Towards an accessible Web, part 1

Sean Zdenek
Texas Tech University
Computers & Composition Online (Fall 2009)

    Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Limiting access in the Podcasting Bible
  3. A critique of “on the fly” podcasting (Part 1, 2)
  4. Podcasting 2.0: Towards an accessible Web (Part 1, 2)
  5. References
  6. About the author

Making podcasts accessible is a pretty straightforward process. In the case of an audio-only podcast, the producer (or someone else) simply creates a written transcript and makes it readily available (e.g. within the RSS enclosure, as a link on a website, in the lyrics tab on iTunes, etc.). For example, Mignon Fogarty, host and author of the popular Grammar Girl podcast, “publish[es] a word-for-word transcript of each show” (“Don’t Quit” 2007). (Read the transcript of Fogarty’s most recent podcast at the time of this writing). Indeed, all of the podcast episodes on Fogarty’s Quick and Dirty Tips Network are transcribed (e.g. Mighty Mommy, Sales Guy, Get-it-Done Guy, Make-it-Green Girl, etc.). Another notable example is the weekly Security Now! podcast produced by Gibson Research Corporation (GRC), which includes audio files and transcripts in multiple formats for each podcast episode.The podcast formats available on the Security Now! podcast include high quality audio, lower quality audio, a web page with any supplementary notes, web page transcripts, text file transcript, and pdf transcript. But GRC’s multi-modal, accessible approach is unusual among podcasts. While we might expect to find short text summaries to accompany links to audio podcasts posted on blogs, we will rarely find much more than that. Accessibility (when it refers either to making technologies universally usable or to making accommodations for people with disabilities) is virtually invisible as a topic in mainstream discourse about podcasting.

Even podcasts that are principally concerned with disability and accessibility issues cannot always be counted on to be models of good (accessible) practice. For example, a couple years ago a moderator on AccessifyForum.com noted the irony of a podcast show about web accessibility that was not itself accessible to people with hearing disabilities. Referring specifically to the WebAxe podcast show, the moderator writes:

shame there are no transcripts or anything from those podcasts…i hope i’m not the only one who sees the irony in *purely* podcasting about accessibility…

In a second post to this thread, a forum member agrees with the moderator:

Irony indeed.

Surely someone could get access to the services of a professional typist who will type faster than a presenter could talk in a podcast. At that speed even at professional rates it shouldn’t cost more than a couple of pints to transcribe.

And then one of the two producers of the WebAxe podcast responds:

This is Dennis from Web Axe. I realize how ironic it is that I’m doing a podcast on accessibility, which in nature of a podcast, is not accessible. I don’t make any money from the podcast so I can’t afford a transcriber for text-only versions of the podcasts. Besides that, I hope you will find my podcast/blog informative and valid. Thanks.

Dennis explains away the need for a transcript on financial grounds (“I can’t afford a transcriber”), and then assumes that his “podcast/blog” will be “informative and valid” anyway. But podcasts without transcripts are not informative – to say the least – for “listeners” who are deaf or hard of hearing. Granted, this thread is from 2005, when podcasting was still in its infancy. Nevertheless, it points to a troubling lack of awareness of both 1) the means to make podcasts accessible and 2) the need for accommodations at all, even when the podcasters presumably specialize in making web technologies accessible. Dennis assumes that making podcasts accessible requires a burdensome financial investment as well as a significant investment in outsourced human labor (transcribers). Both of these assumptions need to be challenged if we hope to change perceptions about accessibility and increase awareness of the need for accessible alternatives. At the time of this writing (June 2008), WebAxe continues to produce new audio podcasts about accessibility but not accessible podcasts, since each podcast is accompanied only by a short text summary.

So what would ease the burden on podcasters like Dennis to make podcasts accessible? Above all, we need to instill in both budding and experienced podcasters that written transcripts are crucial components of audio podcasts, just as captions (closed or open) are crucial components of video podcasts, neither add-ons nor burdens. Accessibility needs to be built into the design of websites from their very inception, rather than after the fact. Likewise, accessibility needs to be anticipated in podcast (and multimedia) design. As part of this effort, we need to continue to teach our students and colleagues…

  1. About the wealth of options available for transcribing audio podcasts and captioning video podcasts. Contrary to expectations, making web technologies accessible does not have to require a large financial investment, a steep learning curve, or a lengthy time commitment. Some of these options are discussed in part two of this section.
  2. How accessibility drives universal usability. A common refrain among accessibility experts is that accessible media have the potential to benefit all users, not just users who are disabled. “Universal design is an approach to design that attempts to incorporate features that make things usable by more than just the ‘average’ person. By anticipating the needs of all people, things can be designed in a way that makes them universally usable” (Horton 2006: 9). In an article on Section 508 standards, Kim Guenther (2002: 75) suggests that “Incorporating these standards will actually increase the visibility and the audience to your Web site . . . Design that is effective for people with physical and visual impairments also aids the elderly.” Or consider the potential benefits of captioned television for hearing, hard-of-hearing, and deaf viewers. CaptionsOn.com estimates that “more than 51 million people can, and do, use captions to bring words to life.” But of this group of Americans, only “31 million” are “deaf or hard-of-hearing,” leaving quite a large group of people who are hearing but nevertheless benefit from captioned programming. This group includes: ESL learners, children and adults learning to read, older Americans at risk for Alzheimer’s, and families enjoying TV time together at lower volumes (CaptionsOn.com). In the case of audio podcasts, full text transcripts allow for seamless indexing by search engines, making it easier for potential listeners to find podcasts on topics of interest to them. While audio and video search engines such as everyzing.com rely on voice recognition technology to index content from audio and video files, the major search engines continue to rely on surface-level text features (title, description, tags) to index multimedia content. Transcripts of audio-only podcasts, while important in meeting accessibility standards (e.g. 1194.22a & b of Section 508, Guideline 1.2 of WCAG 2.0), can also be a crucial component in marketing podcasts (i.e. because transcripts aid in search engine optimization).

  3. That making information technologies accessible is not only the right thing to do but also legally mandated. Section 508, a 1998 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, “cover[s] the full range of electronic and information technologies in the Federal sector, including those used for communication, duplication, computing, storage, presentation, control, transport and production.” But while these “standards cover technology procured by Federal agencies under contract with a private entity” (section508.gov), they are being more widely adopted. According to Guenther (2002: 73), “Although the original intent of Section 508 was to treat fairly federal employees and those disabled individuals who use federal Web sites, the law has been interpreted more broadly to also include all states receiving money from the federal government under the Assistive Technology Act.” Thus, because institutions of higher education are eligible to receive money under the Assistive Technology Act, they need to be in compliance with 508 standards (e.g., see Kansas State’s Accessibility Memorandum). Individual states may also pass legislation requiring its public universities to comply with Section 508 (e.g. see The California State University System’s Accessible Technology Initiative). In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act “are civil rights statutes that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, obligate colleges and universities to make certain adjustments and accommodations, and offer to persons with disabilities the opportunity to participate fully in all institutional programs and activities” (from Texas Tech’s Operating Procedures). Title II of the ADA covers public accommodations by state and local governments (including public education), and Title III covers public accommodations in the private sector (including nonprofits and private schools). Finally, Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires manufacturers to ensure their telecommunications products are accessible to people with disabilities. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education is responsible for “enforc[ing] several Federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance from the Department of Education,” including Section 504, Title II of the ADA, and others (“About OCR” 2005). “In FY 2007, the Department [of Education] received 5,894 complaints of discrimination and resolved 5,737” (FY 2007 Performance and Accountability Report). Fifty-one percent of these complaints were disability related, by far the largest group (with race/national origin complaints coming in a distant second at 16%).

This approach mirrors WebAIM’s case for accessibility: “It’s the smart thing to do,” “It’s the right thing to do,” and “It may be the law” (“Solutions for Business”).

But serious obstacles and skepticism remain. Jane Seale (2006: 81) writes that “accessibility awareness is low amongst learning technologists,” including limited or no knowledge of 508 and negative attitudes towards accessibility among webmasters. It is not uncommon, if my own experience is any indication, for teachers to affirm the importance of accessible technology while balking at the time commitment and steep learning curve involved in, say, transcribing audio. I have also heard colleagues worry about how instruction in accessibility will negatively impact in-service teachers who are learning how to bring podcasting into their classrooms but lack confidence and experience with new media. These teachers, it has been suggested, may turn away from new media altogether if they think it is too difficult or time-consuming to implement. Clearly, many people continue to think of accessibility as a time-consuming supplement. We thus need to continue the important work of developing easy-to-use tools to make the Web accessible, and continue to talk about accessibility as central (and not peripheral) to the design of multi-modal texts. We also need to be practical and realistic: A local audio podcast produced for a small group of hearing students (with no plans to reuse the podcast in future semesters) does not require the same attention to accessibility standards as a podcast produced prior to the start of the semester, or one posted on a departmental website (with a large, diverse, and unknown audience). The less we know about the needs and preferences of specific members of our audience, the more we have to assume that accommodations (transcripts, captions) are needed.

Next: Podcasting 2.0: Towards an accessible Web (Part 2)