Q&A with Sonokids Australia: education through gaming for children with disability

Monday, 7 December 2015 11:02am

We spoke with Phia Damsma, co-founder and Creative Director at Sonokids Australia, to learn about the processes involved in creating accessible, educational computer programs for children with disability. Phia tells us about her award-winning projects and motivation to create accessible content for children.

Sonokids Ballyland. Image credit: Sonokids Foundation

How did Sonokids come about?

Phia: Sonokids Foundation originated more than 15 years ago in Europe when two likeminded professionals, with decades of varied expertise and skills, shared one vision: information technology and the internet as unique enablers of equal access and opportunities for all children, regardless of visual impairment. Sonokids Australia was established in 2008.

What drives you to create accessible games, programs and apps for children?

If provided with the right tools, resources and skills, children who are blind or have low vision can become just as competent and proficient users of computers and other technologies as their sighted peers. Most sighted children have access to computers and mobile touch screen device technology from a very young age. Parents and educators of young children with vision impairment often struggle to find accessible software that can help these children learn the special technology skills they will need. To fill this gap, Sonokids designed Ballyland: playful, educational computer software that supports children with vision impairment in the development of fundamental technology skills. Of course, playing and learning is more fun when shared with sighted friends and siblings. Therefore Sonokids applies inclusive design concepts. Moreover, the software is designed to enable the children to learn independently.

Stay Still, Squeaky! was a finalist in the ‘Most Accessible Children’s App’ award category of ACCAN’s App For All challenge. What was your motivation to create this audiobook?

We were motivated to create this accessible, interactive, audio eBook app after listening to concerns expressed by parents and educators of young children with vision impairment. A young child who is blind might be given a mobile touch screen device and simply wants to play with it. But without experience with the correct touch screen gestures this often proves to be a frustrating and disappointing experience. Sonokids designed Stay Still, Squeaky! as a fun app (for iOS and Android) with a high level of usability and accessibility. The child can be a first time user, and he or she only needs to make a non-specific ‘swipe’ and a timely touch of the screen. The app is self-voicing, and does not use the in-built screen reading features of iOS (VoiceOver) or Android (TalkBack). The fun story is fully carried by the real voice of the narrator, the sound effects and the soundscapes. It is supported by colourful images and animations with good contrast. In case you wondered about the title, Squeaky is one of the five balls that are the main characters in Ballyland. He needs to stay clean before a visit to his grandmother, but unintentionally gets dirtier and dirtier.... Children love interacting with this story.

How have people responded to your games and apps?

The response to our educational software and apps has been extremely positive in particular the Ballyland software which teaches young children how to use a keyboard in a fun way. Ballyland is an accessible world with audio-based games that support the development of tech skills, and I don’t think anything like it really exists. Ballyland is being used by individuals and schools in Australia and around the world. Parents and teachers tell us that even very young children with vision impairment can stay focused and engaged with the program for a considerable period of time. The best reward we get from our work is the response from our target user group. When young children who are blind or have low vision engage with our software programs, their excitement and enjoyment is obvious, and they really embrace the opportunity to independently explore and learn by doing. They gain confidence from their achievement in interacting with technology, which also positively affects their engagement with their friends.

Can you share some of your interesting experiences when creating accessible content?

Sonokids aims for a very high level of accessibility and usability, as well as ‘playability’. This concept of ‘Ludic Design for All’ is the starting point and at the core of the design. We find that it is essential to involve people with vision impairment in the design. During the design process, we talk to technology consultants and teachers. We invite children with vision impairment to be (beta) testers of the programs. Children are absolutely honest, and will let you know when there is something that they don’t understand or simply don’t like. As developers, it is essential to observe and listen to the testers, and to take all this feedback on board in order to keep improving your product. High level accessibility and usability always benefit many more people than you even set out to achieve. Finally, our experience shows that people always find new ways of using and applying our programs beyond what we can imagine. And that is great! We have shared some of our experiences in a paper, which can be downloaded from our website.

What previous accessible projects have Sonokids worked on?

Throughout the years Sonokids has worked on many projects, all of them accessible. In 2002, Sonokids launched the world's first inclusive, accessible children's web portal, offering accessible games, news and stories for all children, regardless of a vision impairment. Sonokids Radio enabled young people with vision impairment to create and broadcast their own radio show from home. Sonokids MaX was an accessible content management system with which hundreds of children with and without a vision impairment built accessible websites. Finally, Radar the Eargame taught safe web browsing skills to children with vision impairment. It was designed as an audio play about a bat, a dolphin and a mole, and included unique sound effects, and real voices from famous people. Still being used is the All Abilities ePlayground, which Sonokids developed as part of the Queensland All Abilities Playground Project. Like outdoor playgrounds, it offers different types and levels of play with alternative access modes for children with disabilities, including ‘Puff2Play©’. The ePlayground has won important national and international awards.

Are there accessible games, apps and Ballyland audiobooks we can expect from Sonokids in the future?

For sure! Watching a young boy who is blind and a novice user of an iPad happily and confidently reading Stay Still, Squeaky! to his younger, sighted sibling, motivated us to consider creating a series of Ballyland eBook apps, each featuring one of the Ballylanders. However, first, in early 2016, we expect to launch our new Ballyland Magic App which we have been developing for a long time. This app will offer children with vision impairment the opportunity to safely and playfully learn the special touch gestures they need to be able to navigate mobile touch screen devices by way of VoiceOver or TalkBack. The app presents the Ballyland Magic Show, in which the children, as well as the Ballylanders, will play an important role.

You may also like:

  • Our accessible gaming page, providing mainstream, alternative and educational gaming options across desktop, mobile and console devices.
  • Information on web browser accessibility including Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Safari for Mac and Opera.
  • Desktop accessibility covering Windows and Mac operating systems.
  • Mobile accessibility across Apple iOS, Google Android and Microsoft Windows operating systems.

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