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A Call to Action: Making Flash Accessible

September 22, 2000

I just finished reviewing Flash 5 for Macworld. Look for my review to appear in a couple of months. (Darn those lead times.) November 6 update: The review is now available.

People seem to either rave or rant about Flash. Some have even called it evil. Truth is, Flash is just one tool in a Web designer's toolbox, there to be used or abused on the whims of designers and those who crack the whips. One thing is certain: Flash makes possible innovative navigation schemes and beautiful presentation experiences that you can't create with HTML.

There's one more thing about Flash that can't be denied: Flash content is inaccessible to blind and otherwise disabled users. Back when Flash was all about animation and motion graphics, Flash accessibility wasn't all that important. But Flash has evolved into an environment for building complete Web applications. Indeed, a growing number of sites are being built entirely in Flash.

To disabled users, these sites are saying, "We don't want your kind here. We don't need your business. Go away." That bothers me. If Barneys department store was to remove its handicapped ramps and bathroom grab handles, it would be sued. But its inaccessible Web site wins awards.

Now that Flash is being used to deliver entire sites, it's time for Macromedia to add accessibility features to the Flash authoring environment and to the Flash player, and it's time for designers to appropriately employ these features in Flash sites.

Note I said "appropriately." Not every Flash site needs to be broadly accessible. Close your eyes on Shorn, and its edgy energy disappears. But for Flash sites that have practical value to disabled users — e-commerce, home banking, news — accessibility is a must.

The Keys to Accessibility
As I see it, making Flash sites accessible would require a minimum of four things.

  • Giving designers the ability to specify the equivalent of ALT text for clickable regions, such as navigation buttons. This would enable blind users' screen reader software to aurally identify these regions.
  • Adding support to the Flash Player for Tab- and Return-key navigation: the ability to navigate from one clickable area to the next by pressing the Tab key, and to "click" on the currently highlighted region by pressing the Return key. All current browsers support this navigation mechanism, which enables faster navigation for blind users and for users with physical disabilities that prevent them from using a mouse.
  • Adding the ability to assign keyboard shortcuts to clickable regions — to enable disabled users to navigate a Flash site by pressing Alt-key combinations or their equivalent. HTML supports this, but implementing it in Flash means custom coding.
  • Enabling the Flash Player to work with screen-reader software such as JAWS. This would enable a screen reader to read aloud the text in the Flash site. Flash 5's HTML text support would seem to be a great first step in making this possible. But the hooks between the Flash Player and screen-reader software aren't in place.

As you can see, part of making a Flash site accessible involves extensive support for keyboard navigation. Is developing a keyboard-friendly Flash site difficult? The designers at Oringe Interactive apparently don't think so — their Flash based site relies exclusively on the arrow keys and spacebar for navigation. The site isn't completely accessible — it doesn't try to be — but it does provide an interesting look at how navigation on an accessible Flash site might work. (And remember, I'm not just talking accessibility for blind users. A quadriplegic might navigate by pressing keys using a mouth stick, and a site like this would work beautifully.)

Why Bother?
Blind and otherwise disabled Web users comprise a small percentage of the Web population. So why bother to accommodate them? The first reason is, of course, because it's the right thing to do: the Web was designed to be inclusive and it must remain that way.

The second reason is good business: make your site accessible, and you'll attract a very loyal group of customers. On a Web where the competition is a click away, that's worth something.

The third reason is to avoid legal woes: advocacy groups for the disabled have already been successful in pressing for changes to inaccessible Web sites and online services. Will an inaccessible Flash site be next?

And finally, remember that the Web you're helping to build is the same Web that you use. Keep that in mind, and you can't help but realize that making Flash accessible is in everyone's best interest.

Heidsite > Writing > Flash Accessibility

Copyright ©1995-2000 by Jim Heid. This page last updated November 6, 2000.