SciComm Corner – Three things to consider when communicating science to people with sensory impairments
Article written by Ingrid Fadelli
While there have been numerous efforts to improve the quality of life of people with sensory impairments, there are still many instances in which visual or hearing impairments can limit one’s experiences. This includes the communication of information online or through other media platforms.
Individuals with visual or hearing impairments perceive the world in unique and distinctive ways, which should ideally be considered when communicating information to them. Due to their complexity and multi-dimensionality, scientific topics can be particularly challenging to convey to those with sensory impairments, particularly the visually impaired.
For instance, some education-related studies have highlighted the difficulties associated with teaching science to visually impaired children or young people, given that a large portion of scientific learning relies on images, graphs and visual demonstrations. This has led to the development of academic initiatives and programs aimed at supporting science students with sensory impairments.
When it comes to online magazines, news websites and other media platforms, however, only a few take the needs of all potential readers into account, considering that they might be unable to see or hear the content presented to them. So, as science communicators, what can we do to ensure that we effectively communicate science to the visually and hearing impaired?
Here are a few thoughts on how we can publish content that is easily accessible to all audiences:
- Crafting stories that can be perceived by everyone
Scientific media stories are often accompanied by explanatory images, graphs, animations, videos, or other multimedia files designed to explain a given topic to readers. For people with sensory impairments, however, these files might be partly or fully inaccessible.
Science communicators should ideally consider that not all people accessing the content they created will be able to view or hear all the elements that make up a scientific story. This could mean including podcasts or audio recordings dictating written parts of an article, adding subtitles to animations or videos, and perhaps even providing detailed audio descriptions for images, visual cues, or graphs. It could also mean offering audiences different ways of accessing the same content, for instance including sections on media websites where users can only view or listen to content.
In the past, some educators have also tried to re-design science courses to accommodate the needs of students with visual impairments by including tactile elements as additional learning tools, for instance using real plants or animals while covering them in class, creating 3D models of cells or DNA, and so on. While this might be difficult to replicate for science communicators, it could serve as an example of how in-person scientific events could be made more interactive and interesting for visually impaired participants.
- Making information easy to access
In addition to being able to make sense of all elements in scientific stories, individuals with a hearing or visual impairment should ideally find it relatively easy to access these stories. Today, countless individuals with sensory impairments own and use smartphones or other smart devices. This means that they can access a wide pool of information with tools that facilitate their device use, such as the TalkBack or VoiceOver functions in Android and iOS software, which provide voice feedback or voice notifications; or tools that translate text into speech.
While audiences with sensory impairments are likely to have already set up their devices in ways that simplify their navigation and internet browsing, it might be helpful for media companies to also make their platforms or websites easy to access and navigate. This could mean creating apps with subtitled multimedia content that can be easily downloaded and accessed; or featuring voice recognition tools that allow users with visual impairments to browse available content.
- Using available technology
Technological advances have played a crucial role in simplifying the daily lives of people with sensory impairments. This includes tools such as screen readers, voice assistants, app accessibility settings, caller-specific ringtones, and other software that makes it easier for individuals with visual impairments to use their devices, as well as telephone relay or video relay technologies that allow people with hearing impairments to be more aware of their environment and communicate better with others.
In addition, some experts have developed devices specifically designed to assist those with visual or hearing impairments, such as smart electronic glasses, portable vision-enhancing devices for people with low vision, and hearing aids for people with limited hearing.
Science communicators could leverage some of these existing technologies to improve the ways in which they deliver content to their audiences. For instance, the American Physical Society (APS) collaborated with ViewPlus, a specialist in the development of braille printers and other tools for the visually impaired, on a project aimed at making scientific journals accessible to individuals with blindness and others who find reading texts challenging.
Science media platforms could follow this example by creating content that can also be accessed using existing tools and technologies for people with visual impairments. The DAISY Consortium website could be a valuable resource for those hoping to find out more about these tools, as well as standards and best practices in publishing content that can be accessed by people with print disabilities.
If we wish to reach all science-enthusiasts worldwide, we should create our stories carefully and mindfully, making it easier for everyone to access and understand them. Multimedia tools, applications, and technological advances can be of great value in achieving this, as they can help to shape content in numerous different ways, ultimately ensuring that it is also accessible to people with visual and hearing impairments.
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