When animation is an accessibility problem
Imagine entering a house with an endless series of doors and corridors. Behind some of those doors are the most delightful things imaginable: feasts straight out of Redwall, unicorns, an endless supply of scenic vistas, and unionized workplaces. Behind other doors, however, are grotesque and terrifying jack-in-the-boxes that pop up the minute you crack the door open, blasting up to fill the entire frame, dangling lasciviously on rusty springs as a creaky, vaguely circus-themed song plays.
That’s what navigating the internet is like for me. Every time I click a link, I have to ask myself if it’s going to be Bozo the clown or something delightful and captivating that I will be happy to have encountered.
All of us find the internet stimulating, but I find it extremely stimulating, specifically when it comes to animated and moving content — and not in a good way. Something about the wiring of my brain makes it difficult to process animations or repetitive movements, like the blinker you’ve left on for the last five miles, turning them into an accessibility issue: a website with animated content is difficult and sometimes impossible to use because the movement becomes all I can think about.
I never met a digital animation I liked, and their use is only increasing. GIFs, sure, but also cutesy little ornamental doodles you probably don’t notice. The weirdly nauseating loop of the Boomerang effect on Instagram. The once-again en vogue giant animated cursors that chase you. Autoplay video, of course, especially when it follows you down the page. Flashing ads, the perennial bane of our collective internet existence. Parallax scrolling for all your sexy data viz and prestige immersive feature needs. Bouncing menus jiggling for your attention. The little “loading” animation at the edge of a background tab.
We are surrounded by a world of motion and I would like to get off of it.
No medical professional (neurological, ophthalmological, or otherwise) has been able to adequately explain or treat whatever my brain does when it encounters animations. Yet I am constantly navigating around the desperate desire to avoid them — ducking out of Zooms when people start running animations on their PowerPoints, using every ad, image, and element blocker known to man and a few besides, militantly opposing even a whiff of animation on any project where I have creative input. At times, it feels like a losing battle, one over the first time someone added an “under construction” to their GeoCities site in the 1990s.
This is a place that honestly isn’t very much fun to be, and it’s not because I resent having to approach the internet like a minefield. It’s because I know the internet loves animations and uses them in incredibly creative ways that stretch beyond Steve Wilhite’s wildest dreams (even if he did pronounce GIF wrong). They’ve become an entire syntax of communication; many a fine dunk below a ratioed tweet consists of a single GIF. Animation can also both enrich and simplify the display of data. It’s a culture I want to participate in and also one I don’t want to put down.
I can block anything ending in .gif, but it usually renders buttons nonoperative. I can load a site without styles, but usually, the result is not very enjoyable to use. I can block ads, but then it deprives the nice websites I like to read (and write for) of revenue. There is, of course, a way to bridge this divide, and bizarrely, one of my allies is Twitter, which struck a decisive blow when it allowed users to freeze autoplay on all moving content, including GIFs. Users who love them can post them; users who don’t simply see a still frame. What’s good for reducing server load is also good for the case exceptions such as mine.
Access issues like these are weird, in multiple senses of the word. If someone explains that some animations at certain frame rates or with flashing features can cause seizures, people have a frame of reference. It doesn’t always mean they’ll respect the risk, but it does mean they understand it. When I say that animations in general across the board are “incredibly disruptive,” it sounds, bluntly, like nonsense. If you’re reading and thinking, This sounds exaggerated and I don’t believe it, you are not the first. Like other unusual access needs, sensitivity to animation tends to get dismissed or denied because: Come on, who can’t handle one little animated GIF? Are you seriously telling me that auto-refreshing content can make you hurl? I bet you watch TV, what do you have to say about that? (I can do small screens at home; in movie theaters, it is overwhelming.)
It’s a feeling familiar to other disabled people with “weird” access issues. Some people with ADHD, along with some autistics, like to wear headphones nearly everywhere they go, and listen to music to help themselves focus. People with severe chemical sensitivity may not be able to walk into older buildings, stores that stock strongly-scented products or structures with new carpets and paint. Migraineurs may not be able to work in bright environments or use screens. A person with severe anxiety might need a disability placard for their car so they can get in and out of businesses more quickly.
This isn’t just about animated content. The internet and the world at large have a huge accessibility problem and people tend to think that adhering to documented standards (and sometimes using dodgy third-party tools) will address it, when as my case clearly illustrates, no documentation can cover every possible scenario. Access requires a conversation with the disability community. No place can be all things to all people and any series of design choices will result in inaccessibility for some number of users, with people giving contradictory feedback in the discovery phase. Unfortunately, there’s no checklist to solve this, and accessibility is something that constantly evolves and shifts. It also provides cool opportunities, though, a chance to design something really unique and interesting that stands out and shows that access is beautiful, not just practical. As dance company Kinetic Light illustrates with stunning performances actively integrating access tools such as ramps and wheelchairs along with audio description that is part of the work, access can be art.
When it comes to web access, there are two approaches, starting with functional tools that we can use to configure the internet to meet our needs while other users can ah “enjoy” the horrors you visit upon them. Another is to think about user experience more creatively and comprehensively. I’m not the only one who struggles with parallax scrolling, for example, and not just because it moves in troubling ways. It can also be tough for screen readers to work with, particularly when it’s being used for something like a graphics-heavy display of data. Other people just find it annoying, which seems fair. Could there be an alternative plain or clean version of the same data, presented with the same care? Could you build rapport and trust with disabled users to encourage them to collaborate with you? Rather than viewing access as an imposition that narrows your options, think of it as an invitation to think outside the box.
Developers make decisions about how inaccessibility might manifest and how it might be mitigated. You could warn me that there’s an access issue ahead, but what if there’s something cool in there? You could simply mitigate the issue by giving me more control over it, allowing me to decide if, how, and when I want to interact with it. As a grownup, I can and want to make my own decisions.
Truthfully that’s all I, and many other disabled web users, desire: To be on the inside looking out, for once.
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