Last week, we wrote about examples of the internet being used to stimulate other senses apart from sight and hearing. This led me to further investigate what it’s like to use the internet if you’re unable to see it.
After all, most of the internet is visual. If you’re reading this blog (unless by accelerated mobile pages (AMP)), you’ll be able to see our vibrant purple and white colour scheme, our weather-responsive banner and a picture of me at the bottom of the page from when I still had hair. Though good content is what makes a site worth visiting, it’s aesthetics that give it its identity.
According to the World Health Organisation, 39 million people in the world are blind, and a further 246 million have low vision. So, when an internet user can’t access the visual elements of a site, what other tools can they use to make the most of their browsing experience?
Most of us are probably familiar with the concept of computers taking text and reading it to us in their usually fairly monotonous, robotic voice. For the fully sighted, this is largely a novelty, although it can have practical uses for tasks like proofreading. For computer users who are unable to see, however, it becomes a necessity.
However, unlike a word document, a website is rarely read from top to bottom, so text-to-speech software will often struggle to give the user what they want if a site is poorly designed and coded. This is probably something developers rarely think about, but shows that among certain groups of users, a cluttered website can be more than just unattractive.
Screen readers offer a more developed version of text-to-speech that responds to the user’s on-screen activity. The user can move from one part of the screen to the next and the reader will call out what they are hovering over – for example, the World Health Organisation data link we provided earlier would cause it to say out loud “link – World Health Organisation”. The reader will do the same thing for tabs and drop-down menus so that the user knows not only what the text says, but what element of a website it is too.
One of the most innovative solutions to the problem of browsing without sight is refreshable braille displays. These are often used in conjunction with text-to-speech software, but also allow people with both vision and hearing difficulties to use the web.
Refreshable braille displays are complex and somewhat limited tools, but they work by analysing the text on a site and converting it to braille characters, meaning they respond as the user moves from one screen to the next.
Using the internet with site is a concept most of us rarely think about, but these tools make it a possibility for a significant proportion of the population. We can make it easier ourselves by building well-designed websites that easily make the transition from text, to speech, to texture.