P5 Accessibility

By Claire Kearney-Volpe

Description: Six workshop members sit around a table with laptops in front of them. They discuss and try a coding exercise.

Figure 1. Image of workshop/focus group participants

Over the last two years, a small community has been growing and working on the accessibility of P5.js. At its core, the P5 Accessibility project is a community-based attempt to make P5.js and its learning resources accessible to people that are blind or have low-vision. The Processing Foundation has supported the work, which relies on a broad network of both sighted and blind experts and end-users.

The project started where I work at NYU’s Ability Project, an interdisciplinary research and development space. In this studio, our faculty and student teams develop assistive and rehab technologies based on the premise that these technologies serve people best when they participate in its design. People from the community tell us their ideas for technological interventions, and we work with them to develop solutions. Although physically based in the Tandon School of Engineering, students from across NYU (engineering, occupational therapy, and design students) collaborate with end-users to develop assistive and rehab technologies.

One of these projects was a collaboration between myself and Chancey Fleet, a blind technology expert and educator who works at a New York Public Library. Together, we worked to develop a diagramming tool that would allow her to plan a banquet, and save and share her plans digitally. The project ended up being a bit of a disaster.

Not only did we need to program a sonified, touch-screen, web application as coding novices, we also struggled to find cohesive, newbie-friendly documentation of accessible development practices. For me, there was also the challenge of learning how Chancey used her computer and cellphone. Many people that are blind, Chancey included, use screenreaders with synthesized voices or braille displays that relay information about the content on their screens. Screenreaders, it turns out, are not that easy to use (although worth a try).

Description: Diagram depicts representations of speech synthesis and braille outputs. Sound waves coming from a monitor indicate speech synthesis, and a small, red refreshable braille display is used as an example of screen reader outputting to braille.

Figure 2. Diagram of Screen Readers

In addition to being in unfamiliar territory myself, another factor impeded our progress. If the prototyping process was to be truly participatory, Chancey needed to brush up on javascript and HTML. We looked into the plethora of code-learning resources online and found that most were inaccessible to her screen reader. Even the “good” ones, the ones that teams of very smart people had worked hard to make accessible, remained unfriendly and cumbersome to use because although their lesson descriptions were accessible their videos, edit fields, or screenshots of code snippets were not.

The lack of good documentation around accessible development practices and the lack of accessible code-learning resources slowed us down and frustrated us to the point that the project was stopped halfway. Although our banquet diagramming app was never fully realized, from this work emerged a sense of immediacy around accessible code learning.

Our solution was to combine the design challenges into one mega project. We approached the Processing Foundation, and they accepted our application to their 2016 fellowship program. The Processing Foundation’s mission — to “promote software literacy” and “empower people of all interests and backgrounds to learn how to program and make creative work with code” — aligned nicely with the project goals.

We began the project with input from experts and focus groups that have facilitated a redesign of the P5.js learning resources and web-based code editor to ensure that they are accessible to people with low vision and blindness.

Expert Interviews:

We interviewed five professional HCI (Human Computer Interaction) researchers and developers with special interest in accessibility for people with visual impairments. Each of these stakeholders have visual impairments themselves, and offered great insights into the issues of this type of undertaking and examples of previous attempts.

Focus Groups and Code Learning Workshops:

We held five workshops in which people with visual impairments came and learned web development and also tested our P5.js web-editor prototypes as they have developed with feedback.

Description: Smiling student volunteer and participant sit at a desk with laptops in front of them.

Figure 3. Student volunteer and participant during workshop

Description: Claire stands behind three workshop participants sitting at a table with laptops in front of them.

Figure 4. Participants check on each other’s work during coding exercises.


Led by Mathura Govindarajan, Luis Morales-Navarro, and Cassie Tarakajian, we have been continually developing the accessibility of the P5 development environment (IDE) and its user interface elements/interactions across a variety of browsers, operating systems, and assistive technologies (AT).

The outputs of P5 sketches have been a particular challenge to convey in an accessible format. As canvas elements are impenetrable by screenreaders (the only HTML5 element that is), we worked on creating a “Shadow DOM” that dynamically interprets the visual and spatial outputs on screen. Our Shadow DOM outputs are hidden but accessible to screenreaders.

The three outputs that we have developed are 1) accessible text (english language description), 2) tabular (in a table format), or 3) tonally based (panning and frequency used to convey position and speed) descriptions of the visual content on the canvas. In their current state, the accessible outputs handle fairly simple sketches and can be activated in P5’s web-based IDE’s Preferences menu.

Description: Animated gif showing text and table outputs of a simple sketch with animation. Updating text and tabular data reads the position and size of ellipses in a canvas on the bottom left of the screen. A red ellipse is at the top left of the canvas and, green and blue ellipses bounce vertically from top to bottom of the canvas.

Figure 5. Visual example of text and table outputs of a simple sketch with animation

We have also created a high contrast mode for the IDE and developed our own “Color Namer” that translates RGB values to color descriptions. With the assistance of Lauren McCarthy, we have worked on an audit and remediation of P5’s resource website accessibility. This small but dedicated team is currently working on making an accessible widget for the editor, so that it can be embedded in online lessons and tested with high school students.

Description: Screenshot of high-contrast editor mode, screenshot of P5 website, and color namer logo

Figure 6. P5 accessibility-specific software work

If you have any questions or wish to contribute to the project, please email us at ability@nyu.edu


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