The most well-known and thoroughly discussed accessibility techniques make websites more accessible for the blind and partially-sighted. After that, the discussion usually strays into mobile devices or learning disabilities. The deaf tend to get much less attention.
One might imagine that the deaf don’t really suffer from web accessibility problems. They can see the images, use a mouse, navigate the site just fine. Right?
Well, it depends. Those who are deaf from birth may not actually read written english very well. It’s not that they are illiterate – it’s simply that they have learned sign language as their first language. Sign language appears in many forms – British Sign Language, American Sign Language or Gestuno, the International Sign Language amongst many others. Each sign language has its own characteristics of grammar and interpretation, and they don’t necessarily correspond to the so-called "native language" of the signer.
But making a website accessible to this level is very difficult. It’s a lot of work, and it’s expensive. Sign language requires human sign interpreters – for a website, the production of a video which conveys the text. Creating alternate forms of content is a constant task for most websites. The thought of creating a new video everytime you edit your text is enormous!
There’s a sign-language services company, SignPost, which is working on producing signed video for websites. Their CEO was interviewed
on vnunet.com discussing their aims with this new product. Their technique is a lower-bandwidth video to convey signed texts. The technique is fine, but the expense and challenge may well continue to act as a significant barrier.
Accessibility for the deaf is clearly a bigger problem than that for the blind – until we can design a tool which performs an equivalent task to a screen reader for the deaf, it’s unlikely that sites will really become fully accessible.
Nonetheless, there are basic things we can do to assist. The same techniques which are used to help the learning disabled can help the deaf (or the illiterate!) – graphic indicators to show purpose and other visual aids can support their understanding of the material. The simplest aid can be providing an option for the deaf to specify their use of a TDD (also known as TTY) phone. This simple option added to a contact form can greatly help the deaf in making human contact through the web.