivalents to the application's content. This change has allowed assistive Web browsers such as screen readers to view or speak Flash content.
Many Flash developers question the need for Flash accessibility since proper accessibility requires a text-only version of existing Web content. This is a myth: images and animation can actually help users with nonvisual disabilities such as dyslexia. Flash can also benefit the blind by incorporating sound to notify the Web surfer of events.
In 1998 the U.S. Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act enacting Section 508. This act required that IT and Web-based solutions used, developed, and purchased by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities. While this act does not affect private organizations, it has established a set of informal rules for them to adhere to.
For private companies hoping to sell or develop Web applications for the federal government, Section 508 is extremely important. The application must meet these guidelines and possibly pass an automated accessibility test or an inspection in order to be used. All Web developers targeting government organizations should carefully read through Section 508 and attack these issues early in their application design.
Using the Accessibility Panel
One key accessibility add-on to Flash MX is the accessibility panel. This panel provides users with the following six options:
You should note that the accessibility panel is only available for buttons, movie clips, and text. Graphics must be converted into a movie clip to apply any accessibility settings.
While key, this accessibility panel is slightly misleading. The panel implies that implementing this with your Flash applications will make your Flash document compliant with Section 508 guidelines. This is false. To make an application accessible, you must consider more than just text equivalent issues.
Making Flash Accessible
Flash's accessibility needs closely resemble best practices for HTML Web design. In fact, Flash applications should not only meet Macromedia's accessibility guidelines but also meet W3C Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines. Like building a usable navigation, these principals focus on how to showcase Web content to color-blind Web users or how to provide additional options to senior citizens with poor vision.
Accessibility is a key element of usability. How can a site be usable to Web surfers if close to one-third of Web users can't take full advantage of the content? Here are some Flash accessibility tips for your applications:
It's important to remember that these tips not only affect accessibility but your Flash application's overall usability. For example, providing additional options to mouse-based navigation could save users time and allow them to use their preferred input method, not yours.
Assistive Browser Technology
When implementing these tips it is also a good idea to understand assistive browsers and how they work with your Flash application. Each technology has a different need and will require your application to excel in a different way.
Some assistive technologies include:
Validating Flash with HTML tools like Bobby is not yet a reality. To test your Flash application your best shot is to download the latest version of the Flash 6 player and one of the many assistive browser technologies.
In many cases free trials of the software exist that can give you a good idea of what a disabled user may see or hear. By placing myself in their position, I've developed a better understanding of where my personal Web site and Flash applications succeed and fail.
Other manual validation tips are testing the navigation of your Flash application without a mouse and questioning how a color-blind or deaf user may navigate your site. If you find a user must depend on a voice prompt to continue to the next screen, your Flash application is not accessible.
To find links to this technology go to the W3C's assistive browser list.
In addition to these tips, make sure you take advantage of Macromedia's accessibility guidelines, Section 508 guidelines, and W3C Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines. These resources provide invaluable information on the needs of disabled users and how to optimize their user experience.
Ultimately, you will need to decide how much accessibility is enough. I recommend that accessibility be an issue from the sketching phase and that your application focus on at least meeting broad accessibility objectives. By taking these steps you'll find your applications can easily meet the needs of disabled Web surfers without sacrificing much production time.
Jason Michael Perry is a partner in Out the Box Web Productions and the Webmaster for Pan-American Life, an international financial services company. You can contact Jason by visiting Jasonmperry.com. You can contact Jason by email at or by visiting www.jasonmperry.com.
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