Flash upgrade improves Web site accessibility

Macromedia Monday unveiled new versions of its Flash multimedia player and authoring software that work with screen readers, a move that Web site accessibility advocates say is a boon to disabled users of the Internet.

The software, which will be available March 15, supports Microsoft Corp.'s Active Accessibility (MSAA), a standard interface for enabling assistive devices such as screen readers to work with Windows-based applications. Developers can use Macromedia's latest software to retrofit existing Flash content to support screen readers as well as create new accessible Flash content. Screen readers are devices for visually impaired Web users that provide voice output for text displayed on a computer screen and keystrokes entered on a keyboard.

Macromedia's release of Flash Player 6 and Flash MX is good news for public-sector network executives, who are scrambling to meet new rules regarding Web site accessibility. The federal government's Section 508 rules require agencies and their contractors to ensure that users of assistive devices can navigate their Web sites or face penalties and potential lawsuits.

The U.S. government's new Section 508 rules went into effect last summer, but similar regulations are cropping up in other markets such as Canada and Europe. Therefore, a growing number of multinational companies are starting to grapple with Web site accessibility.

"Section 508 has effects far beyond the U.S. government," says Bob Regan, accessibility product manager at Macromedia. "We're seeing similar requirements all over the world. The entire European Union adopted similar rules in December."

Earlier versions of Macromedia's Flash player and authoring tools did not work with assistive devices like screen readers. So developers concerned with Web site accessibility had to use regular HTML content instead of multimedia tools like Flash.

Now Flash MX has a new panel that makes it easier for developers to provide descriptive text alternatives for graphic elements, such as animations created in Flash. Developers can create a single text equivalent for a Flash animation, and they can make sure the text equivalents are not repetitive for users of screen readers.

The Flash Player 6 allows users of screen readers to activate buttons and navigate to places on the Web where they couldn't go before - a major change given that an estimated 25 percent of Web sites use Flash content, according to Macromedia. Sony Corp. Classical, Bose Corp. and E-Trade Group Inc. are among the companies that use Flash content on their Web sites.

Flash Player 6 works with only one screen reader, however, GW Micro's Window-Eyes. Due to its support for Microsoft's accessibility standard, Flash Player 6 doesn't work with JAWS for Windows, the other major screen reader on the market.

The Macromedia offerings are significant despite this limitation, says Andrew Kirkpatrick, a Web accessibility specialist with the National Center for Accessible Media.

"It's a very positive step in the right direction," Kirkpatrick says. "In a perfect world, a solution would come up that works with all the screen readers and is easy for developers. But unfortunately, we're not in that world."

Kirkpatrick has been testing the new Flash tools for the last few months and says they represent "an exciting change from the past. Before, if you had a Flash presentation on a page, nothing could read it. Now someone with a screen reader can access that content."

Macromedia may have a leg up on other multimedia companies with the new accessibility features of Flash. For example, Apple Computer Inc.'s QuickTime software and RealNetworks Inc.'s RealPlayer both allow developers to add accessible captions to multimedia presentations but they don't allow users to navigate into the presentations as Flash does.

"All multimedia players have problems with accessibility on the Web," Kirkpatrick says. "It would be great if we could get all the other multimedia players to expose information to screen readers like Flash does."

Indeed, Macromedia may open up a whole new market for Flash. Government Webmasters "haven't thought about using Flash because of accessibility concerns," Regan says.

In addition to improvements in accessibility, Flash Player 6 features native video and the ability to load MP3 and JPEG files. The Flash MX authoring tool boasts a new scripting language based on Java, faster XML data transfers and support for the Unicode standard used in multilingual applications.

Flash Player 6 is a free download, while Flash MX sells for $499.

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