This viewpoint advocacy group's purpose is to ensure Second life is accessible to users who are blind.
Current list of stakeholders, please feel free to join.
- Bill Carter - IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center
- Eelke Folmer - University of Nevada, Reno
- Gareth White - University of Sussex, UK
- Terry Hodgson - NASA Learning Technologies, Johnson Space Center
You've Got to be Kidding!
This is generally the thought that crosses a person's mind when the idea of blind users participating in virtual worlds is first encountered. The very notion seems preposterous. Virtual worlds are intensely visual by nature, how can it ever be possible for a blind person to operate in them? As one continues to think about the problem, however, endless possibilities begin to present themselves. In many ways it is not so different from ordinary GUI and web applications, and please be assured that we have a good understanding about how to enable blind users to interact with them very effectively. The basic trick involves the use of an assistive technology called a screen reader which can transform text into synthetic speech. Applications which are suitably enabled can give the screen reader access to textual information about all their GUI widgets, and GUI apps which are appropriately designed allow blind users to navigate them by means of the keyboard alone. Extending this technique to virtual worlds applications is very challenging of course, but it is entirely doable if the right infrastructure is put into place.
Chances are the reader of this document can see pretty well. Most people have reasonably good vision, less than 1% of the population is blind. Why should we care if those few folks have access to modern computer applications? The first reason is that it is the decent and considerate thing to do. Everyone should be able to participate in our civilization regardless of their disabilities. If its necessary to see this in a selfish light, remember that you may fall victim to an accident or a disease someday which robs you of your eyesight. Surely you will want to be able to continue as before in as many ways as possible. There are several other reasons for making virtual worlds accessible to the blind and we list them here:
- Virtual worlds offer social communities agnostic of race, age, disabilities or gender. The Heron Sanctuary is a meeting place in Second Life for people with disabilities which currently has 125 members which suffer from disabilities such as multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy. Naughty Auties is a virtual resource center and meeting place within Second Life for those with autism. The blind are excluded from participating in such communities even though it could benefit them the most. The severity of their disability may make the blind feel socially and physically isolated within their geographic communities and the interaction options offered by virtual worlds significantly exceed the interaction options offered by web based social tools like chatboxes.
- Legal Similar to the legal requirement that buildings be constructed in a manner which is wheelchair-friendly, the government and many educational organizations have standards in place which require that computer applications be accessible to people with disabilities. An example; many universities have adopted secondlife as a virtual classroom, therefore it needs to comply with section 508 of the US rehabilitation act -which states that Federal agencies, such as universities relying on federal funding, make their electronic and information technology accessible.
- Business: There are an estimated 1.3 million legally blind people in the US and up to 45 million blind people worldwide. Virtual worlds like Second Life are a global success with 10 million users from around the world. Excluding the Blind from participation in virtual worlds may be bad for your business.
Virtual worlds have the potential to shape the future of the web. Applications like Second Life and Google earth offer much richer forms of interaction. After the significant investments made in making the world wide web accessible we cannot exclude blind from participating in these technologies.
What Can Be Done?
The main question that we need to solve is: How can we make Second life accessible to the Blind? Several blind accessible games have been developed over the past years (Shades of Doom, Audio Quake and Terraformers) that may be used as examples of how to make virtual worlds accessible as their interaction models are similar. But virtual worlds are different from these first person shooters as virtual worlds focus on interacting with objects and avatars and also allow for content creation. How can blind also participate in these activities? Several different approaches are currently being explored.
Identifying Technical Barriers
As blind users have to revert to using a screen reader we need to be able to extract a textual description from Second life. The first and foremost problem that has identified is the lack of descriptors or meta data for objects in Second Life. Similar to how web images lacking alt tags remain invisible to a blind user so are objects without name descriptions. The problem is actually worse, as the meaning of a web image can sometimes be derived from the text around the image or even from the filename. Objects in virtual worlds do not have this textual context nor a file name. Specifying a name and description for your object is optional, because people figure that you can see what they are. As a result many objects don't have a name, are simply called object, or have non descriptive names @#SDFCC_DD or have names filled with advertisements for the object creator.
Proposing Technical solutions
This viewpoint advocacy group might be able to suggest some technical solutions that could be beneficial to making Second Life accessible to the blind such as changing the way objects are created by making it mandatory for objects to have an accurate name field and an descriptor. We could propose a mechanism that enforces the user to add "meaningful" metadata to an object before it is created. We could also allow other people to name objects and provide descriptions rather than the owner of the object. I What if I want to be able to allow a blind user to know what we call the particular spot his avatar is standing on, to give him a useful description of his surroundings, etc. Second Life has the concept of a region which has a name, and that's nice, but clearly there needs to be a way to add much more descriptive information about discrete spaces which would be made available to a screen reader. We could allow users to create location descriptions that are stored at particular locations in Second Life.
These solutions however may be hard to retro actively enforce upon the owners of the massive amount of content that have already been created and may also be prone to spam but for accessibility should at least be proposed and considered.