Obstacles for the Blind in the Internet Age

Obstacles for the Blind in the Internet Age

01 June 2017

Obstacles for the Blind in the Internet Age
 
When the world is at your fingertips, as it is for anyone who has access to the internet, it is easy to take for granted just how much of our lives are spent on the internet. If you have ever wondered what it is like to be blind in the age of the internet, you’re not alone. For the blind, the internet is a very different world, and it is much more interactive than you may have imagined.
 
For so many who are visually impaired, blind, or have low-vision, the internet is not the boundless world that it is to others. The internet is largely a visual place, full of logos, designs, photos, and emojis, and that can make it feel unwelcoming to the visually impaired.
 
The good news is that the internet has come a very long way in becoming more inclusive for everyone, including the visually impaired. While progress has been made, it is slow, there are 39 million blind people in the world who would beg to differ that enough is being done to address the issues at hand.
 
In a world where internet access is not a luxury but a necessity to conduct business, go shopping, and enjoy entertainment, the deck is unfavorably stacked against the visually impaired.
 
The technology that currently exists to aid the low-sighted or blind with internet navigation, such as screen reader software, can be intimidating, awkward, and all-around difficult to use. The typical screen reader works by reading websites and aurally transcribing the information on the website to the user. The biggest problem with the technology is often not the screen readers themselves, but the coding and labeling that goes into building the website.
 
When a website is coded, the source code includes labels that describe the different elements that make up a website. These labels provide the information for what the screen reader reads aloud. When you are including an image on your website, for example, that has necessary information on it but is only labeled as “image,” the screen reader cannot offer up any information beyond the world “image,” leaving the user out of the information loop.
 
Additionally, if you wanted to purchase a product, and are able to navigate the website to put the items in your cart, but the cart’s checkout button remained unlabeled in the code, the screen reader would be unable to guide you to that location to the complete the checkout process.
Seniors have a doubly hard time with the internet. Seniors grew up without technology, and even fully-sighted individual seniors have difficulty navigating the internet’s ever-evolving technologies. Many are not comfortable using common internet-based activities like sending emails, checking Facebook, or paying bills online. Screen readers make things that much more difficult for many low-vision and blind seniors, but no other technology is on the table at the moment.
 
As you might imagine, the inconsistency of accessibility for the blind from website to website is incredibly frustrating. Unfortunately, the only sites that the ADA requires to be accessible to blind users are government websites, a mandate that offers little to the average internet user who is browsing the private sector.
 
Thankfully, slowly but surely, people have taken notice of the problem at hand and are actively seeking out ways to correct the gap in adaptive technology. For example, Facebook recently launched a new feature called Automatic Alternative Text, a feature that allows visually impaired users to “see” pictures by offering audible descriptions of key elements in the photos, including the names of tagged friends.
 
In order to make the internet accessible to everyone, coders and web developers need to use Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and test them to ensure that everyone, not just the sighted, can access all of the available information on their websites. What is clear is that it is much easier to build websites that meet the WCAG guidelines than it is to update your site later.
 
HTML coding provides the coders with the WCAG guidelines already in mind, and offers the web developers the opportunity to be as descriptive as they can be with the images that they use on their websites. What can be more helpful than describing the image itself is describing the functionality of the image, like “contact us,” or noting links to additional materials or sites.
Even today, at least fifty percent of internet sites are unusable or virtually inaccessible to people who use visual aid technology to navigate the internet. There remain many “black holes” on the internet, or areas that are not accessible to blind individuals. PDF pages, used often on restaurant pages for menus and as the preferred format for free books online, often cannot be read with screen readers. Flash pages, though now much less frequently used, also confuse screen readers.
 
There are organizations out there like the nonprofit Carroll Center which offer their services to help businesses build better, all-inclusive websites that connect them a much broader customer base than ever before. Hopefully, more businesses will utilize these outreach programs to reach all of their customers equally.
 
While technology may be slow to improve access to everything for everyone, there are people hard at work, hoping to create the next piece of adaptive technology that will revolutionize the internet for the blind.
 
Chris Maury, himself a blind Silicon Valley big wig, is determined to develop a way to get developers to utilize the “audio-first” experience. The “audio-first” experience allows the visually impaired to hear only the necessary information about a website instead of the laundry list of uninformative details that they have to listen to because they cannot browse sites casually in search of specific pieces of information. He is hopeful that his tech will make it to blind internet users soon.
One way or another, the internet is becoming necessary in our everyday lives, so it has to be accessible to everyone. Until these changes take hold, it is still up to individual developers to choose to be inclusive, adopt an “everyone in mind” policy when it comes to their site’s content, and make sure that consumers, both sighted and visually impaired, can utilize this revolutionary technology to its fullest. Removing barriers and increasing use and development of adaptive technologies is the only way to ensure the betterment of the all who seek the internet’s resources.