Us5: BBC online videos help people with learning difficulties make their choices
One group who often get overlooked when people are discussing accessibility are the 3% of the population who have learning difficulties.
This is partly because there isn't enough known in the accessibility community about how to make websites accessible to people with learning difficulties, and partly because their needs - for pages based around pictures or graphics, with simple text and large buttons for navigation - can often be so different from the needs of other website users.
Back in 2005, we did some research into how people with learning difficulties felt the BBC served their needs. This research recommended that, while fewer people with learning difficulties were online than the general population, this underserved audience might benefit from us creating specific Internet content for them, based on their interests, predominantly using images and video, and working together with organisations who best understand them like Mencap and PeopleFirst.
Since then we've launched services like the CBBC Newsreader which have made BBC news more accessible to older children with learning difficulties, by providing a simple, switch-based interface around news stories which are read out to them by a high-quality synthetic voice.
And I'm happy today to announce the launch of Us5 - a set of interactive videos created by, for and with people with learning difficulties to help them think through one of the biggest issues affecting them at the moment - the opening up of more choices to them resulting from the Government's move to direct payments, individual budgets and self-directed support.
People with learning difficulties have never before been so able to choose for themselves how they live their lives and what they want to do. However, because they've seldom had the opportunity before, this freedom can come with a lot of challenges and responsibility.
Created for the BBC by Gamelab London, Us5 shows people with learning difficulties five video stories of people like themselves making big choices, and supports them in thinking through what they might do in the same circumstances, and what the consequences might be.
The project is special in a number of ways...
- The video stories are 'hybrid fiction' - narratives based on 'true stories' developed and plot lined in workshops from the real experiences of young people with learning difficulties which are then simplified and engineered to bring home particular messages across five dramatic episodes.
- The videos were acted by a company of actors with learning difficulties, specially put together for Us5 by producer Owen Smith and director Adam Koronka from Yarrow Learning Disability Charity (who previously made Coping Strategies), and featuring guest performances by Ainsley Harriott and Kellie Shirley (Eastenders)
- Interactive comic strips are then used to allow users to try out different choices at the end of each episode to give users an immediate chance to make their own decisions.
- Us5 is one of the very few materials online created specially for people with learning difficulties, and has been a chance for the BBC to better understand how to create fully accessible content for this audience.
- Us5 has also been a chance for us to work together with Mencap, resulting in us sharing the Us5 videos as stimulus materials for engaging people with learning difficulties in Mencap's Plannet website - a new online planning model for young people with learning difficulties aged 16-25, which is currently in pre-launch testing. Plannet aims to enable young people going through transition to work towards self-directed support, which is part of the government's 25 year strategy on disability arising from the 'Improving the life chances of disabled people' report.
I'm delighted that, even though they were created primarily for the audience of people with learning difficulties, the quality and style of the resulting videos has already attracted one BIMA nomination, and a nomination for Best Children's Drama at this year's Children's Baftas.
Mark Goldring, Chief Executive of learning disability charity Mencap, comments:
"The Us5 films were a great opportunity for Mencap to work together with BBC Future Media and Gamelab to develop lively and relevant content to support the Mencap Plannet website. Mencap Plannet aims to deliver accessible and age appropriate materials for young people with a learning disability at a time when decisions over their future are so important."
The BBC 2005 report found that inexpensive broadband connections and multi-media content were key to making the web more accessible to people with learning difficulties. Now, approaching the end of 2009, broadband access is becoming cheaper all the time, and content like Us5 is providing a great example of what the Internet can offer to people with learning difficulties when their needs are specifically taken into account.
I hope this will encourage many more people with learning difficulties online - much has changed since those text-heavy days of 2005.
Jonathan Hassell is Head of User Experience & Accessibility, BBC FM&T