Hi Aral and Niqui. You both are rapidly becoming more known as Flash developers who like to share their knowledge. Give us a quick overview who you are and who you work for.
I grew up in South Africa and currently live in the UK. I started off my career in South Africa working for a computer collage where the whole atmosphere was that of sharing knowledge and learning and I don’t think I will ever leave that attitude behind. The majority of my time working in this industry has been in training and education in some form. I have been an instructor for a range of Macromedia and Adobe products for about 8 years now. Over the years I have been involved in various elearning projects with topics ranging from life skills, HIV/AIDS awareness to basic literacy skills for previously disadvantaged people. What really drives me is the thought that “it” can be better.
I currently run a small development company called HQL in the south of England.
What is your favourite aspect of developing web sites?
I mostly enjoy the result, when someone can benefit from my work in some way. Elearning has allowed me the opportunity to reach out to a larger audience and potentially make a difference. I try to work on projects that will benefit people but am not always successful as we sometimes just work to pay the bills!
There are many ways I could answer this question but I have been able to skip ahead so I know some of my other thoughts can be shared later.
I find there are prejudices towards Flash that are outdated. There is a lack of understanding of the potential of Flash to cater for a variety of different users with different needs. Sometimes people hate Flash because they have always done so and need to be educated in the benefits that it can bring people.
Back to the question – What does accessibility mean in terms of Flash? I would say it means the same as for any other technology. It’s a case of discovering what works for different users and developing with the relevant users in mind.
What are the changes to Flash 8 that allow developers to create accessible applications? Is it a science on its own to create them or is it possible for less experienced Flash developers to create them? Is there any kind of automisation?
I am not a fan of automisation. It is essential that you test with real users and you can’t truly automate a user experience.
The key to building usable, accessible applications is an understanding of the users. This knowledge can then be applied in what ever way a developer can. It is not a weird science and should not be a specialist field. Taking care to add in a logical tab order and using the correct method to insert a SWF into an HTML page are two very simple techniques that can be implemented by anyone of any skills set. We need to encourage all developers to add in the basic steps and that will already make the world of difference.
Is ActionScript a necessity to achieve accessibility?
It depends on the level of accessibility that you are going for, what the application is and who your target audience is. I would love all sites to be totally accessible for everyone but this is not always a feasible solution due to the time, budget, target audience and lifespan of the site.
Most people who work in Flash do a small amount of ActionScript. If you use the accessibility panel to add the options for screenreaders and the tab index you are already on the way to a more usable and accessible site. The next and possibly most important step would be to use UFO or SWFObject to embed your Flash into an HTML page. Both of these can be found on osflash.org and are very easy to use.
You can add in more advanced options with actionscript to make the users experience better. Some of the features would be stop/start motion and sounds. Adding in colour filters to set the contrast.
Can Flash interact with screenreaders? If so, how?
Accessibility support for screenreaders is turned on in Flash by default so that supported screen readers can access the content. There is now an accessibility panel in which a developer can add titles and expose or hide elements like buttons and text to screenreaders.
Flash can detect if a Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) client is active on the users computer and if the computer has the capabilities of communication between Flash and assistive technology. This has actually been the case since Flash 6.
The current supported screenreaders are Window Eyes from GW Micro, JAWS from Freedom Scientific, Home Page Reader from IBM and ZoomText from Ai Squared. Unfortunately they are limited to Windows with IE. I have yet to hear feedback on support for Apple’s Voice Over and any other screenreaders on the market.
The issue that users who rely on screenreaders face is if they were used to the technique of searching for the relevant information. They would probably find it quite difficult to use a Flash site to access content that they are looking for. Flash is a poor choice for a textual information based sites.
Given a fair amount of effort, you can switch to a high contrast version of a page. Are there any other tricks to use to increase accessibility?
I have been looking at making a toolbar that will allow a user to apply different filters to a Flash site. With all the bitmap filters and effects that are available you can really do so much and have it apply over the whole Flash movie. I would not actually say that it is too difficult to do these effects in Flash.
Simple tricks to increase accessibility would quite simply be to set the tab order, use the accessibility panel, check your colours are suitable for colourblind users, the over all site has enough contrast and please don’t use a font size below 11.
Adding in control for animations and sounds would help users who having issues with focus.
What kind of web sites are preferable to make accessible? Is it more about sites that have a lot of content or is it also applicable and preferable to multimedia flash sites like the ones car manufacturers show off with?
I think that it really boils down to understanding your users. All sites should be accessible in some way. I don’t think it is possible to have a user base that does not contain at least some kind of disabled users.
A target user for a Mercedes may potentially have poor on screen reading and could possibly be colourblind. If any information is given in colour or if the text is too small the site will not be usable for them.
A target user for an online music store might be blind. If the site contains too much music that plays at the same time as the screen reader is accessing the site then it may be impossible for the user to find any information on the site.
A lot of people consider SEO and accessibility the same thing as properly structurred HTML web sites are easy to index. This is not the case when it comes to Flash. Do you recommend an alternative HTML page for SEO?
It is not always important or relevant for a site to be SEO but I have seen cases where it is used as an excuse to a client to get an HTML version to make it more accessible. I am not an expert in SEO so would be reluctant to comment too much on this.
I am a little disappointed that people put SEO in the same category as accessibility. Accessibility is about human rights not about increasing your ranking in search engines.
Can pure Flash applications ever be as accessible as HTML solutions?
Yes. They can be more. They also can be less.
It depends on your target users. If you have a selection of users who can’t read large amounts of text or any text then they would benefit more from a visual experience than a textual experience. This could be the case with users ranging from disabled users, young people, old people, illiterate people and even people who speak a different language.
Sites like youtube are able to hit larger international audiences, as they don’t rely too much on reading text. What are the users there for? Flash video.
Is HTML still needed, except for the embedding of the main movie, now that Flash is accessible?
All technology has its use. I would say that there is always gonna be a large call for HTML sites. I would never consider using Flash for my Blog as an example. I love Flash for its strengths (visual media, animation, video etc) but would never choose to use Flash for the sake of using Flash. My company site (www.hqlondon.net) is mostly HTML & CSS with my gallery in Flash. I think it is a problem when people choose to use certain technology that is not the best for the job because that it what they know.
Are there any other problems you can see in terms of accessibility of web sites?
Not sure what you mean by this question. The biggest problem is the lack of caring and understanding that lies within the companies and developers that has resulted in there being so few accessible sites.
HTML and CSS can be easily debugged and tested with extensions for Firefox, like the web developer toolbar. Is there something similar for Flash?
Those tools only perform automated tests and should not be treated as a replacement for user testing.
But to answer your question some of the debugging that you are talking about has to do with layout and issues that occur across browser. Flash does not have nearly as much of an issue with cross browser, as it is a plug in and supposed to work the same across all platforms. Flash has a built in debugger but if you are not a fan of this (and I am not) you will find quite a few options available on osflash.org. It is a great resource for open source tools to develop Flash applications.
What do you consider reasons to make Flash applications accessible?
I think if the content is relevant to a user base than it should be accessible to them.
If the content is essential to users like legal information or government information then it is essential that it is accessible to everyone no matter what the disability is. This is a matter of basic human rights.
If the sites content is in no way essential for a user to access like a tire promotional site then is it really essential for everyone to be able to access it? In an ideal world maybe but we need to be realistic about what is relevant to the users and cost effective for companies.
Do you know any Flash web sites that are exceptionally accessible?
Now that is a hard one for me to answer. I can only take peoples word for it as I have not tested with the users.
The other problem is that not enough developers are creating accessible solutions in Flash or making it known.
The most publicised site at the moment is –
Most of my accessible work has been elearning projects that I can’t show. I am working on a sample site at the moment.
I would be interested in seeing more accessible Flash sites so if you have any suggestions…
Where can a novice Flash developer learn about Flash accessibility? Do you know of any books or good online resources?
There is very little online with regards to making Flash accessible. Adobe has started to put up some resources and information on their site that should help a developer start. http://www.adobe.com/accessibility/. It is quite focused on the American laws and guidelines so it is important to find out information that is relevant to your country. It is a pity that it has to be like that but the Web standards don’t really include Flash into the specifications.
There is a white paper available that covers the starting points to making Flash more accessible. http://www.adobe.com/resources/accessibility/best_practices/bp_fp.html
What is your wishlist for web 3.0? Is Flash going to be a major player in the future?
I’m still on a wish list for the current version… I think we have a lot to work on as a web community to get to the next version. I would like to see developers accept other technologies and work together to create a better space. If we work together and encourage new developers to take a better path instead of attacking them for taking a wrong path we will be a bit closer to a better web. I am glad to say that there does seem to be a lot more acceptance of Flash in the community than there was before. I think Aral has done a lot towards opening up the barriers and fighting the prejudice.
Moderator: David Maciejewski for Technikwürze. Thanks to Chris Heilmann for the direct contact to Aral and Niqui.