Games for children who are blind – and everyone else

Tina Thomas has worked as an accessibility consultant for our parent company, The Julia Group, for many years. Today, she and I were reviewing our game design.

She uses JAWS for a screen reader . She also has an iPhone 6 plus that has accessibility software built-in at no extra cost. She also has an iPad, which, again, has accessibility options as part of the standard hardware. Now, as a professional with a graduate degree, access to and experience with a wide range of hardware and software, Tina isn’t the typical user. ( I’m not sure “typical” is a word that could be used to describe Tina in any context. In that picture below, she is the black belt in the middle with the silver medal.)

Tina at tournament

That’s good, though, because she is well aware of the possibilities for software design.

I’m a big proponent of universal design, that is, the concept that good design works well for people with disabilities AND everyone else. The usual example is curb cuts and ramps, advocated to make it easier for people using wheelchairs, are also a benefit to parents with strollers, anyone wheeling luggage, older adults with walkers, younger adults who are recovering from an injury. At the same time, they are usable by anyone walking down the street. A real universal design.

Watching Tina play some of her favorite games was fascinating. They were very far from universal design. A couple of them were just a grey box on the screen. She couldn’t see it anyway, so that was fine with her.  She’d throw the dice, and the computer would tell her the number. She’d draw a card and the computer would say which card it was.

Part of the problem, as Tina and I discussed, was that blind kids couldn’t play these games very well with other children. They could, but the sighted child probably wasn’t going to be that excited about a game that was just a grey box.

One technology Tina was enthusiastic about for our next design was the iPhone/ iPad accessibility features. First of all, unlike JAWS, which costs about $900, there is no extra cost for the iOS features. Second, the speech can be turned off by double tapping the iPhone.

So, if Tina and I were playing a game, she could double tap her phone, hand it to me and I could play the same game. With iOS, the apps have the same images on the screen, usable by sighted users, but when speech is turned on, the app name will be spoken when the user touches it.

As we work on design for our next game, I think I can make it accessible to blind children with some modifications that will either make no difference to sighted children or, in some cases, make it more fun for them.

For example, our alt tags, the things the computer reads when a screen reader encounters an image, will be very descriptive in some cases, but these won’t be noticed at all by people not using a screen reader.

Other modifications we talked about included sound effects that will make the game more fun for both blind and sighted children. When a boat hits a log, we have sound effects of actual boats hitting actual logs. When the player catches a fish, we have the sound of fish splashing in the water and then flopping on the deck of a boat.

There were other modifications that will be noticed by sighted children but I think they’ll be neutral about them. For example, we may lay out some of the game movement like a grid. The game board won’t look that different from a regular game board. In fact, we have our fabulous artist, Justin Flores, working on making it look super cool. A child could just use his or her finger or an arrow key to move the player.  Since it is laid out in a grid, a child who is using voice control can say, move two spaces forward and three spaces down.

Voice control can be used not just by a child who is blind, but by players who have physical disabilities – or just happen to have their hands full at the moment.

Universal design.





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