Flash & the Quest for Accessibility – Part #1

  • Sandro Ducceschi

Preamble

The greater part of last year i was heads-down-busy developing the EventManager Game which we had the pleasure to build for Postfinance. EventManager is an educational but fun game, that approaches topics such as budgeting, financing and investing in a modern way (read: not boring you to death).

Today i want to talk to you about the new iteration of the game that we just released a couple of weeks ago. What is new you ask? How about: Accessibility!


overview part #1

In this two-part blog post i will cover the technical, as well as overall aspects of this endeavour. This first part will cover a brief history of accessibility within the Flash Platform and its current state and hopefully useful insight if you are considering to add accessibility to one of your projects.

Read on to find out more..


Accessibility history in flash

Thanks to Adobe (and of course Macromedia back then), the Flash Platform has been sporting accessibility features since Macromedia released Flash MX back in 2002. For those that remember, this used to be Flash Player in version 6 and just introduced the Vector Drawing API (ahh, nostalgia.. but i digress).

Over the years obviously the feature set has vastly improved and Adobe (rightly so) can be proud of the level of accessibility that the Platform has today, since it allows you to:

  • Create your own tab order
  • Set alternative text (naming & description text)
  • Set shortcuts
  • Set element focus (also visually if needed)
  • Communicate statuses to screenreaders.

As you see, there is really not much to wish for left here. In fact, if you use the Flex Framework, all these functionalities and features are just a step away from you. But that's not all, Adobe has made it quite simple to build your own components within the flex framework, that can with little work, implement the accessibility layer. If that wasn't enough you even have the capability to manually trigger an event to tell attached screenreaders that something has changed within your application.

For us developers, this means that we have the tools and capabilities to fully fullfill the guidelines proposed by WCAG 2.0.

dark side of the accessible moon

One of the “ limitations” when it comes to the Flash Platform and accessibility, is that it's only available for the Windows Platform.

There have been many voices that critisized Adobe for “ only” implementing the Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA API), yet to this day it seems that it is the only documented and standardized API out there. Also it is to be said, that the most popular and wide used screenreader applications have their home only on the Windows Platform.

misconceptions & half truths

Q:  So, since the Flash Platform supports accessibility so well, how come there are only a few accessible flash sites out there?

This question is usually met with one of the following answers:

ANSWER: Costs for implementation too high

There is no denying that implementing accessibility into a flash application is a high cost investment, if you do not already have a developer with prior such knowledge.

This has multiple reasons. Depending on your application it will require an entire different approach than just the straight forward making «Your-Standard-RIA App» or «Form-based GUI App» accessible. Which obviously, unless you have done it before will require tinkering, information gathering, experimenting and lots of testing. Hence, it will take time and thereby cost money.

ANSWER: Too DIFFICULT & LACK OF documentation

I have good and bad news. The good news is if you are considering making your RIA accessible, rejoice! Most of the information / documentation on accessibility for the Flash Platform is actually directly aimed at the Flex Framework and at RIA development.

And here is the bad news: if you want to make something completely custom – like a game – accessbile, make sure you have enough time at your hands, you will need it :). But since you are reading this, hopefully i'll be able to provide you with enough information to ease your pain :).

The main problem lies not in the fact that implementing is difficult or complicated, it's the fact that real in-depth documentation is either missing, hard to come by and that examples usually only cover little ground. So the difficulty of implementing accessbility really only comes from the fact that you will have to invest lots of time into testing and debugging.

Answer: no time / no money within the project

This really is a convergence of the previous two points. Lack of knowledge and the possible cost of implementation, compared to the percentage of users who actually will benefit from that step, leads often – and here we have to be honest to ourselves – to the quick dismissal of accessibility within projects.

Answer: What? Flash is accessible?

Yes genius, have you missed the memo? In fact a few years back when i took Macromedia's Certified Flash Developer exams there was already a huge part dedicated to accessibility within the exam. Go read up, right now!

Adobe followed in Macromedia's footsteps and continued to improve accessibility, updating the accessibility features once more in their latest Flex 4.0 Framework and implementing their entire accessibility layer into the freshly released AIR 2.0.

The Challenge

Coming back to our topic at hand, for EventManager i was confronted with a game that had many requirements.

The game's flow for example, does not allow a regular tab order, it just wouldn't work. There were also many interactions that would take place without any prior user action and those had to inform the player obviously about what is happening.

Depending on where you were in the game or what you wanted to do, the keyboard had to apply a different layout/scheme that is tailored to the task at hand. For example, when you are on the eventgrounds, you need to be able to place/manipulate constructions, which obviously has an entire different control scheme than for example having to bid on an artist in the auction part of the game.

To make the matter worse, the game has a strong mix of pure flash elements and flex components. Oh, and everything had to be multilingual of course :)

Finding a solution

Keyboard accessibility was pretty clear from the start. We needed a class that allows us to set a specified keyboard layout/scheme to be active when we needed it.

For user-interactions, it was generally agreed that a context-menu would make most sense and thereby should be used for building constructions and general interaction with the eventgrounds in the game.

When it came to implementing screenreader accessibility the concept had to change a couple times, obviously here the lack of knowledge was a problem and forced me to try out various things until finally finding a working and valiable solution.

At this point i would like to extend my most grateful thanks to Adobe's Accessibility Evangelist (congrats on the new position!) Matt May , he was of incredible help and was able to give me just the right hints, that helped me resolve some key issues that were plaguing me during my quest for accessibility.

The FINAL solution

The final solution can be broken down into three essential parts:

  • A global Keyboard Controller that allows applying different control schemes at will.
  • A single class from which we can communicate with a screenreader to manipulate its focus, send text to be read via speech synthesizer or displayed on a braille device.
  • Last but not least a custom context menu component, that allows us to display a menu of possible actions the user can undertake depending on the situation.

I'll be covering all the technical details and attempted approaches in the second blog post: “Flash & the Quest for Accessibility – Part #2”.

THE INFORMATION HUNT

I've invested countless hours in information gathering and hunting down resources concering accessibility and possible ways of implementation so that most screenreaders are supported.

Sadly, as it turns out, supporting all available Windows screenreaders seems to be impossible (see these tests). Thereby i concentrated on JAWS and ZoomText since these two applications seem to be the most widely used, when it comes to assistive technologies.

The resources gathered throughout the project that were useful are publicly available via my delicious account. They have notes as to what information was useful and/or if parts of the information was incorrect or not valid anymore.

Conclusion

All in all, getting the chance to implement accessibility in such a big flex application was an incredibly rewarding experience in multiple aspects.

Getting the chance to actually implement accessibility was a great, allbeit, at times nerve-wracking experience that gave me new and invaluable knowledge.

The most rewarding aspect of the entire project though, to me personally, was to receive the excited feedback from our targeted end-users audience. A big thanks also here to Access4All, everyone else involved in this big effort and of course to Postfinance for giving us this great opportunity.

Feel free to leave comments or get in touch with me if you have any further questions about flash, flex or accessibility.


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