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Adapting Video for VI Learners

Video and learning

Communication is changing. In less than a century, the most pervasive way to pass information has shifted from print, through radio transmitted voice, to video. We are re-embracing an ancient personal, story-telling form, but with very powerful technical enhancements to our oral tradition at both the extremes of pure fantasy and of recorded reality.

First Film, and then Television have changed the way we expect to be entertained, informed, and (increasingly) taught. And the huge and ever-expanding visual archive is now being made available in many other, much more personally controllable ways: Video Tape, Video-disk and its daughter Digital Video Disk (DVD), Multimedia CD-ROMs, as part of interactive Computer-Based Learning, and lately through the Internet.

Teaching makes use of the best materials and methods it can, and the educational uses of video in all its forms are expanding rapidly. The problem is that not all pupils and students can make use of it.

Every new technology redefines disability and disadvantage. Early telephones isolated the deaf community whilst connecting the rest of us. Impairments which mattered little in farming communities now separate those who write from those who can't handle a pen or operate a keyboard. Visually Impaired and Blind students face particular problems with Video resources.

A surprising proportion of totally blind people use television, following screen action through commentary, dialogue and sound. But many more people have visual impairments (VI) than are totally blind; in this VI population as a whole, the use of TV and video is as common as in the rest of the population.

You might therefore expect that VI students would use video resources in their courses. Indeed they do, but not perhaps as often or as effectively as they might. Sometimes this is simply because they have not been offered: teachers understandably worry about asking too much of their students. They may not be aware of how even mainstream broadcasts are now being tailored to meet the needs of VI viewers. Sometimes it is because viewing conditions aren't helpful, and sometimes programme designers have not been sensitive to special needs within their potential audience.

Who should care?

Up to now, video facilities for disabled viewers have been determined mainly by popular TV broadcast services. Their current agenda doesn't much help educators who want to produce off-air learning videos. Adult education programmes rank poorly in surveys investigating VI access to broadcast TV. This isn't surprising given that domestic consumers are the groups primarily targeted in market research, and that broadcasters' interest is understandably in entertainment. However, the unfortunate result is that educational issues which might have been discussed - like the need to record broadcasts with supplementary material intact, or what interactivity might mean in learning rather than shopping or programme selection scenarios - have so far been largely ignored (at least in Europe).

Nonetheless, we can imply from viewers' interest in news, documentaries, nature programmes, and gardening and cookery features, that 'education' markets are in fact broader than the surveys indicate. We believe that the makers of such programmes will push to exploit interactivity in more innovative ways, which in turn will alter the balance of the supplementary information agenda.

Many pressures are placed on educational systems, but change only comes about when people make informed, realistic demands. So that VI students can present their needs and negotiate solutions in a way which will help their teachers meet them, they should know what is achievable now in video and multimedia, what is coming, and what it costs. In their turn, teachers and lecturers are the front-line agents of change, responsible for negotiating for resources for their students, and for making them work. They too need to be aware of what is possible. Finally, although teachers and learners can set up better conditions for using video, only video and multimedia programme producers can build in better access.


We have several aims.

  • One is to raise awareness of the range of problems facing VI students and their teaching staff - the precondition for better resources and more sensitive design of materials.
  • Another is to suggest ways of improving teaching and learning where video is used. We offer help in recognising individual difficulties, and suggest how to alleviate them.
  • We also want to promote the development of better next-generation video resources which are inherently more accessible than current offerings.


We can suggest several possible ways which can help VI students use video:

  • some may help to make existing materials more accessible. Our advice file covers recognising learners' problems; selecting materials; choosing equipment; getting the viewing environment right; when supplementary materials might help, and what these might be. We offer both general advice, and suggestions related to specific visual problems.
  • some are techniques for enhancing existing video. Where you have the resources, and copyright permitting, you can consider adding supplementary material, or slightly reworking the video resources themselves.
  • some must be designed into new packages. New technologies offer new opportunities, but you need to prepare in advance. We offer some suggestions to video producers about how they can improve the accessibility of upcoming learning resources; how to take into account VI-specific enhancements such as audio subtitling; and how to make best use of emerging multi-channel systems such as digital television and video rich multimedia.

We don't aim to provide a comprehensive reference work: the numbers of topics are too wide for that. There are many public resources about video, visual impairment, special education, and other issues we touch on here, and we provide links to these in our reference section, which also includes summaries of advice.

Design of these pages

We chose to make this an active document so that we could simulate some of the video effects we will be discussing - a choice which has brought home to us the producers dilemma.

Since these pages are for a mixed audience, we have avoided the temptations of exotic page design, and gone for a simple format which lends itself to legible display at several screen resolutions, font sizes, and colour depths. Where a video or graphic is displayed, there is an alternative text description. Finally, for those VI students using screen readers, font enlargers, or speech synthesisers we provide a text - accessible version of those pages which have very heavy pictorial content or which use graphics for navigation.

We also had another goal, which was to make the pages easier to print. We therefore avoid too many in-page navigation icons in the non-text version.

The result is rather plain: the dilemma being that designing material for VI audiences constrains freedom to use text, graphic and animation effects which enhance mainstream audiences' experiences and help keep them engaged. Although web page design issues are related to those of video (especially when video clips are embedded in multimedia), we can only touch on them here. For a little more, see web page design for mixed audiences.

Authors and contacts

Marianna Buultjens, Scottish Sensory Centre

Heather Mason, Birmingham University

Phil Odor, University of Edinburgh