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Internet Magazine, January 2004

Flash - ah ah!

Sean McManus reports on two pioneering accessible Flash games

For a long time, Flash was attacked for being inaccessible. Since the launch of MX in 2002, Flash files can include descriptions and alternative text for screenreaders. In MX 2004, designers can control how someone tabs through the Flash interface using the keyboard.

Jon Harris, Macromedia's technical accessibility manager for Northern Europe, says: "You can hide elements of the Flash file from the screenreader so anything that doesn't aid navigation could be ignored. Drop down navigation is visually pleasing but tends to be difficult to make accessible due to its extensive use of Javascript. Flash makes this easy as you can have the top level navigation read by the first pass of the screenreader and only have the second level read as the person delves into the site."

RNIB commissioned Nomensa to produce a Blind Date game (no longer online) for Valentine's day last year. Players make multiple choice decisions that dictate how the date goes. On screen, there's a Flash animation with a pre-recorded soundtrack. Screenreaders can access a description of the animation in the Flash file. There's also a HTML version for hearing-impaired players and screenreaders that won't work with Flash.

Screengrab of RNIB Blind Date flash game

RNIB's Blind Date game is a lorra lorra fun and is fully accessible.

"We wanted to raise awareness within the Flash community that it was possible to make visually exciting interactive projects," says Nomensa's director of communications Sally Lincoln.

Because there was little knowledge about how screenreaders interacted with Flash, Nomensa had to test them all while building the site. "Earlier versions of screenreaders such as anything before Jaws version 4.5 do not have the capability to read Flash," says Lincoln. "This was a quite cutting edge project and used new functionality of both Flash MX and screenreader software."

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) has created an accessible Flash game called Little Shop of Horrors to teach people about accessible shop design. (The website that was hosting this game is not available as at June 2009). The DRC's publications and internet manager John Hunt says: "We wanted to break new ground in website accessibility and show that accessible sites need not be 'boring' - they can be interactive, use animation and have 'fun' features."

Screengrab of the DRC Flash game

Bump the numbers in the DRC's Little Shop of Horrors for advice on accessible shop design.

The Flash version is accompanied by a HTML version for visitors who don't have Flash or don't have a compatible screenreader.

"The main problem with Flash's accessibility features is that they work only with recent versions of some types of screen reading software," Hunt says. "So a lot of blind users don't benefit from them. Because of this we have improvised and created additional routes. For example, we have a prominent Flash animation on the home page of our new campaign microsite and we created an adjacent tiny spacer image with an alt tag describing what happens."

So far, there are few other accessible Flash sites out there. The onus is now on developers to start using the new features and providing feedback to Macromedia, Lincoln says. One barrier to more widespread use is developer ignorance about accessibility requirements. "If the developer using Flash is not aware of a requirement they will obviously have problems making the technology accessible," says Lincoln. "There is no magic wand - the only way to make accessible technology is to understand accessibility!"

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