Master of Design, Inclusive Design, OCAD University

Access, Action & Agency: Inclusive Design for the Non-visual Use of a Highly Interactive Simulation

Taliesin L. Smith

Advisory Committee

  • Clayton Lewis & Emily B. Moore
  • University Colorado, Boulder

April 15, 2016

Importance of Accessible Science Education

P1 (paraphrased): I wanted to study Chemistry, but when I started losing my sight in high school, my teachers could not figure out a way for me to do it. They suggested Biology, but still that was still a passive experience.
P6: " Interesting, I hear you talk about the negative charges and everything, and I feel kind of stupid because I don't even remember if like the little static shocks we get are negative or positive."
Balloons and Satic Electricity

PhET Sims are Effective Learning Tools

Implicit Scaffolding

Target User

Student with vision loss who uses a screen reader and a keyboard.


  • No description for visual representations
  • No keyboard access for interaction
  • A black box to screen readers

Design Challenge

Three connected circles connecting: Access, Acrion and Agency.

Methods: Inclusive Iterative Evaluation

Experimental Play: Live Installation of a PhET Sim.
Experimental Play: Live Installation of a PhET Sim.
Experimental Play: Live Installation of a PhET Sim.

Design Features: PDOM, Hotkeys & Descriptions

Parallel DOM

What Worked Well


Description Strategy Framework Emerged

Discussion: Complex Design Space

Conclusions & Future Work

Inclusive Design

  • Focused on screen reader users
  • Created an inclusive tool using an inclusive process
  • Benefit students with dexterity impairments, teachers & other makers of highly interactive learning tools

Future Work

  • Complete descriptions
  • Provide help in more flexible and findable ways
  • Investigate where sonification
  • Apply our description framework to other sims

Special Acknowledgements


Navigational strategies

P1: "I generally use the arrow keys to navigate line by line."
P4: [Starts off by navigating by section] "Nice, lots of, I'll look for the Main region." [Finds it on second go around.]
P8 (paraphased) "I'm new to this site, so I am first going to go through everything with the down arrow [...] I'm repeating stuff to make sure I didn't miss anything. [...] Now, I'm going to a Tab through"

Engagement with science

P3: [with 2 negatively charged balloons on the Sweater] "I want to see what happens if I put one balloon on top of the other." [second Balloon repels and moves to the bottom of the sweater.] "What will happen if I do the same thing on the Wall?"