Recently a friend of mine visited a blog she often visits. What she didn’t know was that the blogger had added a fun, temporary new feature to her blog. When my friend visited the blog, it triggered a seizure.
There are many different kinds of seizures, and every person experiences them differently, but some common aspects of seizures include inability to think, exhaustion, loss of bodily control, memory loss (during or around the seizure), and severe headache. Regardless of the specifics, having an electrical storm in your brain is not fun.
The seizure trigger in my friend’s case was WordPress’s “Let It Snow” feature, which is a feature that causes little white dots to float continuously down the screen soon after someone opens the blog. I believe people enable this feature on their blog because they think it’s fun — probably for them, and they assume, for most of their blog visitors. [Update: Actually, I have just learned that if you have the paid version of WordPress, it does this automatically in December. Blog owners need to opt out if they don’t want it; I think this is a terrible system, and it should be an opt in. I plan to try to contact WordPress and ask them to change it.] They may do it to be festive, to enjoy the holiday season, to spread some cheer among their readers, or because they don’t know how to turn it off. I’m certain nobody uses this feature with the intention of causing distress to site visitors or with the intention of making their site inaccessible.
Autoplays Interfere with Access for Many People
The problem is larger than snow. And it doesn’t just affect people who are susceptible to seizures. Autoplays — any sound or movement that starts up automatically when someone opens an email or webpage — can interfere with internet usage for many, many people.
Examples of autoplays:
- A music player that starts up automatically when someone visits your business site or .ning personal page
- A video that starts playing when a visitor opens a news article
- Animated GIFs (short clips of moving pictures or drawings) that you paste in the comments section of an online magazine
- Graemlins or smileys in emails or on bulletin boards that bounce, flash, or change facial expressions
Examples of disabilities that are affected by autoplays:
- Blindness, low vision, or other visual issues
- Migraines and seizures (the first and fourth most common neurological disorders, respectively)
- Sensory processing issues and various of other neurological issues
- PTSD, panic attacks, and other conditions that cause a heightened startle responses
Recently, I tried to do some education on this topic in the comments section of a magazine where a video was on autoplay in an accompanying article. Some of the responses to my comment let me know that many people don’t understand how and why autoplays can be an issue for so many people. So, here are some details that I hope will answer lots of questions. (If I don’t address your question, please comment!)
Q: If someone has one of these problems, why don’t they just leave the page or turn off the video or music when it starts up?
A: Sometimes this is an option for people and sometimes it isn’t. In some cases, as soon as the computer screen flashes or the sounds start up, the computer user has a problem. My friend’s seizure was triggered before she could exit the page. The same can be true for migraines; I have had migraines triggered by music playing, by the WordPress snow, and by other moving or flashing things. Once the migraine or seizure starts, you’re stuck with it, regardless of what windows you close.
Some people (including me) may also experience sensory overload — causing disorientation, trouble thinking, or even panic — as soon as music comes on or a video plays or smileys bounce across the screen. This confusion and overwhelm can interfere with my ability to find the “off” button for the player or the tab to close the window or even the volume control for the computer. On more than one occasion — and I’ve heard this from others, too — I have had to hit my computer’s power button just to escape the sensory overload because I couldn’t figure out how else to make it stop. For people whose symptoms are severe when they unexpectedly encounter an autoplay, navigating the web can feel like a minefield.
Q: If the problems are so severe, couldn’t you prevent them by keeping your sound shut off or avoiding sites where videos play and things like that?
A: Some people keep their sound shut off, but this isn’t workable for everyone. I’ll go into more detail about that in my answer to the next question.
Avoidance of problematic pages isn’t always effective because you don’t always know where you will run into these issues. For example, I subscribe to several blogs that I enjoy, and most of the time they present no access issues for me. However, every year, suddenly, some of them are snowing. I like to be able to read these blogs — some of them are written by friends — so I don’t want to just stop subscribing to them. And it’s also not a workable solution for me to not read any blogs from Thanksgiving through New Year’s because I have a lousy sense of time and impaired memory. It is always a surprise to me when I open a blog that is normally fine and it suddenly starts snowing.
The other reason for not just avoiding sites that have these features (even if that was possible) is that, as is probably true for you (since you’re online), the internet is very important to me. In my case, the internet is my primary source of information, friendship, entertainment, communication, and work, and losing access to this is difficult. In particular, I’ve found that certain illness-specific communities (such as chronic illness forums on .ning and many illness boards) are very heavy on the bouncing smileys and autoplay music. When my neurological symptoms were particularly bad and I couldn’t tolerate unexpected sounds and movement, I stopped using them. Sadly, these were also my main sources of emotional support and medical tips for the very diseases that were causing these symptoms.
Relatedly, I like having my sound on for the same reason many people do: There are sounds my computer makes that I want to hear — sounds which I have enabled, in some cases. For example, when a new email arrives, or I get a private message or a relay call, my computer goes “Bing!” so I know to check messages or email. I also like to intentionally watch videos or listen to radio programs that interest me. I could theoretically turn my volume off and on all day long every time I opened a new page or tab on the internet, but that would be a real energy drain and pain in the butt, and also, I do sometimes try to do that, and there is one substantial drawback: because one of my neurologic issues is impaired memory, I often forget that I’ve turned my volume off. Then I miss message notifications, can’t understand why the volume isn’t working on a video, etc.
And then there are people for whom, if they turned off the sound, their computer would be unusable: screen reader (or text reader) users,* which includes many legally blind and virtually all totally blind computer users. Screen readers use audio output** (a computer “voice”) to tell the user what’s displayed on the screen, including the content (such as an article) and the navigation (such as links, headers, applications, descriptions, etc.). If you’re using a screen reader and suddenly music or a TV clip starts playing loudly at the same time, it interferes with your ability to read and can also make it difficult to navigate away from the page causing the interference! This is another example where “just turning off the music/video” is not a viable solution, because you might not be able to navigate to the “pause” button to turn it off.
While we’re on the subject of visual disabilities — just because someone is blind, it does not mean they won’t be affected by visual autoplays as well as sound autoplays. There are a lot of kinds of blindness, and not everyone who is blind is totally blind. For example, my friend whose seizure was triggered by the snow autoplay actually is functionally blind and uses a screen reader, but she has enough vision for her brain to undergo an electrical storm when it registers the flashes and movements on the screen.
Q: But a lot of people really LIKE music, videos, bouncing and flashing things, “Let It Snow,” etc.!
A: Yes, and I wouldn’t want to deprive people of that enjoyment, either! That’s why I think the best solution — one that can work for everyone, I believe — is to make such features contingent on the user activating them. In other words, if you have a visual art website and you think it will heighten visitors’ enjoyment to hear music that accentuates certain aspects of the art, set up your music player so that they can hit “play” IF they want to hear the music. If your article is about a funny video, use one of the many video players that allow people to hit “play” when they want to see the video. I see no reason why WordPress can’t add a widget that says, “Let it snow!” so that blog visitors who want “snow” while they read can activate the snow. Etcetera.
This is really, in my opinion, about consideration and consensuality. Just as websites with explicit sexual content have a warning screen or put “NSFW” (“not safe for work”) in post titles, and posts detailing violent or dehumanizing events include a trigger warning, it is only reasonable and kind to allow all users, whether disabled or not, to choose whether or not to have music blare, graphics bounce, or people shout from a video screen.
Three Simple Steps You Can Take to Make the Web More Accessible
1. When you set up your blog, website, magazine, or personal page on a forum, don’t use any autoplays. If you want videos or music to play, great — just make it optional. If you already have autoplays set up, remove or alter them so that visitors to your site have choice.
2. When you visit a website, blog, or forum that uses autoplays, ask the people who own or run the website to remove or alter them so that they can be used consensually. I think it’s most effective if you explain why they’re a problem for you or others and give examples. I also think such requests go over better if you make an effort to be courteous.
3. Share this post! Lots of people have no idea that autoplays can be problematic for others, often including friends and loved ones. I am certain that many people would opt not to use them if they knew there were alternatives that would provide greater access and well-being to many of their site visitors.
I welcome your comments!
– Sharon and Barnum, SD
P.S. If you want to learn more about creating accessible sites, here’s an article about five easy steps to increase access, and here’s a more comprehensive one I wrote that includes reference to colors, flashing, sound, etc.
*Screen readers may also be used by people with print disabilities such as learning disabilities.
**Some screen reader users, which includes some Deafblind people, might use a Braille output instead of or alternating with an audio output.