HTML5 media player accessibility: the potential and the reality

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In last month's W3C update I outlined some of the benefits of HTML5 that the W3C believes will have a significant impact on how people will use the web. As multitouch, tablet and portable multimedia devices become more popular the promise of drag-and-drop functionality and standardised video could have a great impact on our productivity and entertainment needs.

In terms of accessibility, there are two key areas that HTML5 has the potential to deliver: the ability for people with disabilities to use its new features, and effective communication between assistive technology and the web browser. This month we’ll look at the first one, and discuss the evolution of browser-AT interaction, WAI-ARIA, in forthcoming reports.

Accessible media players

One of the biggest issues for people with disabilities in implementations of current web browsing is video integration. For people who are hearing impaired, this means the availability of standardised caption techniques. For people with vision and mobility impairments, the biggest issue is keyboard navigation to actually play and control the video. With so many video formats and integrated players, simply playing a video can be an uphill battle.

While the new video standard offers great promise of improving and standardising captions, the W3C believes the huge step forward for web accessibility is the accessible embedded media player.

How does it work?

Currently websites like YouTube are difficult to use for people with vision and mobility impairments because the buttons in the video player, such as ‘play’ and ‘stop’, can’t be selected with the keyboard alone. Although solutions have been developed, they are non-standard, difficult to find, and it’s unlikely that the website a person with a disability wants to use will have an accessible player feature. 

HTML5 basically provides new commands such as <video> and <audio> which can create and label the buttons in a way that allows keyboard shortcuts to access them, and screen readers to tell the user which buttons are available. This means a person who has a vision or mobility impairment can easily use the keyboard to start, stop and navigate around a video, and people who are vision impaired using a screen reader will also have words such as ‘stop’ and ‘play’ read out to them when the keyboard focus is on the buttons.

Can an HTML5 accessible media player be put on my website now?

Given that many web browsers support HTML5 to some degree, the answer is both yes and no. It can be done, but because HTML5 is still an evolving standard and both browsers and assistive technology products handle HTML5 commands in different ways, it’s hard to create an accessible media player that will work for everyone.

Having said that, there is an excellent guide published by Terril Thompson that provides many tweaks and hacks that can get a customised HTML5 accessible media player up and running.

How are the browsers and screen readers going with HTML5?

In terms of the web browser implementation of HTML5, Opera is leading the way and has enough functionality to support a standard accessible media player. Firefox 3.6 and Safari both work to some degree but still need some development, while Internet Explorer 8 and Google Chrome do not currently provide any support for HTML5 keyboard or AT accessibility. Microsoft has indicated, however, that more work will be done on this for the release of Internet Explorer 9.

As for screen readers, the best result for Windows users is to use NVDA with Firefox, and Mac users should consider the built-in tools of VoiceOver with Safari. JAWS for Windows currently doesn’t support many of the HTML5 commands.

Where to for HTML5?

The release of the HTML5 standard is currently one of the W3C’s highest priorities, and all the browser development organisations of Microsoft, Apple, Mozilla, Opera and Google are heavily involved in the W3C. Although it will still be many months, possibly years until the standard is officially completed, the browsers will continue to evolve and accessibility will continue to improve.

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