Thea Eaton is an Adobe Certified Flash Designer who founded Snert Studios , a Flash studio that focuses on accessible, educational entertainment for children. Her mission is to prove that Flash activities can be made fun, interactive and accessible at the same time.
ABILITY Magazine: Why ‘Snert’ Studios?
Thea Eaton: I am originally from Holland, and ‘Snert’ is a Dutch word for a type of pea soup. Since all the work we do is for children, we wanted to represent ourselves with a short and funny word that kids would like.
AM: What does Snert Studios do?
TE: We work on Flash edutainment and animations for Pre-K–12. We specialize in building full kids’ sites and animated Flash games that have an instructionally sound design. Educational Flash content usually gets put in a separate text file for accessibility, but this takes away from the learning experience and does not provide true equal access. In our mission to change this, we have come up with new ways to make Flash activities accessible that were usually written off as ‘inaccessible,’ such as jigsaw puzzles and coloring pages.
AM: How can you make Flash accessible?
TE: You can program Flash to become accessible to screen readers, just like HTML content. Text in dynamic text boxes is read by a screen reader and you can program Alt text for images and movie clips in Flash. The problem is that the screen reader often ‘refreshes’ when Flash content changes. This makes programming Flash that is interactive very difficult. Whenever the screen refreshes, the screen reader re-starts from the beginning and the user loses his or her place in the game. Screen readers also come with a learning curve, so younger users with low vision may not know how to use one yet. This is often overlooked. For these reasons, we have started to make Flash activities self-voicing. Flash has always had a bad reputation in the accessibility world, when in fact, with a little understanding and insight, it can produce some of the most accessible content out there.
AM: How does self-voicing work?
TE: An application is self-voicing when it relies on system-level voices, rather than an external tool—like a screen reader—to read the content. This is done by adding pre-recorded audio for visual descriptions and button rollovers. Because screen readers only work when the Flash content is within a browser, self-voicing is a great solution for stand-alone Flash executables, like CD-ROM content and kiosk applications. Most Flash games for younger kids already come with a lot of audio, and are usually made up of a few game screens, so there is little to add to make these activities self-voicing. Younger children also prefer hearing the voice of actors instead of the mechanical screen reader voice. Voice actors give a game that extra dimension where images can’t for some users. An example of this is one of our Egyptian history games about Tutankhamen, or King ‘Tut.’ For the self-voicing audio, we chose a voice that sounded like a British explorer. The explorer’s voice made the self-voicing audio part of the experience.
AM: Could you give an example of a self-voicing activity?
TE: An example of an accessible game is our popular Whack-a-vole game. Like the traditional Whack-a-mole, you try to hit with the mouse as many voles that pop out of their holes as possible. This is a challenging game to make accessible because it requires the use of a mouse and the ability to visually see where the voles are pop
ping up. Since users with disabilities affecting either mobility or vision might not be able to use the mouse, we have made the activity accessible by using the keyboard. The user can also use the Tab key to tab from hole to hole, and press Enter to ‘whack’ a vole. For users with low vision, we have added audio cues that say ‘hole’ when there is no vole visible, and ‘vole!’ when one has popped up. The challenge is trying to hit the voles by tabbing through the holes. When the user tabs, the time between the voles popping up slows down, which gives the user enough time to find the voles and hit them. Since the word ‘hole’ and ‘vole’ sound alike, it is more fun and challenging to find the ‘vole’. It’s almost more fun than playing it with the mouse!
AM: How much does it cost to make an activity selfvoicing?
TE: If you would ask a client, “Do you think these games should be usable?” they will most always say “Of course!” But when you ask them, “Should we make these games accessible?” the answer is likely to be either “No” or “How much does that cost?” We are templating our accessible activities as much as possible to make the solutions more affordable. We want accessibility to be taken as an “Of course!” instead of a “How much?” We are user-testing new templates to ensure that they are fun and usable for the target age groups. Now that we have templates in place, we can already limit the price of accessibility to only the extra audio needed. In the future, we hope to offer the accessible version for the same price.
AM: What kind of projects are you currently working on?
TE: We are working on an accessible Flash kids’ site for the U.S. Census Bureau with Mindshare Interactive Campaigns. This site will have accessible coloring pages and word-find games. We are also working on new templates for accessible action games. In these games we are experimenting with sound as spatial indicators of where items are in an action game. The Texas Department of Transportation and its agency, EnviroMedia, have selected Go9Media and Snert to revamp the site for Don’t Mess with Texas. We will be working on a new microsite, targeting 6-9 year olds with their litter-prevention message. It will include Flash action games that will be fully accessible. Hopefully this site will set a great example and show that Flash can be interactive, fun and accessible at the same time!