Sunday, April 10, 2011

Renarrating the Web

Alipi is a Web accessibility project with a difference: it allows users to renarrate the Web, explaining Web content in ways that are more relevant and accessible for print-impaired communities. You can see a demonstration here.

Briefly, though, it might mean turning this:

(English narration of fire safety precautions.)
Into this:

(Hindi narration of fire safety precautions. As well as a section of text being changed from English to Hindi, the image of a fire truck has been changed.)

Or this:

(Kannada narration of fire safety precautions. As well as a section of the text being changed to Kannada, the picture of a fire truck has been changed.)
Most Web accessibility projects aim to change the form of websites, for example by making the text bigger, adding text-to-speech capabilities, or adding captions to images. These projects are valuable and important, and help to make the Web more diverse by allowing people with disabilities to participate and contribute. In India the challenge is slightly different.

The population here, as in the West, includes a significant proportion of people who are not able to use sites that have not been designed with accessibility in mind. However, a far greater proportion of those excluded cannot access the Web for other reasons: because they don't have the economic resources, or because they can't read, or can't read English, and there are few sites available in their first language.

Alipi addresses this latter part of problem. The project allows users to reinterpret content in ways that are relevant to their community, changing the content as well as the form. As well as providing translations in text or audio, users can add commentary and bring attention to parts of a site that are particularly important to their communities.


  1. Hi Sky,

    Coming from a strictly disability access perspective, I have been unhappy about this melding since TBD first talked to me about this.

    There's plenty of misinformation around issues of electronic accessibility for people with disabilities and I feel like this adds to them, as it brings together two groups of people for whom the "solution", from a technical perspective might be similar, but the needs are completely different. Issues of "print-impairment" are really issues of localization, and need to be addressed from that perspective, with the prior knowledge that has been built up within that domain.

    From an advocacy perspective, it's very difficult to talk to businesses/governments if the perceived costs of accessibility are much higher than they actually are -- and I have had *many* discussions with the (Indian) government where actual questions were "It's too expensive to hire someone to read out our entire website" -- or "it's too expensive to have someone translate our website into every possible accessible format" etc.

    Apart from this minor quibble, I am interested in seeing how things go with Alipi and look forward to the code.

    - Rahul.

  2. Hi Rahul,

    Thank you for taking the time to read this and respond. I'm still learning and the project and how I might contribute to it, so this is really valuable feedback for me.

    Just to be clear, is what you're saying here that you'd be comfortable with the project if it was framed as a "localisation project" rather than an "accessibility project"?

    All the best,

  3. Rahul,

    How do we talk about how Web-pages can be accessed by people without text to start with?

    Imagine a set of people who cannot read but are Web-savvy (read: "well read") who you can converse with, like with your Web-savvy friends. From what I can visualize, the set is likely to be those with visual impairment, who would be comfortable browsing the Web - thanks to the accessibility guidelines for Web-pages and tools like screen readers.

    To a large extent, we can argue that this set need not have learnt to parse text at all. If you agree, you will see that the visually-impaired are a specialized sub-category of print-impaired i.e., those that happen to have eyes but are to be categorized as blind when it comes to Web-pages (for example), as the available tools for them are same as for the visually-impaired (screen readers with page navigation aids).

    Now say, we can separate concerns of the screen reading aspects from the navigation aids. Then, we can see that the assistive aspect of these could be customized to these two user profiles: navigation aids kick in if you are visually impaired but if you have eyes then you can mouse your heart around *provided* the screen reader kicks in when there is something of interest. This modularization of assitive tools would work well if the page authoring guidelines are re-visited with this generalized need/functionality in mind. And not surprisingly the visually impaired sub-category will have at least as good of a usability experience as earlier, but likely to be better.

    This is the genesis of *Accessibility* for Print-impaired. And this is why its about accessibility. However, the separation of concerns lead to the re-narration Web ( and ) that seems to confuse the "Accessibility work force" by bringing together the peoples with no-eyes with those with brown-eyes among the blue-eyed.

    These days, we do not a-priori introduce this as an Accessibility issue, until someone asks as to how it is, ever since we realized a vast amount of time in various brain-storming meeting with Accessibility experts went in to wood-chucking. Thanks for asking as now I got to explain it to you.

    Finally, re costs of advocacy, this approach we think helps and not burdens. And hopefully "accessibility" advocacy with go stronger (and with a wider group of people being part of the target) by seeing this as a possible way forward (re: solutions).