HDR : Abstract

Interaction and uses
of non visual modalities,
accessibility of complex content

par Dominique Archambault

The need for accessibility is growing in our societies, while real accessibility is truly progressing in several domains, but very slowly. In the digital society, the “new” Information and Communication Technologies carry tremendous accessibility hope. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Web, wanted since its start “to make the Web’s benefits available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental ability”. For us this aim is not limited to the Web and covers widely digital information. Unfortunately the high development speed of ICT lets insufficient space for reflexion about their accessibility, and most actors focus on main user interfaces, which makes the digital divide grow.

Our research activity takes place in the study of computer models allowing to use these technologies in order to improve access for all in the digital society, and in the integration of the principles of these specific models into mainstream models, which could be a way of defining “digital accessibility”.

Nowadays electronic documents are now planned to be used within multimodal interfaces, but it is often interfaces specific to the  application and not to the user, who has to adapt to this interface (the most common of course being screen/keyboard/mouse). Using alternative non-visual modalities such as Braille, speech synthesis or tactile interfaces requires a conversion that is often difficult to perform, particularly due to the fact that in mainstream models of representation, data are too often formatted exclusively for the main modalities used.

In order to fully exploit the potential offered by non-visual interfaces, we are working on models of representation that are independent of modalities, and which allow to adapt the interface to the user’s needs, and particularly to his/her visual capabilities. Visual impairment can have multiple forms and can be associated with various additional problems (cognitive, communication, motor, auditory). However non visual modalities have two common points, they are very linear, and they are unable to provide a global perception. Our goal is to develop tools that adapt automatically to the user, according to his/her specificity. First of course depending on the modalities the user can access, but also in according to the user’s skills, particularly in the case of children. This adaptability is necessary in the case of educational use: adaptation to the user’s progress, both in the school disciplines and in the use of tools. It is even more important in the case of an educational use with very young children or children with additional difficulties (cognitive, communication), who it is important to help into a progress process.

The works presented in this memoir thus refer to digital accessibility, and in particular accessibility to content that we call complex because they are structured and/or composite, having of elements of different natures. The application areas we have been studying are Websites, mathematical expressions and video games. After an introduction and presentation of the scientific context, in which we try to describe a number of practical problems relating to access to complex content, and the state of the art in this field, we present a selection of our works organised in four complementary parts, each corresponding to one or more of our application areas. The first part concerns specific user interfaces, allowing to make the most out of the specific modalities used by the visually impaired. The second part focuses on transmodal collaborative tools, that are tools allowing collaboration between people using different modalities  around the same content, in order to exchange, work or play together. The third part describes transcription tools that we developed for converting the content formatted for a given modality into alternative modalities. Finally in the fourth part, we present a reflection on accessible models of representation, that are models containing the information required for presenting content according to various modalities, thus able to operate specific and/or collaborative interfaces presented in the first two parts, when necessary using the transcription tools presented in the third part.
This study should be conducted in conjunction with current works on standards for representation of multimedia scenarios and school documents. In the field of video games we try to extend the results obtained in the TiM project about the study of gaming interaction and their adaptation to non-visual modalities, in order to propose a model of accessibility framework for creating games accessible to all; that are games that users of alternative modalities can use, even using specific game interfaces allowing to access the original game and control it effectively.

The memoir concludes with a short chapter entitled “Accessibility and Society” in which we discuss accessibility in French society today, and strengths and limitations of technological tools to help the idea of accessibility to progress. In all areas, Accessibility not only helps to improve the lives of people with disabilities, allowing them to perform independently acts which before would necessitate permanent support, but also to improve the lives each person, by a better adaptation of tools to people and available resources. It is obvious that the availability of such tools is not enough to make society more accessible, but they are necessary and we believe they may contribute.

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