Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Different Dimensions of Accessibility: Auditory: Training for Accessibility (Part 4)

 I was hopeful yesterday when I was making my post on the dimensions of accessibility that I'd be able to cover all four of the main areas in one blog post. I could have if I wanted to make a post that was exceptionally long but that's not my point in doing this. Instead, I realized that it made sense to break the main areas up and look at them independently and consider the realities that each area faces, both in the way of chronic/persistent conditions, as well as those that are transient/situational. If you are enjoying this series, thanks for coming along for the ride, there are lots more coming in the next several days.

Wordcloud for Auditory Accessibility: Keywords include: sound, difficulty, auditory accessibility, hearing, individual, disease, auditory information, person, Ménière's
Wordcloud for Auditory Accessibility: Keywords include: sound, difficulty, auditory accessibility, hearing, individual, disease, auditory information, person, Ménière's

Auditory Accessibility

When we are discussing auditory accessibility, we are specifically looking at challenges faced by individuals with hearing impairments. Just as visual impairment is a spectrum, so is auditory impairment. Additionally, there are both chronic/persistent issues that we consider to be primary issues as well as situational challenges that may be transient but certainly matter at that moment.

Chronic Auditory Challenges

Deafness: This term is not as cut and dry as many would believe. Just like blindness does not mean a 100% loss of sight, deafness does not necessarily mean a 100% loss of hearing. The term "deaf" refers to individuals with significant or profound hearing loss. What is significant or profound? A medical Audiologist would consider the severity of hearing loss in decibels (dB). In other words, at what decibel level would a sound have to be for a person to hear it? I am not an audiologist, so do not take what I am saying as gospel but the following values come from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)

Degree of hearing lossHearing loss range (dB HL)
Normal–10 to 15
Slight16 to 25
Mild26 to 40
Moderate41 to 55
Moderately severe56 to 70
Severe71 to 90
Source: Clark, J. G. (1981). Uses and abuses of hearing loss classification. Asha, 23, 493–500.

To put this into perspective, a person with normal hearing would be able to distinguish sounds within the -10 to 15 dB range, while a person with severe or profound hearing loss would need to have the same sound ramped up to 71dB or above 91dB to hear the same sound. Those people within the severe to the profound range are what we consider to be "deaf". These are people for whom traditional methods of using devices like hearing aids or cochlear implants will not help.

Hard of Hearing: This is a broader category and may include people on any level of the auditory spectrum. For that matter, hard of hearing can absolutely be situational. People with mild or moderate hearing loss may struggle to understand or interpret sounds in noisy environments or may be limited to the frequencies that they can hear. We can also include conditions such as Tinnitus and Ménière's Disease. Tinnitus is the perception of sound where there is a ringing, buzzing, or hissing sound in the ears. It can prove to be a distraction when. auditory information is present. Ménière's disease is a disorder of the inner ear that affects both hearing and balance. People with Ménière's disease often describe experiencing vertigo, fluctuation of hearing levels, experiencing tinnitus, and a feeling of pressure inside their ears.

Auditory Processing Disorders: these are difficulties in processing and interpreting auditory information by the brain, even when the person experiencing them has normal hearing sensitivity. There are a variety of these disorders.  They may include:

  • Auditory Discrimination Disorder: difficulty in differentiating similar sounds ('P', 'B', and 'D' may sound similar). 
  • Auditory Figure-Ground Discrimination Disorder: difficulty understanding speech/sounds in the presence of background noise or many sources of sound.
  • Auditory Sequencing Disorder: difficulty understanding and/or recalling the sequence of sounds or words.
  • Auditory Integration Disorder: difficulty localizing or integrating sounds coming from different directions.
  • Auditory Closure Disorder: difficulty filling in details of missing or incomplete sound information.
  • Auditory Memory Disorder: difficulty recalling spoken information or sequences of instructions. 
  • Auditory Attention Disorder: difficulty concentrating on sound/information presentation and keeping that focus for an extended period.

Situational Challenges

While the above examples could be seen as being persistent or chronic issues, any of them are also situational or temporary. More common examples of situational auditory issues would include:

Noisy Environments: Background noise in public spaces, workplaces, or crowded areas. My favorite example of this is trying to take a phone call in the middle of a rock concert. That's gijg to be an issue for just about everyone, not just hearing-impaired individuals.

Poor Audio Quality: As a podcast producer, I have had occasions where the recordings we had to work with were... not optimal. In some cases, they were downright bad because the technology we had at the time was just not up to the task but we had to run with it anyway.

Multitasking and Distraction: having to divide attention between numerous audio sources.

So that's a pretty big list of things to have to consider. How do we code and test for accessibility in these situations?

Captions and Transcripts: Provide accurate and synchronized captions or transcripts for audio and video content. Many services do this automatically and the results vary. Still, having a mostly correct transcript is better than not having one at all but if possible, provide a sequenced file that can be displayed in time with the information and that has been proofread and is as close to the audio as possible.

Volume Controls: allowing users to amplify the sound to their specific needs and levels.

Visual Cues and Alerts: Do not rely solely on auditory cues. Create visual options, such as flashing light, varying color or brightness for icons, or allowing for vibration through the mouse or keyboard, if possible.

Clear and Concise Content: where possible, provide simple and clean audio tracks. Avoid the background music if it can be seen as distracting, or allow for an option to separate the vocal track so that it doesn't compete with other sounds.

Avoid Audio-Only Interactions: Minimize interactions that are specifically sound driven. Make text-based or visual alternatives if possible.

Consider Multimodal Options: incorporate sign language interpreters, transcripts, or visual aids for presentations, conferences, or online events.

Sometimes, addressing auditory accessibility may conflict with other accessibility areas. There is no one-size-fits-all approach here. Changes made for auditory accessibility may not be ideal for visibility, mobility, or cognitive accessibility. This is where we have to make judgment calls and not only focus on compliance from a checklist. Still, by considering and implementing appropriate design and coding, and testing for them, we can ensure individuals with hearing impairments have as much access to auditory information and content as possible.

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