Dive into the experiences of a visually-impaired community of audio engineers and music fans.
Have you ever thought about whether it would be possible to work as an audio engineer if you weren’t able to see the waveforms in front of you?
Despite its output being solely about sound, audio editing software is one of the most visual interfaces, and that question – of how accessible it is to people with visual impairments – is one postdoctoral researcher Alex Lucas, and PhD candidate James Cunningham, are trying to answer.
Their podcast, Bridging the Gap, is a fascinating dive into the experiences of a visually-impaired community of audio engineers and music fans, and the barriers they seek to overcome in their pursuit of their career or hobby. Based at Queen’s University in Belfast, Alex and James – who has a visual impairment himself – want to widen understanding of access issues to music making and editing software through the podcast, and amplify the voices of audio engineers with visual impairments.
“We’re interested in access and inclusion in music making as a broad thing”
James’ PhD research studies are being supported by Creative United as part of the company’s wider commitment to increasing access and inclusion across the music industry. Bridging The Gap is just one of our initiatives – there is also the Take It Away scheme, which provides interest free loans for the purchase of musical instruments and associated equipment, and music tech products. The podcast series has been produced to help widen public awareness about the research programme, and open up the conversation about ways of increasing diversity and inclusion across the music industry.
“We’re interested in access and inclusion in music making as a broad thing,” Alex explains. For the past two years, the Bridging the Gap project has, in his words, been “trying to figure out if there’s anything that technology could offer to remove any access barriers that are currently being encountered”.
“There are probably five main pieces of music software which are used in the industry, and only about three of those have some degree of accessibility.”
When James explains his own setup, he describes how a digital audio workstation (DAW) exists as a series of tracks, visual waveforms and actions that can be applied to each track. Anyone familiar with audio editing software will know what he means.
“A sighted person can glance at the screen and get an idea of the state of the whole software just by having a look,” he says. “For me, because I use a screen reader, I have to navigate item by item. And so I partially have to rely on my memory. And then when my memory is too limited or I get it wrong, it becomes so much more time-consuming than taking everything in at a glance”.
James and Alex’s research led them to an online community of audio software users, or “sound creatives” as they call them for the purposes of the project, who tackle accessibility issues in their own enterprising ways. “With these online communities, what they’re doing is teaching each other how to use music software,” says Alex. “They share access strategies, and also develop extensions to software to improve the usability and accessibility of it as well. There is a grassroots movement where people are taking stuff into their own hands”.
“We spoke to about 20 of these people, and the issues that we found were that there are probably five main pieces of music software which are used in the industry, and only about three of those have some degree
of accessibility. So, from the get-go, the choice is limited. And then for those three pieces, there are degrees of accessibility. So, some features are accessible, some aren’t.”
“It isn’t just software-specific,” adds James. “Let’s say I get a new synthesiser. It comes with loads of knobs and buttons and dials. All of the buttons are helpfully labelled on the box for sighted people, but I can’t read that. So I might go online to try and find the manual. And sometimes there is a manual, sometimes there’s not. If I can read it [with a screen reader] great, but if it’s not accessible, I’m in trouble. Which means I have to explore trial and error, basically.”
James explains that different DAWs have different levels of accessibility and compatibility with accessibility tools. Until his involvement in Bridging the Gap, he says, he wasn’t aware of all of the options out there to improve his experience, like programmable accessible keyboards. Often, though, the usefulness of these tools depends on the user’s confidence in, and knowledge of, using them and making the necessary modifications.
You might expect these adjustments to be more readily available in educational settings, but the pair found this wasn’t always the case. “There seemed to be a little bit of a lack of awareness of what was available to blind and visually impaired people in music production,” says Alex. “So, if somebody with a vision impairment were to study music production, all of the course materials would typically be focused around a sighted workflow, and the lecturers or the teachers wouldn’t necessarily be aware of any alternative ways to use that software.”
As well as delving into the problems and solutions of the visually impaired sound community, the Bridging the Gap podcast also wants to raise awareness and challenge current approaches to accessibility. Last year, Alex and James were involved with the Audio Developer Conference, an annual industry event, and shared findings with several manufacturers, and have recently had a paper published in the Arts Journal about the potential of haptic technology and accessibility.
“We’re currently working on another journal article on the role of communities and accessible music technology,” says James.
As well as encouraging the development of specific technologies to improve accessibility, the duo hope that Bridging the Gap will shift attitudes in a broader sense.
“Some individuals with visual impairments even hesitate to disclose their condition in professional settings due to assumptions that may be made,” Alex says. “There is a sentiment within the communities that we’ve spoken to that people have certain perceptions about the capabilities of visually impaired people, and that ties into attitudes. So there’s a real need to address that.”