Web Accessibility: Using the Web With No Eyesight

Almost everyone uses the internet. Browsing websites, purchasing products online, checking bank account balances, or just chatting with friends using social media, are activities that sighted people take for granted. But, how would you accomplish these tasks if you were blind?

Different Modalities

When a sighted person uses the web, they use their eyes to scan the page, and then make a decision where to click their mouse or where text needs to be input such as on a form. Buttons and links are easily discerned. For a blind person, navigating these simple tasks requires an extraordinary amount of time in comparison and relies on whether the website being used is in compliance with W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) guidelines and international law.

Why Design Accessible Websites

Change is slow. In 2015, you would think that all major companies would realize the need to design their company websites using accessibility principles, but, sadly, that is not the case. Increasingly, pressure from the Justice Department, advocacy groups, and individuals through filing class-action lawsuits are making companies consider the consequences of non-compliance. It seems that these profit-centered companies don’t realize that it is actually in their best interests to design compliant websites if they would consider the following motivations:

  1. To improve the lives of people with disabilities.
  2. Reach a wider audience or consumer base to sell their products.
  3. Avoid costly lawsuits.

Two of the three motivations would improve the bottom-line and help contribute to the success of the business.

Visual Impaired Friendly Website Principles

Websites designed using the basic principles of P.O.U.R. will make the experience of using the internet for visually impaired much easier. P.O.U.R stands for:

  • Perceivable – because they cannot see visual information such as graphics, layout, or color based cues.
  • Operable – because they usually depend on a keyboard to navigate web content instead of a mouse.
  • Understandable – because they cannot understand content that is presented in an illogical order, or which contains extraneous text not meant to be read word-for-word.
  • Robust – because the assistive technologies used by the blind are not always capable of accessing a broad range of technologies, especially if the technologies are new.

Web Devices Used By the Visually Impaired

Braille Device

The main device used by the visually impaired to access the internet is screen reader software such as JAWS on a PC or VoiceOver on a Mac. Screen readers are specialized software that translates the printed worlds on a website into spoken text. More than just reading words, screen readers also alert users of special content markers that are coded into a page through HTML like buttons, links, and navigation. Each line of screen text is read one at a time from top-bottom, left-right, which is often confusing unless the site has been coded in an organized fashion.

Screen readers can also be used in conjunction with a Braille device (shown above) if the visually impaired person also has a hearing deficit. The words on the screen that are translated to speech will also raise and lower special pins on the device that simulate the characters of the Braille alphabet.

While this does offer basic functionality, it does not solve all of the potential problems faced by a visually impaired user. The following video explains some of the potential problems that screen readers don’t solve and makes the general case for web accessibility in a college setting.

Much More to Do

Advances in technology have provided internet users with disabilities access to the vast pool of information that is available on the web. But, much more needs to be done to make it a pleasant experience. The government, corporations, and individuals must be made aware of the importance of accessibility and how it transforms the lives of those with disabilities. Also, more legal framework, whether national or international must be put in place to ensure that the internet can attain total functionality for the un-impaired as well as the visually impaired.

Additional Resources

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