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Web Accessibility for Vision Impaired Users

Blind person using a computer

A blind person using computer with braille computer display and a computer keyboard.

When a business commissions the design of a website, its intent is clear and simple. Its objective is to share as much relevant information about the business or service as possible, in a manner which will persuade and incline people to take the next step and make contact, with the ultimate objective of generating sales revenue and positive exposure for the business.

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When communicating goals with your website designer, we first need to consider who our target market demographic is and how the greatest majority of those people can be reached.

It’s obvious you say; create an eye-catching, aesthetically appealing web design, with plenty of graphical representations of the ideas or products you are trying to promote and naturally, the desired response will follow.

In the majority of circumstances, that idea holds true. Your target demographic typically comprises people who can see and can immediately appreciate the products or services you are promoting. However, there is a small but growing proportion of the population who cannot appreciate the beautiful graphic designs you’ve just spent hours contemplating and designing, because they either have very limited partial sight or no sight at all.

It would be easy to inadvertently discount this group of the population who are affected by disability, as small and insignificant to the success or revenue generation of the business. It may not be immediately apparent how a person with a visual impairment, would view or interact with the website which is being designed at all.

But if businesses that aspire to be socially responsible and inclusive want to differentiate themselves from the competition, then it is worthwhile to consider a few simple and inexpensive changes that can really improve accessibility for visually impaired people. This can also engender positive exposure and recommendations from blind users, indicating to others that the business website is accessible and user friendly. Google are also likely to rank a website higher that is more accessible to this increasing population demographic,

In New Zealand, there are 12,000 people registered with the Blind Foundation, who are living with some degree of visual impairment. This figure is projected to increase considerably, because of the significant group of New Zealand’s population who are living with diabetes, which over time can cause glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and cataracts. Eye conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration, cause progressive deterioration of eye function, which gradually reduces the sufferers’ visual acuity. Such deteriorating eye conditions cause those affected to have to adapt to different ways of achieving the things in life which they once took very much for granted and can often be responsible for stopping them from reading printed material or going out independently.

jaws windows text to speech software

There are many interactive adaptive technologies which can significantly improve the independence of people with a visual impairment, and much of that progress has been made in the past twenty years. Now, computers used by the blind, have a speech output program installed, a speech feedback program known as JAWS, job access with speech. This program interprets then verbalises the text on the screen, and has hotkeys which provide the ability for a visually impaired user to interact with the computer through keyboard combinations, rather than an inaccessible mouse. For people who have varying degrees of partial sight, there is Magic screen magnification software, which magnifies onscreen text, and can be used in conjunction with Jaws.

The other technological advance which has really improved accessibility and parity of communication and access to information for blind people, are Smart phones such as iPhones, which have an in-built native voice-over system. Voice-over is preloaded on all iPhones, and can be activated in settings. This reads onscreen text and allows the user to interact with all functions of the phone. The introduction of apps where pertinent information is condensed and simplified, has also revolutionised access to and interaction with previously less accessible content, which was once only available on cumbersome websites with hundreds of links and disruptive flash movies. Websites like this seem to take an eternity to load each page; the webpage is sitting there for one to two minutes, while Jaws interprets and makes sense of the text, and then starts reading it out.

Navigation on websites which have refreshing flash movies, play videos automatically and which are replete with more graphics than text, is very difficult and often navigation and interaction is ineffective.

You may now wonder; with all the advances in technology, why it is necessary to consider the accessibility needs of visually impaired people when you are planning the design of your website at all? After all, the advent of adaptive technology should entirely ameliorate their circumstances in such a way as to make any considered planning by your web designer unnecessary.

Unfortunately, despite exponential improvements and advances in the technology visually impaired people use, there are limitations and imperfections which compromise the accuracy, detail and usability of certain websites, when they are accessed in conjunction with a computer running JAWS.

Jaws cannot interpret graphics, so it is very helpful to a blind user if these can be labelled with an accurate description. Likewise, hearing Jaws repeatedly say, “button, button” is an infuriating experience for a visually impaired user. If the buttons were labelled when the website was designed, then Jaws would read each button with its correlating function, i.e. “next” and “back”.  If buttons are not labelled for integrated interpretation by the user’s screen reading software, then your potential customer cannot interact independently with your website, and will simply have to close and exit it. Many people who suffer from underlying eye conditions which have caused their vision to deteriorate or become significantly impaired, may not have access to someone with sufficient sight who can click on the button for them, and find themselves feeling frustrated and dis-empowered. Adding alt and title tags to all images on the website would resolve this issue for a blind user.

blind population increasing in nz

The number of vision impaired people in NZ is increasing due to our aging population and rising levels of diabetes.

Another issue with websites selling products is that they have only images and videos explaining how their product can enhance the life of the customer they are wanting to attract. This is obviously problematic, and a source of great frustration for the end user with a visual impairment. A simple well-considered description of the product, how it works, and what benefits it will provide, is the only remedy required to alleviate this problem. The images and videos remain excellent and very useful tools to promote your product to a great majority of customers; after all, it is said that a picture is worth a thousand words.

As the population ages and the proportion of people with a visual impairment increases, a business can really choose to differentiate itself from its competitors by making their website accessible and taking the time to add text descriptions to accompany the pictures.

Jaws uses navigation keys, which enable the user to move easily from one part of the page to another. This is because Jaws reads the page like a list; Jaws doesn’t say, “the menu on the top right” to a user. It simply verbalises the links in a list so that the user can tab through the links, and select the desired link by pressing the enter key.

Adding some headings so that a Jaws user can simply press the letter h to navigate through the headings and find the desired information, is a simple and inexpensive method to pragmatically improve accessibility, and ameliorate the experience visually impaired users have when they visit your website.

It is common to encounter websites where only some of the content is accessible. This too is understandably infuriating. The visually impaired user may be able to sign up or log in to a particular website and access to the desired content appears hopeful. Then, the Jaws enter action doesn’t activate the link and the content can’t be accessed.

Other frustrations for blind users include, combo or list boxes which don’t open for the user to select an option, mouse-over links which don’t activate when enter is pressed, and websites such as the New Zealand Herald website, which are so content-dense, that they take ages to load, and Jaws becomes temporarily unresponsive as it is forced to decipher and verbalise so much content, that it sometimes becomes overwhelmed, and stops working altogether.

Examples of very accessible websites are www.booklink.org.nz and www.rnzfb.org.nz, while websites with far too many annoyingly unresponsive buttons, and list boxes which won’t open while a screen-reader is in use is the Lotto website, and to some extent the NeonTV website.

The Trade Me website was once completely accessible and constructed in such a way that blind people could interact efficiently and accurately with all components of the auction process, from reading descriptions, asking questions and placing bids and buy-nows. In the past two or three years however, the Trade Me website has altered, and its usability for blind people has diminished significantly.

When planning a website, it would be helpful for the business owner to look at New Zealand government websites. These have been developed to comply with web standards for accessibility, and they provide visitors with a way to increase and decrease font size, and with methods of changing the colour contrast for easier text recognition. They are usually designed in such a manner as to provide the blind user with clear and distinctive means of locating, navigating and accessing information.

You may not wish to replicate all of the methods used on government websites, because the great majority of your customers will want some visual representations of your product. However, considering how any content, menu structures, and interactive buttons and graphics, can be organised and labelled with instructive text to make them accessible to blind and visually impaired users, is not only a socially responsible and considerate choice, but it is very likely to herald recommendations and increased sales.

Equal access to information is enshrined in disability charters as a right; at the present time, it could best be characterised as an aspiration rather than a universal expectation. Providing equitable access to information and the ability to independently and autonomously interact within a web platform, should be an expectation, not an inconsistent privilege. The just and socially responsible approach to web design is to ensure all websites are designed in a manner which serves the interests of the entire community and does not by omission or antipathy, exclude a portion of its population.

For blind people, the frustration, inequity and disparity associated with not being able to access the content they want independently or interact autonomously with a website without assistance from a sighted person is often demoralizing and in large part, by introducing and adhering to universal web accessibility standards, it is completely avoidable. Improving this circumstance by encouraging businesses and web designers to adhere to specific web accessibility standards is demonstrative of the changes which will need to occur if we are genuinely committed to having a fair and inclusive society.

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Once a website is fully accessible for use by a blind person, it immediately becomes accessible to all members of society. Surely this is an ideal and an aspiration, which is worthy of our effort and our consideration?

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