RNIB, the Guardian and Google unite to launch accessible storytelling website

On Global Accessibility Awareness Day (20 May), the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), the Guardian and Google launched Auditorial, an experiment in storytelling that can adapt to suit blind and low vision readers. 

Over 300 million people have a vision impairment, but 97 percent of website home pages do not meet standard accessibility requirements. The project is intended to pose questions about how the web might become a more flexible, inclusive place for people with disabilities, by enabling users to tailor websites to suit their personal sensory needs and preferences.

Auditorial features customisable visual designs and rich audio storytelling, to help people who are blind or low-vision experience stories in ways that are as seamless and creative as they are for sighted people. For example, for someone who is blind and has sensitive hearing, they can listen to the story but remove background noise to enable them to focus on the narrator. If someone has photophobia, a light sensitivity, they can flip the story into dark mode, and all the animations take on a darker form. If someone has motion sensitivity, they can flip a switch that turns all moving images into keyframes. If someone has faded colour vision they can enhance all the imagery.

David Clarke, Director of Services for RNIB, said: “Far too many websites are not accessible. For people who use assistive technology like a screen reader or screen magnifier, the frustration of not being able to use or navigate a website is all too common. At best, it’s an unnecessary annoyance, but at worst it can mean feeling locked out of key information and services.

“Auditorial is an example of how accessible online storytelling can be rich and engaging for everyone. By using simple accessibility functions and design features, the website proves that inclusive design doesn’t have to limit creativity.”

The website’s editorial content, provided by the Guardian, tells the story of ‘The Silent Spring’, which centres around Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist, who has been tracking the effects of the climate crisis through sound for 50 years. The storytelling experience gives the reader the choice to experience the story in one of three ways – as a fully customisable audio-visual narrated experience, a written article or by reading along with closed captions.

Max Sanderson, Acting Editor, Audio, Guardian News & Media, said: “This experimental story format shows what can be done to place accessibility at the forefront of our design and development process.

“We understand the importance of making our journalism accessible to more people with a wider range of abilities and backgrounds. We have learned much more about accessibility and inclusive product design during this project, and we plan to apply the skills and lessons as we enhance Guardian journalism in future.”

Kate Baker, Creative Lead, Google Brand Studio in EMEA, said: “We hope this experimental project will raise awareness and spark a broader discussion about how the web in its entirety could become a more inclusive place for people with disabilities, simply by offering different modes of interaction.”

“The end product is very much the work of a community of people, who helped our team to understand what it’s like to explore the internet without relying on sight. Together we crafted and refined the features on the website, with the hope to help users with sight loss experience stories in ways that are as seamless and creative as they are for sighted people.”

The site will now remain online as an example of accessibility best practice, alongside The Auditorial Accessibility Notebook, an inclusive design guide that includes learnings from the development process. It is hoped that the experiment will help creatives, designers, journalists and other online publishers understand what features can be included to enhance user experience without compromising on accessibility.

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