Why Autoplay is an accessibility issue

Autoplay hit the headlines recently when a video showing the deaths of two journalists was seen by people scrolling through their Facebook and Twitter feeds. The video automatically started playing as the posts loaded and showed graphic images which shocked and horrified many people.

News coverage across the web revealed the problems created by Autoplay, which is an increasingly common ingredient of video-based advertising. For people with disabilities, however, autoplay content is not only irritating but can be a real barrier to access.

What is Autoplay?

Twitter messages underlined people's distress at seeing the videos

Anyone that has been online recently will have experienced Autoplay, whether on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, or on any of the many sites that rely heavily on advertising revenue. As well as displaying unwanted content it can suck your battery life and gobble up your data allowance, and it is time-consuming and frustrating to click away all the different types of adverts, or search for the ‘skip this ad’.

Why is it an accessibility issue?

Videos and Flash animations that automatically start on a website can be frustrating and even distressing for users with cognitive impairments, impeding their ability to concentrate when reading the content they’re actually interested in.

For those with photosensitive Epilepsy, videos or animations can sometimes trigger a seizure or increase the risk of a seizure occurring. Significant flashing or flickering between the range of 2-55Hz (two to fifty-five times a second) must be avoided.

If you are blind or visually impaired and using screen-reading (text to speech) software on your device, autoplaying animations or video that includes music or audio makes some web pages all but impossible to access.

This is because the audio that automatically starts playing completely obscures the speech of the screen reader. This means that the blind user can’t hear the screen reader and therefore they can’t navigate to the ‘Stop’ button (if there is one) to stop the noise.

All content needs an off switch

Often all they can do is wait for a long enough pause in the audio so they can stop it. More often, however, they aren’t able to find the ‘off switch’ so just give up and navigate away from the page in frustration or disgust.

Autoplay does have some use-cases. Most users want Youtube videos to start playing automatically, for example, because that is the content they have chosen. But, as with all things, accessibility needs to be both considered and factored into to the design and delivery of all digital content.

Top tips for accessible Autoplay

  • If you must have autoplaying ads on your web pages then make them move through one or two cycles of the animation and then pause.
  • Provide a ‘Play’ button in case people then want to watch it again. Most such ads are delivered using Flash and it is easy to oblige in this way by providing suitable controls built into the Flash player.
  • Avoid combining audio with animations unless absolutely necessary.
  • With videos avoid autoplay if you can and, if you must, code it so that hitting the ‘Esc’ key will stop it playing.
  • If you need to include audio in your video try to make it quiet and inobtrusive or else provide sufficient pauses in the audio to help blind users find the ‘Stop’ button. Oh, and provide a ‘Stop’ button too.

The tide of opinion is turning against ads in general, and autoplaying ads in particular, so keep your visitors happy and your disabled visitors delighted by ditching the autoplay and embracing accessibility and good digital design instead.

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