Accessible Design for the Deaf

March 7, 2006

Topics: Accessibility, Web Development, Web standards.

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.

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2 Comments to “Accessible Design for the Deaf”

  1. I am deaf and I know we demand signers etc

    We have put ourselves into a Schizophrenic position by appearing to demand for signers. In reality it is just a political tool used for positioning get ourselves jobs and create more for the sign language industy by a minority of activists.

    As a native signer its a medium that doesnt lend itself to the web

    We are now increasingly digitally disenfranchised and lagging behind the mainstream as people in in the web & media industries have played far more superior politics as deaf people dont know what they want and this gives people in real power an excuse not to do anything.

    Subtitles are the only suitable medium and its ridiculous that in 2010 there is a lack of subtitles on you tube and news media websites.

    Its a very dangerous position we are in and I wish deaf people would wake up! and invest in more voice recognition technology that can be carried on hand on iphones, gizmos rather than relying on an interpreter that is most likely hearing and making money out of this Deaf Culture industry.

  2. Great article! The most pressing problem a deaf might encounter as a barrier in accessing sites are those with videos. Without incorporating closed captions in those uploaded videos, these would always pose as an accessibility problem for the deaf. 🙂