I enjoy reading my print version of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser during breakfast, along with digital news from a variety of sources, including Civil Beat, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Print or online, I am one of the lucky ones who can see what’s being reported.

During the past three years, as part of my media accessibility research at the University of Hawaii Manoa, I have met and worked with many people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired. They often feel left out of important public discourse because they simply cannot access the same media materials as everyone else.

At the University of Hawaii, the School of Communications is collaborating with the Center on Disability Studies to improve audio description of media content. UH Center on Disability Studies

Close your eyes right now and attempt to finish this column. Unless you are listening on a screen reader, you can use that moment of darkness to get a sense of how visually oriented media is. With all of our emerging technological prowess as a society, we can do a much better job of inclusion.

Our UH research team – working across disciplines in a collaboration between the School of Communications and the Center on Disability Studies – is doing its part to improve audio description in a project I’ll describe in more detail later.

But first, some context. More than 20 million Americans have a visual disability, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. They also have countless family members, friends and colleagues who would welcome a chance to engage with them in discussions about common topics. Instead, too often, lack of media accessibility leads to isolation.

A consultant on our research team, Sina Bahram, who is blind, recommends two quick (and free) tests to determine if a website can be used reasonably well by people with visual disabilities: Tenon, to check ease of accessibility, and Nu, to check basic HTML structure, which allows screen readers to efficiently navigate a site by sound.

Civil Beat performs relatively well in such measures, passing 69 of 74 accessibility tests, with 13 notable issues, but also having 94 recognized HTML errors. StarAdvertiser.com had fewer HTML errors (79) but significantly more notable issues on the accessibility tests (528), including failing more than three times as many of them (17).

Visually impaired audience members, such as Bahram, have to endlessly wrangle with a poorly designed website as they use it (and every error is a potential show stopper). Not only does this require more time and create more frustration in audiences, just to get a moderately comparable experience, fixing these issues takes only a little more thought and a bit more work.

Having watched Bahram and many others around Honolulu listen to websites, and having toyed with screen readers myself, I can attest to how dramatically different media experiences can be for those who are blind or visually impaired.

In response, and to do our part, our research team is developing the UniD web tool as a way to both improve audio description and to produce more of it. Audio description is to blind people what closed captioning is to deaf people, a cross-modal translation of the visual into an audio-only and descriptive media form.

About 24,000 Hawaii residents are blind or visually impaired. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

While captioning has become pervasive across the country, audio description still hasn’t caught on. We hope to change that dynamic through the public release of our web tool later this summer, which allows anyone to describe just about anything (and then export that description as a text file, HTML or a mobile app). Give it a try. It’s free and open source.

This federally funded project has focused initially on audio describing National Park Service brochures – including at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Harry S Truman National Historic Site in Missouri and Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska – as a way to improve accessibility of those public resources.

Converting purely visual media – such as photos, illustrations and maps – to audio media has been quite a challenge. But we have developed a process and set of best practices to help, which we freely share via the UniD website.

We also have designed and built the tool to flexibly respond to all sorts of audio-description needs. I have used it, for example, to audio-describe videos and research presentations. At an upcoming conference workshop, I will demonstrate how it can make classroom materials more accessible as well, to not just visually impaired people but also to those who are print dyslexic or those who just prefer to learn through acoustic media.

I have not been able to find audio description of local news on any of the primary channels (KITV, KHON, HNN, Civil Beat, Star-Advertiser, etc.), but Hawaii is a national leader in this area of accessibility, becoming the first state in the country to require regular showings of audio-described films at movie theaters.

In an era in which media resources have been shrinking for most news organizations, some might think of accessibility as an “add-on,” with cost-benefit tallies that don’t pencil out.

I suggest a different perspective: Hawaii has about 24,000 people who are blind or visually impaired. Federal laws, such as Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, already demand equivalent access for them to public resources. In addition, we have inherent ethical, moral and economic motivations to be more inclusive with our media.

Most people who are blind were not born that way, and the risk of severe eye problems increases with age. While you or I might be able to pick up and read an analog newspaper today, without a need for audio description, that ability could deteriorate over time.

This argument is not for special treatment for people who are blind or visually impaired. It is simply to say that they deserve what we all deserve, equal and equivalent access to publicly circulating media materials.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.