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Adapting Video for VI Learners

Marianna Buultjens, Phil Odor, Heather L. Mason

This project is about how video material used in schools, colleges and universities can be made more accessible to students with visual impairment. By 'video' we mean broadcast TV, multi-media, WWW - anything with moving graphics or images. We are bombarded by this material whether in our own home, through TV programmes or adverts, and at study and work through multi-media and videos used as part of educational programmes and courses. Film, graphics and text have become fluid and interactive and so problems for those with a variety of sight impairments have multiplied. We wanted to know what problems are posed for students with visual impairment (VI), and whether the power behind these technological advances can also be harnessed to solve some of the problems it has created? The team began with a survey of students and teachers to find from them what their current experiences are. At the same time we investigated current and future technical developments which might offer solutions or enhancements.


Let us start with the problems currently experienced. To test our ideas about what these might be, we approached as a broad range of students with VI and their teachers as we could. We used questionnaires which asked students and teachers about visual problems, courses, and the use of video and its associated difficulties. These were distributed in large print, braille, audio and PC/Mac/Internet formats. 19 teachers/lecturers throughout the UK had agreed to pass our questionnaires onto their students and we were pleased to receive 49 completed returns of what was a lengthy and detailed questionnaire. The age-range was from 16 to 30 plus. The students were from upper secondary school, Further Education colleges and universities and 20 were female and 29 male.

Table 1 shows the range of causes of VI reported to us. They are representative of the range of eye conditions in the UK, both congenital and acquired, and affecting all the visual functions. Four respondents are totally blind and the most frequently reported condition is Retinitis Pigmentosa. This was well-represented in the over 30 age group, and may, perhaps, be due to people retraining because of progressive sight loss.

Albinism                                        2    
Blockage of optic nerve                         1    
Cataract                                        2    
Congenital abnormality of retinal development   1    
Diabetic Retinopathy                            2    
Glaucoma                                        2    
Lack of cones                                   1    
Leber's Disease                                 1    
Low Vision                                      3    
Low Vision with glaucoma                        1    
Nystagmus                                       2    
Optic atrophy                                   2    
Retinal aplasia                                 3    
Retinitis Pigmentosa                            9    
Retinitis Pigmentosa & macular degeneration     1    
Retinopathy of Prematurity                      2    
Secondary glaucoma,uveitis,corneal oedema       1    
Total blindness                                 4    
Table 1

Although only 22 of the 49 students used video material in their courses, less than 50%, there was a high response rate across all respondents on most of the questions about accessibility and viewing problems, showing that students were using their experience from other areas of their lives for this. In answer to a question on general visual accessibility only seven said video was not accessible to them.

In order to get a better idea of what might be causing problems of accessibility we asked the students to identify from a list we provided what made viewing difficult for them (Table 2). As was to be expected the difficulties varied according to the effect or extent of an individual's impairment. Those features of video reported most often as being either impossible or difficult were, in order of frequency: text, glare, fine detail and speed of action. We also asked for any other problems experienced. Only one student (who happens to be totally blind) replied, pointing up difficulties caused by subtitles in foreign language videos and non-verbalised information such as text displays of telephone numbers or addresses.

Difficulties                Impossible    Difficult    
Whole Screen                    13            19    
Fine Details                    16            23    
Foreground/Background           13            19    
Colours                         14            16    
Moving objects                  14            17    
Static objects                  13             9    
Text                            18            23    
Glare                           13            24    
Speed                           11            25    
Table 2

We asked the students to identify, from a range of relatively lo-tec strategies, those which they had found useful. Sitting nearer the monitor or having someone explain were by far the most popular choices (Table 3). We also asked for other suggestions, particularly from those who use video for self study (9 of the 49). Two suggestions given were original in more senses than one - "Large TV in dark room" and "Imagination".

                    Useful technique    Not useful
Sit nearer monitor          28              19
Neighbour explains          24              21
Script preview              10              25
Private viewing             12              30
Explanatory notes           17              21
Large screen                11              27
Slow motion                 13              26
High contrast images        12              25
Zoom                        16              23
Table 3

Considering the causes of visual impairment among our respondents in Table 1, it is not surprising that individually they will need very different strategies and solutions. This also came across from those teachers/lecturers who replied. There are no blanket solutions and decisions must be made as far as is possible according to individual student need.

We then proposed some technical enhancements that we thought might be helpful, avoiding asking about newer, unfamiliar technologies. We do not know whether the students had experienced the features on which they commented, so we need to be cautious about the responses shown in Table 4. "Replay" and "audio description" were considered to be "helpful" by the largest number (36 and 33). Changing colours and text subtitling were considered the least helpful.

Potential improvements:      Helpful    Not helpful    
Slow motion                     24         16    
Freeze frame                    26         15    
Replay                          36          6    
Frame enlargement               22         20    
Change contrast                 23         20    
Change colours                  16         25    
Change text size                30         15    
Audio description               33         13    
Text subtitling                 14         25    
Table 4

Knowing the vagaries of technology we asked the students what they did when stuck. The most common strategies were to look for help from staff or peers (32 and 30). Twenty-one said they would attempt to alter colour, contrast and brightness. Only five said they would do nothing. One student was worried about using the video controls for fear of wiping the tape. Three said they would "just give up" or "send [the tape] back".

The last few responses show how even being able to improve accessibility in a small way might help to lessen frustration and stress in using what should be an educational aid and not an additional obstacle.

We suspect that many of our respondents had little experience of the situations we were inquiring about.Moreover, the number of those where video is not used in their courses (27 out of 49 students) is telling.We are left asking: are teachers unnecessarily avoiding use of video? Could we better specify what students need in new productions?

Advice package

Our next task is to produce an advice pack which makes suggestions about how to improve access to video, now and in the future.

Right now, setting up a good environment, managing the use and purpose of video within the lesson or lecture, attention to positioning and lighting, or improving the ways in which video is supported can make large differences to access. We'll cover additional resources such as providing individual monitors and audio visual controls for the visually impaired student in large lecture situations. Where development resources are available, existing video material can be enhanced by methods such as adding audio or inserting stills.

In future, new technologies such as Digital Video Disc, Digital Television and Multimedia with video will offer new opportunities:we say what these are and how to prepare materials now which will take advantage of these when they come. All ideas are welcome and we welcome contact from those of you who would like to receive our guidelines.