Augmentative-Communication Perspective on Icon-Based, Web Site Navigation

Today, I spoke with Krista Wilkinson, Ph.D., who is an expert in the field of augmentative communication, particularly for people with cognitive disabilities.  Her interests include vocabulary learning and the use of visual supports in communication and education.

I approached Dr. Wilkinson with my struggle to create, for the future Clear Helper Web site, a set of navigation icons that would enable people with cognitive disabilities to find the information they want quickly and easily.

I said I would like to use icons shown by research to be effective  communicators.  She confirmed for me that little research has been performed in this area.  After more discussion, we agreed that icons we have seen in use on Web sites seem arbitrary, or bereft of context.

She explained that even the common use of left- and right arrows on Web sites to indicate previous- and next pages is not contextually accurate in practice.  She said that people with cognitive disabilities can find it confusing that a click to a right arrow does not actually present the next page from the right.  Instead, a new page just appears.

Dr. Wilkinson showed me an augmentative communication device, called The Tango, that uses arrow buttons in a contextually appropriate manner.  Below is a picture of it.  Note the green arrow buttons on both sides of the middle set of icon buttons.Tango Augmentative Communication DeviceWhen a user presses a green, up-arrow button, the middle set of icon buttons revolve upward like a slot machine acts, and presents a new set.  When a user presses a green, right- or left arrow button, the middle set of icon buttons scrolls in the relevant direction, and presents a new set.

Dr. Wilkinson suggested I might make Web pages act similarly when left- and right arrow buttons are clicked.  I can’t think of an accessible way to do that, but I will consider it.

Another suggestion she made would be much easier to implement; left- and right arrow buttons could be paired with a contextually-appropriate sound.  An example of this would be a recording of a page turning.

Again, little research has been performed to demonstrate that the context of icons can be understood, or that the pairing of icons with sound is more effective than not.  I’ll do what I can to experiment with these ideas on the future Clear Helper Web site.  Perhaps, through evaluations by users, and via automated Web-site evaluation tools, the effectiveness of the navigation icons I plan to use could be measured.

Note: No endorsement is intended or implied for the Tango.

IBM Easy Web Browser

Here’s a first.  A company, IBM, has just created a screen reader specifically for its own Web site.  Indeed, the Easy Web Browser works only on the IBM Web site.

Also unusual is that this screen reader is not intended for use by people who are blind; it requires a mouse.  The mouse is used to select a sentence, and IBM’s Easy Web Browser reads it aloud.  The would be quite useful for people with cognitive disabilities or for anyone who has trouble reading.

IBM’s Easy Web Browser enables users to enlarge text, zoom in on parts of a Web page and change background color.  It requires Internet Explorer and Windows.  It is free of charge.

Note: No endorsement is intended or implied for IBM’s Easy Web Browser.

Conversion of Text into a Symbol-Based Alternative

As mentioned in the previous posting, one feature of Web browsers intended for use by people with cognitive disabilities is the conversion of Web site text into a symbol-based alternative.

Produced by Widget Software, the image below is intended as a small demonstration.

demo of text to symbolic language

There are also Web sites, such as The Children’s Society, that accompany the text of their pages with a symbol-based alternative.

Widget Software, through its Symbols Inclusion Project, does have some material on Evidence and Practice related to the use of symbols in the classroom.  Yet I can find no information on its site that refers to basic research on the development of a symbol-based alternative to text.

There has been such research, especially within the area of augmentative communication.   However, it is my impression that none has produced significant evidence in support of text-to-symbol replacement on the scale used by the Web browsers and the Web sites designed for people with cognitive disabilities.

Widget Software advertises its library of symbols represents over 29,000 words.  The text-to-symbol conversion is one symbol for each word.  Upon what research does it rely to show that these symbols accurately convey  syntax, for instance?  More investigation into this matter will be the subject of a future blog post.

Note: About Widget Software and its products, no endorsement is intended or implied.

Web Browsers for People with Cognitive Disabilities

So far, I have found three Web browsers intended for use by people with cognitive disabilities.  Each use text-to-speech (TTS) technology, display of Web sites in a simplified format, and/or the conversion of Web site text into a symbolic representation.

  • WWAAC is the result of a Pan-European effort funded in part by the European Commission.
  • EdWeb was developed by The School of Informatics, University of Manchester, England.
  • Communicate: Webwide is a commercial product produced by Widget Software.  Of the three Web browsers, this is the most up-to-date product.

I expect that these Web browsers work best with Web sites that adhere to accessibility standards.  Their conversion of Web site text into a symbol-based alternative will be the subject of the next blog post.

Note: No endorsement is intended or implied for any of these products.

Simplified Computer Interface: Litl Webbook

Here is an intriguing possibility for people with cognitive disabilities to access the Web using a simplified computer interface and a significantly simple computer.  The litl’s interface does not use menus, folders, icons or overlapping windows.  Navigating the interface is performed with just a couple of buttons.  The first third of this video demonstrates the interface.

Watch this video using the Easy YouTube Player

This video from CrunchGear: Exclusive video of the Litl Webbook

The computer itself is simplified.  It automatically handles all updates, patches, plug-ins and fixes.  Supposedly, users do not have to worry about viruses either.  The litl is billed as “maintenance free”.  I imagine this too could be a boon for people with cognitive disabilities, indeed for all people, because the complexity of maintaining a computer would be vastly reduced.

The litl Webbook is manufactured and sold by litl, LLC of Boston, MA.  (No endorsement is intended or implied.)