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When animation is an accessibility issue

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Imagine entering a house with an endless series of doors and hallways. Behind some of these doors are the most delicious things imaginable: feasts straight out of redwall, unicorns, an endless supply of scenic views and unionized workplaces. Behind other doors, however, are grotesque, terrifying jack-in-the-boxes that erupt as soon as you open the door, exploding to fill the entire frame, swinging lasciviously on rusty springs like a creaking song and vaguely Circus themed. rooms.

That’s what internet browsing is to me. Every time I click on a link, I have to wonder if it’s going to be Bozo the Clown or something delightful and captivating that I’ll be glad I came across.

We all find the internet stimulating, but I find it extremely stimulating, especially when it comes to animated and moving content – ​​and not in a good way. Something in the wiring of my brain makes it difficult to process repetitive animations or motions, like the turn signal you left on for the last three miles, turning it into an accessibility issue: A website with animated content is difficult and sometimes impossible to use because movement becomes all I can think of.

I’ve never come across digital animation that I liked, and their use is only increasing. GIFs, of course, but also cute little ornamental doodles that you probably won’t notice. The weirdly sickening loop of the Boomerang effect on Instagram. Back in vogue giant animated cursors chasing you. The video autoplays, of course, especially when it follows you down the page. Flashing ads, the eternal bane of our collective internet existence. Parallax scrolling for all your sexy data visualization needs and prestige immersive features. Bouncing menus that wiggle to grab your attention. The little “loading” animation at the edge of a background tab.

We are surrounded by a changing world and I would like to get out of it.

No medical professional (neurological, ophthalmological or otherwise) has been able to adequately explain or address what my brain does when it encounters animations. Yet I constantly navigate around in the desperate desire to avoid them – dodging Zooms when people start running animations on their PowerPoints, using all the ads, images and element blockers known to man and a few others, s’ militantly opposing even a whiff of animation on any project where I have a creative input. Sometimes it feels like a losing battle, once someone added an “under construction” to their GeoCities site in the 1990s.

Honestly, it’s not a fun place to be, and it’s not because I don’t like having to approach the internet like a minefield. It’s because I know the internet loves animation and uses it in incredibly creative ways that go beyond Steve Wilhite’s wildest dreams (even if he mispronounced GIF). They have become an entire communication syntax; many dunks under a proportionate tweet consist of a single GIF. Animation can also both enrich and simplify the display of data. It’s a culture I want to participate in and also one I don’t want to belittle.

I can block anything ending in .gif, but that usually makes the buttons inoperative. I can load a site without styles, but usually the result is not very pleasant to use. I can block ads, but then that robs the beautiful websites I like to read (and write for) of revenue. There is, of course, a way to bridge this gap, and oddly one of my allies is Twitter, which has landed a decisive blow by allowing users to freeze autoplay on all moving content, including GIFs. Users who like them can publish them; users who don’t just see a still image. What’s good for reducing server load is also good for case exceptions such as mine.


Access issues like these are weird, in several senses of the word. If someone explains that certain animations at certain frame rates or with flickering features can cause seizures, people have a frame of reference. This doesn’t always mean they will respect the risk, but it does mean they understand it. When I say that animations in general at all levels are “incredibly disruptive”, it frankly sounds like nonsense. If you read and think, It seems exaggerated and I don’t believe it, you are not the first. Like other unusual access needs, animation sensitivity tends to be rejected or denied because: Come on, who can’t handle a little animated GIF? Are you seriously telling me that self-refreshing content can make you scream? I bet you watch TV, what do you have to say about it? (I can do small screens at home; in movie theaters, it’s overwhelming.)

It’s a familiar feeling to other people with disabilities who have “strange” access issues. Some people with ADHD, as well as some autistic people, like to wear headphones almost everywhere they go and listen to music to focus. People with severe chemical sensitivities may not be able to enter older buildings, stores that stock heavily scented products, or structures with new carpeting and paint. Migraineurs may not be able to work in bright environments or use screens. Someone with severe anxiety might need a disability plate for their car so they can get in and out of businesses faster.

It’s not just animated content. The internet and the world in general have a huge accessibility problem and people tend to think that following documented standards (and sometimes using questionable third-party tools) will fix this problem, when, like my case the illustrates clearly, no single documentation can cover all possible scenarios. . Access requires conversation with the disability community. No place can be everything for everyone and any series of design choices will result in inaccessibility for a number of users, with people giving conflicting feedback during the discovery phase. Unfortunately, there is no checklist for solving this problem, and accessibility is something that is constantly evolving and changing. However, it also offers some interesting opportunities, a chance to design something really unique and interesting that stands out and shows that access is beautiful, not just practical. As dance company Kinetic Light exemplifies with stunning performances that actively incorporate access tools such as ramps and wheelchairs along with audio description as part of the work, access can be art.

When it comes to web access, there are two approaches, starting with functional tools that we can use to configure the internet to suit our needs while other users can “enjoy” the horrors you visit them. Another is to think about the user experience more creatively and comprehensively. I’m not the only one struggling with parallax scrolling, for example, and not just because it moves in an unsettling way. It can also be difficult for screen readers to work with, especially when used for something like graphics-intensive data display. Other people find it boring, which seems fair. Could there be a simple or clean alternative version of the same data, presented with the same care? Could you build trust with users with disabilities to encourage them to collaborate with you? Rather than viewing access as an imposition that restricts your options, view it as an invitation to think outside the box.

Developers make decisions about how inaccessibility might manifest and how it might be mitigated. You could warn me there’s an access issue coming up, but what if there’s something cool in there? You can just mitigate the problem by giving me more control over him, letting me decide if, how, and when I want to interact with him. As an adult, I can and want to make my own decisions.

In truth, that’s all I and many other internet users with disabilities want: to be inside, for once.