Accessibility Considerations for Augmented and Virtual Reality for the Classroom and Beyond

July 14, 2020

From the classroom to on-the-job training, instructors are increasingly taking advantage of augmented and virtual reality because of the benefits they provide to learners. Particularly since many students are learning from home due to the current health crisis, these technologies are being touted as the next best thing to the classroom experience.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are being used for simulating graduation experiences, virtual campus tours, and much more beyond the classroom. These technologies are used in the workforce to enhance workers’ skills in fields ranging from child welfare social work to fast food.

One thing is clear: AR and VR are trending in 2020. However, developers commonly fail to prioritize accessibility during design. Students with disabilities and workers who are prevented from using these technologies are denied their right to accessible education and training.

Augmented vs. virtual reality: what's the difference?

Augmented typically adds to or modifies one's environment with, like the popular mobile app that lets users see and catch life-like creatures as if they're actually in the same world as the user. Virtual reality, on the other hand, immerses people in a completely simulated environment.

Accessible AR and VR technology for users with physical disabilities

AR and VR accessibility has been missing in many aspects of the technology from hardware to design. Heavy headsets, hand tracking, and large handheld controllers with stubborn buttons can pose immediate barriers for users with differing physical characteristics and abilities, underscoring the need for inclusivity.

For example, users with some physical disabilities may have difficulty coordinating the fine motor movements or strength required for selecting control buttons or manipulating simulated environments. Users who are small in stature or unable to stand require functionality that can be adjusted to meet their physical needs. Developers should also ensure that AR and VR designs and hardware don’t rely solely on motion control or voice navigation but are compatible with accessible gamepads.

Accessible AR and VR technology for users with visual disabilities

By employing a few simple principles common to website accessibility, AR and VR developers can easily make their products inclusive to blind or visually impaired users. Immersive sound effects, audio descriptions, and text and image magnification functionalities can remedy many of the barriers posed by traditional designs. And much like websites, AR and VR should include appropriate color choice and contrast ratios.

For example, individuals who are blind may require audio descriptions to understand the environments they encounter or any text overlay on the screen, but users with other visual impairments may use magnification and color contrast functions to enhance AR and VR reality.

Accessible AR and VR technology for users with hearing disabilities

Users who are deaf or hard of hearing can more-easily access AR and VR if transcripts and closed captioning are made available for the audio elements of the experience. Captions are key to capturing any sound that happens in real-time.

Captioning can capture any sound, speech, or music in real-time and be synchronized to match on-screen action. WCAG success criterion 1.2.4 states that, like transcripts, captions should include dialog, identify who the speaker is, and note other sound effects or significant audio. But be sure captions don’t obstruct any information on the screen.

Lastly, AR and VR should include adjustable volume and caption controls and function with a keyboard, screen reader, or other assistive technology.

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