Posts Tagged accessibility

Getting Sick in the World of Health — Down the Rabbit Hole

This weekend my friend Rob Lambert asked me to lend my vocal stylings to an animation he was making about his experience of suddenly getting sick. While my vocals are not nearly as stylish as his, I did indeed record my part — some scripted by Rob, some my own reactions to what he had to say. I think it turned out great; check it out!

I think this video is a good reminder of the second point in my Accessibility is for Everyone article. Learn to notice, appreciate, and contribute to the rabbit hole climbing harnesses around you before you need them.

If you want to see more from Rob, check out his LinkedIn or subscribe to his YouTube channel, which also has some cool CERN stuff. On the subject of LinkedIn, here’s mine! I’m currently looking for full-time or freelance work, and I’d love to work on something related to accessibility, or any of the other things I’ve enthused about or experimented with on this blog.

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Accessibility is for Everyone

Accessibility is for everyone. I say that whenever an abled person finds a way that an accessibility feature benefits them. But that’s not all that it means. There are really three different meanings to that phrase:

  • Accessibility exists to make things accessible to everyone.
  • At some point, everyone has some kind of impairment which accessibility can help them with.
  • Changes that make things more accessible can be useful, convenient, or just plain fun, even for people who are 100% unimpaired.

Is this article for everyone?

This is a bare-bones outline of ways accessibility is for everyone, with a few lists of examples from my personal experience, and not much prose. This topic is fractal, though, and like a Koch Snowflake, even its outline could extend to infinite length. I’ve linked to more in-depth references where I knew of them, but tried not to go too far into detail on how to make things accessible. There are much better references for that — let me know of the ones you like in the comments.

I am not everyone

Although I do face mobility challenges in the physical world, as a software developer, I know the most about accessibility as it applies to computers. Within that, I have most experience with text-to-speech, so a lot of the examples relate to that. I welcome comments on aspects I missed. I am not an expert on accessibility, but I’d like to be.

The accessibility challenges that affect me the most are:

  • A lack of fluency in the language of the country I live in
  • Being short (This sounds harmless, but I once burnt my finger slightly because my microwave is mounted above my line of sight.)
  • Cerebral palsy spastic diplegia

That last thing does not actually affect how I use computers very much, but it is the reason I’ve had experience with modern computers from a young age.

Accessibility makes things accessible to everyone

Accessibility is for everyone — it allows everyone to use or take part in something, not just people with a certain range of abilities. This is the real goal of accessibility, and this alone is enough to justify improving accessibility. The later points in this article might help to convince people to allocate resources to accessibility, but always keep this goal in mind.

Ideally, everyone should be able to use a product without asking for special accommodations. If not, there should be a plan to accommodate those who ask, when possible. At the very least, nobody should be made to feel like they’re being too demanding just for asking for the same level of access other people get by default. Accessibility is not a feature — lack of accessibility is a bug.

Don’t make people ask

If some people have to ask questions when others don’t, the product is already less accessible to them — even if you can provide everything they ask for. This applies in a few scenarios:

  • Asking for help to use the product (e.g. help getting into a building, or using a app)
  • Asking for help accessing the accessibility accommodations. For example, asking for the key for an elevator, or needing someone else to configure the accessibility settings in software. Apple does a great job of this by asking about accessibility needs, with the relevant options turned on, during installation of macOS.
  • Asking about the accommodations available to find out if something is accessible to them before wasting time, spoons, or money on it. Make this information publicly available, e.g. on the website of your venue or event, or in your app’s description. Here’s a guide on writing good accessibility information.

Asking takes time and effort, and it can be difficult and embarrassing, whether because someone has to ask many times a day, or because they don’t usually need help and don’t like acknowledging when they do. 

In software, ‘making people ask’ is making them set up accessibility in your app when they’ve already configured the accessibility accommodations they need in the operating system. Use the system settings, rather than having your own settings for font size, dark mode, and so on. If the user has to find your extra settings before they can even use your app, there’s a good chance they won’t. Use system components as much as possible, and they’ll respect accessibility options you don’t even know about.

If they ask, have an answer

Perhaps you don’t have the resources to provide certain accommodations to everyone automatically, or it doesn’t make sense to. In that case:

  • make it clear what is available.
  • make asking for it as easy as possible (e.g. a checkbox or text field on a booking form, rather than instructions to call somebody)
  • make an effort to provide whatever it is to those who ask for it.

Assume the person really does need what they’re asking for — they know their situation better than you do.

If the answer is ‘no, sorry’, be compassionate about it

If you can’t make something accessible to a given group of people, don’t feel bad; we all have our limitations. But don’t make those people feel bad either — they have their limitations too, and they’re the ones missing out on something because of it. Remember that they’re only asking for the same thing everyone else gets automatically — they didn’t choose to need help just to annoy you.

If you simply didn’t think about their particular situation, talk with them about steps you could take. Don’t assume you know what they can or can’t do, or what will help them.

Everyone can be impaired

Accessibility is for everyone. But just like how even though all lives matter it is unfortunately still necessary to remind some people that black lives do, to achieve accessibility for everyone, we need to focus on the people who don’t get it by default. So who are they?

Apple’s human interface guidelines for accessibility say this better than I could:

Approximately one in seven people worldwide have a disability or impairment that affects the way they interact with the world and their devices. People can experience impairments at any age, for any duration, and at varying levels of severity. Situational impairments — temporary conditions such as driving a car, hiking on a bright day, or studying in a quiet library — can affect the way almost everyone interacts with their devices at various times.

Almost everyone.

This section will mostly focus on accessibility of devices such as computers, tablets, and phones. It’s what I know best, and malfunctioning hardware can be another source of impairment. Even if you don’t consider yourself disabled, if you haven’t looked through the accessibility settings of your devices yet, do so — you’re sure to find something that will be useful to you in some situations. I’ll list some ways accessibility can help with hardware issues and other situational impairments below.

Apple defines four main kinds of impairment:


There’s a big gap between someone with 20/20 full-colour vision in a well-lit room looking at an appropriately-sized, undamaged screen, and someone with no vision whatsoever. There’s even a big gap between someone who is legally blind and someone with no vision whatsoever. Whenever we are not at the most abled end of that spectrum, visual accessibility tools can help.

Here are some situations where I’ve used Vision accessibility settings to overcome purely situational impairments:

  • When sharing a screen over a videoconference or to a projector, use screen zoom, and large cursor or font sizes. On macOS when using a projector, you can also use Hover Text, however this does not show up when screensharing over a videoconference. This makes things visible to the audience regardless of the size of their videoconference window or how far they are from the projector screen.
  • When an internet connection is slow, or you don’t want to load potential tracking images in emails, image descriptions (alt text) let you know what you’re missing.
  • When a monitor doesn’t work until the necessary software is installed and configured, use a screenreader to get through the setup. I’ve done this on a Mac, after looking up how to use VoiceOver on another device.


There’s a big gap between someone with perfect hearing and auditory processing using good speakers at a reasonable volume in an otherwise-quiet room, and someone who hears nothing at all. There’s even a big gap between someone who is Deaf and someone who hears nothing at all. Whenever we are not at the most abled end of that spectrum, hearing accessibility tools can help.

Here are some situations where I’ve used Hearing accessibility settings when the environment or hardware was the only barrier:

  • When one speaker is faulty, change the panning settings to only play in the working speaker, and turn on ‘Play stereo audio as mono’.
  • When a room is noisy or you don’t want to disturb others with sound, use closed captions.

Physical and Motor

There’s a big gap between someone with a full range of controlled, pain-free movement using a perfectly-functioning device, in an environment tailored to their body size, and someone who can only voluntarily twitch a single cheek muscle (sorry, but we can’t all be Stephen Hawking.) Whenever we are not at the most abled end of that spectrum, motor accessibility tools can help.

Here are some situations where you can use Physical and Motor accessibility to overcome purely situational impairments:

  • When a physical button on an iPhone doesn’t work reliably, use Back Tap, Custom Gestures, or the AssistiveTouch button to take over its function.
  • When you’re carrying something bulky, use an elevator. I’ve shared elevators with people who have strollers, small dogs, bicycles, suitcases, large purchases, and disabilities. I’ve also been yelled at by someone who didn’t think I should use an elevator, because unlike him, I had no suitcase. Don’t be that person.

Literacy and Learning

This one is also called Cognitive. There’s a big gap between an alert, literate, neurotypical adult of average intelligence with knowledge of the relevant environment and language, and… perhaps you’ve thought of a disliked public figure you’d claim is on the other end of this spectrum. There’s even a big gap between that person and the other end of this spectrum, and people in that gap don’t deserve to be compared to whomever you dislike. Whenever we are not at the most abled end of that spectrum, cognitive accessibility considerations can help.

Here are some situations where I’ve used accessibility when the environment was the only barrier to literacy:

  • When watching or listening to content in a language you know but are not fluent in, use closed captions or transcripts to help you work out what the words are, and find out the spelling to look them up.
  • When reading in a language you know but are not fluent in, use text-to-speech in that language to find out how the words are pronounced.
  • When consuming content in a language you don’t know, use subtitles or translations.

Accessibility features benefit abled people

Sometimes it’s hard to say what was created for the sake of accessibility and what wasn’t. Sometimes products for the general public bring in the funding needed to improve assistive technologies. Here are some widely-used things which have an accessibility aspect:

  • The Segway was based on self-balancing technology originally developed for wheelchairs. Segways and the like are still used by some people as mobility devices, even if they are not always recognised as such.
  • Voice assistants such as Siri rely on speech recognition and speech synthesis technology that has applications in all four domains of accessibility mentioned above.
  • Light or Dark mode may be a style choice for one person and an essential visual accessibility tool for another.

Other technology is more strongly associated with accessibility. Even when your body, your devices, or your environment don’t present any relevant impairment, there are still ways that these things can be useful, convenient, or just plain fun.


Some accessibility accommodations let abled people do things they couldn’t do otherwise.

  • Transcripts, closed captions, and image descriptions are easily searchable.
  • I’ve used text-to-speech APIs to generate the initial rhyme database for my rhyming dictionary,
  • I’ve used text-to-speech to find out how words are pronounced in different languages and accents.
  • Menstruators can use handbasins in accessible restroom stalls to rinse out menstrual cups in privacy. (This is not an argument for using accessible stalls when you don’t need them — it’s an argument for more handbasins installed in stalls!)


Some accessibility tech lets abled people do things they would be able to do without it, but in a more convenient way.

  • People who don’t like switching between keyboard and mouse can enable full keyboard access on macOS to tab through all controls. They can also use keyboard shortcuts.
  • People who don’t want to watch an entire video to find out a piece of information can quickly skim a transcript.
  • I’ve used speak announcements on my Mac for decades. If my Mac announces something while I’m on the other side of the room, I know whether I need to get up and do something about it.
  • Meeting attendees could edit automatic transcripts from videoconferencing software (e.g. Live Transcription in Zoom) to make meeting minutes.
  • I’ve used text-to-speech on macOS and iOS to speak the names of emojis when I wasn’t sure what they were.
  • Pre-chopped produce and other prepared foods save time even for people who have the dexterity and executive function to prepare them themselves.


Some accessibility tech lets us do things that are not exactly useful, but a lot of fun.

  • Hosts of the Lingthusiasm podcast, Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch, along with Janelle Shane, fed transcripts of their podcasts into an artificial intelligence to generate a quirky script for a new episode, and then recorded that script.
  • I’ve used text-to-speech to sing songs I wrote that I was too shy to sing myself.
  • I’ve used text-to-speech APIs to detect haiku in any text.
  • Automated captions of video conferencing software and videos make amusing mistakes that can make any virtual party more fun. Once you finish laughing, make sure anyone who needed the captions knows what was really said. 
  • I may have used the ’say’ command on a server through an ssh connection to surprise and confuse co-workers in another room. 😏
  • I find stairs much more accessible if they have a handrail. You might find it much more fun to slide down the balustrade. 😁

Advocating accessibility is for everyone

I hope you’ve learnt something about how or why to improve accessibility, or found out ways accessibility can improve your own life. I’d like to learn something too, so put your own ideas or resources in the comments!

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Audio Word Clouds

For my comprehensive channel trailer, I created a word cloud of the words used in titles and descriptions of the videos uploaded each month. Word clouds have been around for a while now, so that’s nothing unusual. For the soundtrack, I wanted to make audio versions of these word clouds using text-to-speech, with the most common words being spoken louder. This way people with either hearing or vision impairments would have a somewhat similar experience of the trailer, and people with no such impairments would have the same surplus of information blasted at them in two ways.

I checked to see if anyone had made audio word clouds before, and found Audio Cloud: Creation and Rendering, which makes me wonder if I should write an academic paper about my audio word clouds. That paper describes an audio word cloud created from audio recordings using speech-to-text, while I wanted to create one from text using text-to-speech. I was mainly interested in any insights into the number of words we could perceive at once at various volumes or voices. In the end, I just tried a few things and used my own perception and that of a few friends to decide what worked. Did it work? You tell me.

Part of the System Voice menu in the Speech section of the Accessibility panel of the macOS Catalina System Preferences


There’s a huge variety of English voices available on macOS, with accents from Australia, India, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and I’ve installed most of them. I excluded the voices whose speaking speed can’t be changed, such as Good News, and a few novelty voices, such as Bubbles, which aren’t comprehensible enough when there’s a lot of noise from other voices. I ended up with 30 usable voices. I increased the volume of a few which were harder to understand when quiet.

I wondered whether it might work best with only one or a few voices or accents in each cloud, analogous to the single font in each visual word cloud. That way people would have a little time to adapt to understand those specific voices rather than struggling with an unfamiliar voice or accent with each word. On the other hand, maybe it would be better to have as many voices as possible in each word cloud so that people could distinguish between words spoken simultaneously by voice, just as we do in real life. In the end I chose the voice for each word randomly, and never got around to trying the fewer-distinct-voices version. Being already familiar with many of these voices, I’m not sure I would have been a good judge of whether that made it easier to get used to them.

Arranging the words

It turns out making an audio word cloud is simpler than making a visual one. There’s only one dimension in an audio word cloud — time. Volume could be thought of as sort of a second dimension, as my code would search through the time span for a free rectangle of the right duration with enough free volume. I later wrote an AppleScript to create ‘visual audio word clouds’ in OmniGraffle showing how the words fit into a time/volume rectangle.  I’ve thus illustrated this post with a visual word cloud of this post, and a few audio word clouds and visual audio word clouds of this post with various settings.

A visual representation of an audio word cloud of an early version of this post, with the same hubbub factor as was used in the video. The horizontal axis represents time, and the vertical axis represents volume. Rectangles in blue with the darker gradient to the right represent words panned to the right, while those in red with the darker gradient to the left represent words panned to the left.

However, words in an audio word cloud can’t be oriented vertically as they can in a visual word cloud, nor can there really be ‘vertical’ space between two words, so it was only necessary to search along one dimension for a suitable space. I limited the word clouds to five seconds, and discarded any words that wouldn’t fit in that time, since it’s a lot easier to display 301032 words somewhat understandably in nine minutes than it is to speak them. I used the most common (and therefore louder) words first, sorted by length, and stopped filling the audio word cloud once I reached a word that would no longer fit. It would sometimes still be possible to fit a shorter, less common word in that cloud, but I didn’t want to include words much less common than the words I had to exclude.

I set a preferred volume for each word based on its frequency (with a given minimum and maximum volume so I wouldn’t end up with a hundred extremely quiet words spoken at once) and decided on a maximum total volume allowed at any given point. I didn’t particularly take into account the logarithmic nature of sound perception. I then found a time in the word cloud where the word would fit at its preferred volume when spoken by the randomly-chosen voice. If it didn’t fit, I would see if there was room to put it at a lower volume. If not, I’d look for places it could fit by increasing the speaking speed (up to a given maximum) and if there was still nowhere, I’d increase the speaking speed and decrease the volume at once. I’d prioritise reducing the volume over increasing the speed, to keep it understandable to people not used to VoiceOver-level speaking speeds. Because of the one-and-a-bit dimensionality of the audio word cloud, it was easy to determine how much to decrease the volume and/or increase the speed to fill any gap exactly. However, I was still left with gaps too short to fit any word at an understandable speed, and slivers of remaining volume smaller than my per-word minimum.

A visual representation of an audio word cloud of this post, with a hubbub factor that could allow two additional words to be spoken at the same time as the others.

I experimented with different minimum and maximum word volumes, and maximum total volumes, which all affected how many voices might speak at once (the ‘hubbub level’, as I call it). Quite late in the game, I realised I could have some voices in the right ear and some in the left, which makes it easier to distinguish them. In theory, each word could be coming from a random location around the listener, but I kept to left and right — in fact, I generated separate left and right tracks and adjusted the panning in Final Cut Pro. Rather than changing the logic to have two separate channels to search for audio space in, I simply made my app alternate between left and right when creating the final tracks. By doing this, I could increase the total hubbub level while keeping many of the words understandable. However, the longer it went on for, the more taxing it was to listen to, so I decided to keep the hubbub level fairly low.

The algorithm is deterministic, but since voices are chosen randomly, and different voices take different amounts of time to speak the same words even at the same number of words per minute, the audio word clouds created from the same text can differ considerably. Once I’d decided on the hubbub level, I got my app to create a random one for each month, then regenerated any where I thought certain words were too difficult to understand.


The visual word cloud from December 2019, with both ‘Competition’ and the lowercase ‘competition’ featured prominently

In my visual word clouds, I kept the algorithm case-sensitive, so that a word with the same spelling but different capitalisation would be counted as a separate word, and displayed twice. There are arguments for keeping it like this, and arguments to collapse capitalisations into the same word — but which capitalisation of it? My main reason for keeping the case-sensitivity was so that the word cloud of Joey singing the entries to our MathsJam Competition Competition competition would have the word ‘competition’ in it twice.

Sometimes these really are separate words with different meanings (e.g. US and us, apple and Apple, polish and Polish, together and ToGetHer) and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes these two words with different meanings are pronounced the same way, other times they’re not. But at least in a visual word cloud, the viewer always has a way of understanding why the same word appears twice. For the audio word cloud, I decided to treat different capitalisations as the same word, but as I’ve mentioned, capitalisation does matter in the pronunciation, so I needed to be careful about which capitalisation of each word to send to the text-to-speech engine. Most voices pronounce ‘JoCo’ (short for Jonathan Coulton, pronounced with the same vowels as ‘go-go’) correctly, but would pronounce ‘joco’ or ‘Joco’ as ‘jocko’, with a different vowel in the first syllable. I ended up counting any words with non-initial capitals (e.g. JoCo, US) as separate words, but treating title-case words (with only the initial letter capitalised) as the same as all-lowercase, and pronouncing them in title-case so I wouldn’t risk mispronouncing names.

Further work

A really smart version of this would get the pronunciation of each word in context (the same way my rhyming dictionary finds rhymes for the different pronunciations of homographs, e.g. bow), group them by how they were pronounced, and make a word cloud of words grouped entirely by pronunciation rather than spelling, so ‘polish’ and ‘Polish’ would appear separately but there would be no danger of, say ‘rain’ and ‘reign’ both appearing in the audio word cloud and sounding like duplicates. However, which words are actually pronounced the same depend on the accent (e.g. whether ‘cot’ and ‘caught’ sound the same) and text normalisation of the voice — you might have noticed that some of the audio word clouds in the trailer have ‘aye-aye’ while others have ‘two’ for the Roman numeral ‘II’.

Similarly, a really smart visual word cloud would use natural language processing to separate out different meanings of homographs (e.g. bow🎀, bow🏹, bow🚢, and bow🙇🏻‍♀️) and display them in some way that made it obvious which was which, e.g. by using different symbols, fonts, styles, colours for different parts of speech. It could also recognise names and keep multi-word names together, count words with the same lemma as the same, and cluster words by semantic similarity, thus putting ‘Zoe Keating’ near ‘cello’, and ‘Zoe Gray’ near ‘Brian Gray’ and far away from ‘Blue’. Perhaps I’ll work on that next.

A visual word cloud of this blog post about audio word clouds, superimposed on a visual representation of an audio word cloud of this blog post about audio word clouds.

I’ve recently been updated to a new WordPress editor whose ‘preview’ function gives a ‘page not found’ error, so I’m just going to publish this and hope it looks okay. If you’re here early enough to see that it doesn’t, thanks for being so enthusiastic!

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‘Accessible’ and ‘Back to the Future Song’ as actual songs

I’ve been away in the Bay Area, on JoCo Cruise, on trains, and at MarsCon, and too many things have happened for one blog post, but here are a few of them. Just before the cruise, Joey Marianer sang ‘Accessible‘, my parody of James Blunt’s ‘Beautiful’ about accessibility:

Joey sang a few other songs of mine during and after the cruise, but I’m going to save them for other posts so that this one is less of a mish-mash. If you would like a preview of those along with a recap of other things I wrote that he sang, here’s a playlist.

But Joey is not the only person whose name starts with ‘Jo’ who has sung words that I wrote! A while ago, my friend Joseph sang ‘Back to the Future Song‘, my parody of Moxy Früvous’s ‘Gulf War Song‘ as part of his Patreon. Lately he’s been opening up older posts to be visible to non-patrons, so now you can also hear Joseph singing Back to the Future Song. I changed that one line that I didn’t like very much.

You can also hear the cover of Moxy Früvous’s ‘Downsizing’ which Joseph sang for me after I lost my last job. If you like these covers, check out some of his other covers, short stories and poems on patron, and become a patron; I’m sure he’d appreciate the support, and you, too, would be able to request things like this.

I’ll post a few more times to update you on some other cool things, and who knows, perhaps I’ll participate in National Poetry Writing Month again. As is usual at this time of year, I’m spending most of my free time lately uploading videos from the JoCo Cruise, so if you want me to entertain you in some way and you can’t wait for the next blog post, subscribe to me on YouTube to see my latest uploads.

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Accessible (James Blunt ‘Beautiful’ parody lyrics)

I watched a speech by by Haben Girma yesterday, and as she was talking about making things accessible to people with disabilities and how that can lead to usefulness and innovations beyond accessibility, I decided to write a quick parody of James Blunt’s ‘Beautiful’ about accessibility. Here are the lyrics. They don’t always match the original tune exactly, but rather an approximation of it I have in my head from listening to parodies such as The Amateur Transplants’ Beautiful Song, Weird Al’s You’re Pitiful, and James Blunt’s own My Triangle. Feel free to come up with your own additions to include other aspects of accessibility or other things which could be more accessible.

My widget’s brilliant

My venue’s brilliant
Of that I’m sure
For all the people
I don’t ignore

I met someone who was different
And I knew I’d undershot
‘Cause I thought my plans were brilliant
and they were not

Accessible to all
To learn or say, in a different way
When one sense is essential
It makes sense to overhaul

So I fixed my stuff
It was not enough
I met more folk who tried and they still
found it tough
And I don’t think I can accommodate
But I have a goal now and I will innovate

Accessible to all
To simply manoeuvre, no matter how we move
Paralysed or pained or small
Still our movement shall not fall

la la la la…

Accessible to all
And the gains are shared with the unimpaired
Till there’s nothing that seems impossible

If you see, hear, feel the call
Make some tools; tear down a wall.

Of course, I can’t publish lyrics to a song about accessibility without mentioning The Accessibility Song by James Dempsey. If you didn’t like mine, try his, now also available along with his other songs about Cocoa development on iTunes:

I’ve actually seen the original song ‘Beautiful’ performed live, since I randomly went to a James Blunt concert with some co-workers the very first time I was in Vienna. However, even then, I did not really listen to the words. I did while writing this, and realised just how weird and creepy it is. The protagonist is not telling his partner she’s beautiful, as a casual listener might assume, but rather singing to a woman he caught a glimpse of once on a train as if she were some great lost love, despite the fact that they never spoke to each other and she was already involved with someone. It’s essentially Jackson Park Express, presented as a romantic short film rather than a feature-length comedy. With songs like this out there, no wonder random guys on the street sometimes think they can follow me home!

Unrelated to all this, Joey Marianer has once again sung some words I wrote! This time it’s A Few Things You’ll Need for the Cruise, slightly changed to be about the fact that there was, at the time of publishing, exactly one month until JoCo Cruise 2018. There is now less than a month, but still room for you to join us!


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