Focus Area: School Years
Topic: Access and Information Technologies
Visual Impairment Scotland
The Scottish Sensory Centre
The University of Edinburgh
Tel: +44 (0) 131 651 6078
The Internet, at its simplest, is a large number of computers all over the world all linked together. They are connected by a variety of “routers” and a backbone of huge fibre optic cables. There is no central control to the Internet and anyone can write ‘pages’ and add their information to it. Similarly anyone who has the right equipment, including the appropriate access software and hardware, can use it. There is a standard way of addressing pages on the Internet and various protocols must be followed to allow access on to the Internet. The computers pass information to each other and the information type can be words, pictures, video and sounds. As long as the information is addressed to the right computer then communication is complete.
Since its development in 1980’s the Internet has been a significant tool for people to access information and learn more about the world. Children can understand and use the technology required to access the Internet fluently and that language and formal education do not seem to make any significant difference. Mitra, Sugata; Rana, Vivek (2001) Through the Internet, digital communication can be used to promote literacy for poor and isolated children in all parts of the world Skurzynski, G (1999) The Internet allows us to explore our particular interests in a whole variety of ways. For the Internet is a medium that has broken down many barriers and borders.
Children are a growing band of users of the Internet and a survey of Internet-using children about their experiences with and perceptions of computer technology found that they valued the role of computers in their lives for entertainment, accomplishing goals, and becoming competent and empowered. They believed computers and the Internet improved their lives.
In March 2001 saw the launch of Visual Impairment Scotland, a new organisation that focuses on developing a new system of notifying children with a visual impairment. A significant component of Visual Impairment Scotland is to provide and maintain a centrally held register which will, in part, determine and monitor the causes of childhood visual impairment throughout Scotland.
In order to encourage parents to notify their children with Visual Impairment Scotland a website was developed specifically for children's needs. Research into what children wanted from a website took several months to complete. The range of topics that children wanted to read about took us by surprise and forced us to rewrite and evaluate our original plan. One aspect of the website that has been significantly used is the Parent's forum and the VISKIS safe and secure CHATROOM. This website now brings together visually impaired children all over Scotland, and allows them to talk to each other in an environment that is safe and easy to use.
What this paper does not do is to reiterate the important guidelines of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which can be found at http://www.w3.org/WAI/. However, this research was to determine what visually impaired children want from the Internet and will report the style of websites they prefer to view. It will also list the topics that children themselves requested to read about.
Several meetings were held with groups of young visually impaired children who were members of VISKIDS, (Visual Impairment’s Scotland’s Children’s Club) At these meetings a series of questions were asked and various children’s websites were demonstrated to determine their opinion on these websites. We were particularly interested in the overall style of the website and not necessary the content of them.
Once these meetings were complete a questionnaire was employed to determine what structure and format visually impaired children preferred to see on the Internet. The questions used were as a direct result from the previous meetings and from the results of the questionnaire it was hoped we could design a website that would hold the interest of children with a visual impairment.
The questionnaire was presented to the children in two ways.
Nineteen hard copies were sent to a set of different children (again members of VISKIDS) who had not attended any of the previous meetings. The questionnaire was also placed on the Internet and various organisations agreed to place ‘links’ to the survey so that the questionnaire was well advertised throughout the visual impairment community.
Finally emails were sent to visual impairment newsgroups listings and press releases were sent to three newsletters for inclusion.
Thirty-seven questionnaires were returned; eight hard copies and the remaining twenty-nine were Internet returns. However, of the twenty-nine Internet returns four had to be discarded as they were completed by people over the qualifying age of eighteen years old. This made a total of twenty-five usable returns.
The average age of children who completed the questionnaire was 11.2 years with a range of 7 years to 15 years old. 16 children were members of VISKIDS and nine were not. All of the respondents said they were visually impaired.
Question: How do you access the Internet?
With a Normal Brower (IE Explorer/Netscape/AOL)
As above except with a Screen Magnifier
With a Soft Braille Display eg “Voyager”
Over 88% of all the children accessed the Internet via a normal browser and the majority specified that they used Internet Explorer. Only one person said they used a screen reader web browser and two respondents relied that they used Internet Explorer but with a magnifier. No children reported that accessed the Internet via the soft Braille “Voyager” system.
Question: Do you change the pages that have background colours and graphics so that you can view them easily?
A = Yes 40%
B = No 40%
C = No Preference 20%
We can see a very clear split that almost half of the children who responded said they found it easy to view web pages’ original background colours and graphics and another 40% noted that they had difficulty in viewing the original pages.
A = Lots of images 40%
B = Not many images 32%
C = No Preference 28%
Over 40% said that they prefer to view websites that have a lot of images within them. If we include those ticked “C” then the number increases to 68%. However, we are not sure if those that replied ‘C’ did so because they were so visually impaired that they could not see the images anyway so adding more or less images does not make a difference or they had ticked “C” because their vision was sufficient so that they could see more images being displayed on the webpage
Question: Do you like ‘links’ to appear in popup windows or inside the current page?
Pop up Windows 29%
Inside Current Page 25%
No Preference 46%
It is interesting to note from figure four that the majority of children do not have any preference for links to be connected into current pages or for pop ups. It is often thought that children do not like popup windows when pressing a hypertext link. However, it seems that our sample really has no preference.
Question: Do you like websites that use frames?
Like Frames 28%
Dislike Frames 28%
No Preference 44%
The responses to this question were quite interesting. We see that 44% of those responded said that they did not have any preference for websites that have frames or no frames and that 22% said that they actually preferred framed websites. This suggests that if a viewer came across a website that had frames it would not put them off reading it or make them go elsewhere for the information they seek. This is quite a surprising result as it is recognised that frames should not be included into the design of websites for visually impaired people.
Question: Do you use the “ Make Text Bigger” option in your browser?
You can alter the size of text on a website by telling your web browser how to view the text size. This can be done by going into the VIEW menu on the browser and then TEXT SIZE and then choosing the text size you wish to view the document.
Over 70% of all children who responded said they altered the text size of the web pages they were reading. Four respondents also noted that when they come across a site they have difficulty in reading they will alter the text size for that site only and when they leave that size they will reduce the size of text again, so that it appears “normal” to the rest of the children the classroom.
Question: Do you like flashing images and/or moving java(script) on websites?
Although the children reported that they like to see images on websites they do not like the images to move. Nor are they keen to see lots of text or other moving parts on the website and many reported that they find this very difficult to read and also very distracting. One child reported that as soon as he discovers moving objects on a site he closes the browser down.
Question: Do you like audio (a real persons voice) on web pages or do prefer a screen reader to ‘read’ the pages?
Screen Reader 18%
Here we see a strong preference for children to hear real voices on websites, rather than use a screen reader. Real voice audio is natural and a screen reader produces artificial voices, which after a long period of time can be irritating. The children reported that they did not care what format the audio was in eg Real Player or Windows Media but that they just wanted a real voice audio version.
Question: Do you like videos on websites?
Likes video = 32%
Does not like video = 36%
No Preference = 32%
Videos on websites do not appear to be as important as audio. There was a wide spread of voting. Four children who expressed a preference to video on websites explain that they preferred to have video as most video now comes with an speech or an audio file, so although they may not be able to see the video they can at least listen to it.
This was the biggest result by far. Most of the children wanted a chatroom so that they could talk to other children. Over half of the children also noted that they already use chatrooms and find them “excellent” as they can be “anyone they want to be”. When the children were asked about whether they said they were visually impaired in the chatrooms over half said they did not declare themselves to be visually impaired and never talked about it.
Again, most of the children wanted email penpals so that they could talk to other children. The children noted that any form of communication between other children on the web was a significant factor. When asked about security over half of the children mentioned that security is a feature but if the website was not secure it would not put them off using it.
Table 1: A short example list of the child respondent’s favourite websites
Question: What do you commonly search for on the Internet
Table 2 below shows what our respondents most commonly searched for.
Table 2. Most Common Search Topics (in order) by Visually Impaired Children.
Question: How do you rate http:www.viscotland.org.uk
From discussion with visually impaired children we designed a website that was for both parents with a visually impaired child as well as for parents. For self evaluation purposes we asked our respondents what they thought of our website and how it could be improved.
Figure one shows the children’s evaluation to our website. Most children rated the website as excellent or very good. The children commented upon that they wanted to see more puzzles and games on the website.
Figure one: The Evaluation of www.viscotland.org.uk
The Internet can offer young children developmentally appropriate learning opportunities Gerzog, Elissa H.; Haugland, Susan W. (1999) and the same applies to visually impaired children. However, important care must be made into the design of the website, otherwise children with a visual impairment may be excluded. For example, from this research, various additions can be made to Web Accessibility Initiative. These additions are as follows.
1) Put Audio on your website.
The Web Accessibility Initiative states
“…………this does not mean creating a prerecorded audio version of an entire site to make it accessible to users who are blind. Users who are blind can use screen reader technology to render all text information in a page.”
This current research disagrees with this. Children with a visual impiarment have different needs to those adults with a visual impairment. Unless screen reader technology advances, children prefer to listen to natual vocies and not to the artifical ones generated by a screen reader. Therefore if you make websited designed for visually impaired chidlren, put the whole website in an audio file.
2) Images, text and background images
This research also suggests that as website designers we should not be overly concerned about putting images on websites. As long as the images are properly marked and are not flashing or moving about then include them. If one is to design a site with content relevant for children with a visual impairment then images play an important part to hold their attention. A child reported in discussion that he finds most sites that are dedicated to visual impairment “really boring” and no longer accessing those sites and as a result he could be missing out on important information. Try to design sites where if the text becomes bigger the layout of the site is not too distorted. The easiest way to achieve this is to at source enlarge the text on the pages themselves. Do not use background images.
3) Interactivity with other children and
This research suggests that interactivity with other children is the main feature that children with a visual impairment want from a website. These children want to speak to other children.
The Internet is playing a valuable tool in the social and educational development of children. It is a tool, (after some adjustment), that is equally available to the visually impaired child. As educators, researchers, carers we must encourage Internet use amongst this particular group of people and as web designers we must ensure that our websites are interesting, relevant and have been designed with the client group in mind.
A note from the author.
Details of each respondent’s visual impairment were not taken. As some of the questionnaires were Internet based only, I felt it was not appropriate to ask personal information, as the server was not secure. I also have no guarantee that all answers were made from ‘genuine’ children with a visual impairment. However, the next phase of research will investigate Internet use, websites accessed and degrees of visual impairment using secure and password based servers.
Gerzog, Elissa H.; Haugland, Susan W. (1999). Web Sites Provide Unique Learning Opportunities for Young Children. Computers and Young Children.
Early Childhood Education Journal; v27 n2 p109-14
Mitra, Sugata; Rana, Vivek (2001) Children and the Internet: Experiments with Minimally Invasive Education in India.
British Journal of Educational Technology; v32 n2 p221-32.
Skurzynski, G (1999) It's a Wired World after All: Children, Books, and the Internet. Theory into Practice; v38 n3 p178-83
 What Children Think about Computers.
Future of Children; v10 n2 p186-91 Fall-Win 2000
 Braille, Audio, and Large Print copies were sent depending on need
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