Learn how blind and low vision users access the web and how you can make your company’s site more accessible

 

According to the World Health Organization, more than 2.2 billion people have a vision disability with most of them over the age of 50. However, vision disabilities can affect people of all ages. 

Every person's experience with a vision disability varies due to different factors such as the timing of discovering the vision disability, access to treatments and rehabilitation, having the financial means to cover medication and treatment, and the individual’s ability to access information and transportation. While several well-known tools exist to help users navigate the web, web developers, designers, and product owners still must do their part to create and maintain an accessible website that allows accessibility tools to properly navigate them. 

This article aims to shed light on the use of the internet by blind and low vision users, the tools they use to help them navigate the web, and suggestions on what can be improved to help more people to access the internet. 

Assistive Technology: What It Is and How It’s Used

The term assistive technology has been bandied about, but what is it? In simple words, assistive technology is any software, tools, devices, or equipment that help people with disabilities to do tasks or activities that would be difficult or impossible to do without the technology. Examples of assistive technology for people who are blind or have low vision to help them access content on the web include screen readers, refreshable Braille displays, screen magnifiers, and speech-to-text. 

Screen Readers

Screen readers are another useful tool to help those with visual impairment to navigate and consume digital content. What are screen readers? The AFB defines screen readers as “screen readers are software programs that allow blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer or braille display. (...) It is the interface between the computer's operating system, its applications, and the user.”

You have a few options for screen reader software. Each one is different depending on the individuals' needs, such as what operating system they use and cost.

Job Access With Speech (JAWS)

JAWS is a computer screen reader program for Microsoft Windows that has a refreshable Braille display and text-to-speech option. It was developed for computer users with vision disabilities that prevents them from seeing screen content or navigating with a mouse. JAWS does has a learning curve with many functions for users to remember.

Nonetheless, it allows users to control all major functions of windows using keyboard shortcuts or verbal feedback. JAWS also has a complex scripting system to let users to automate tasks. WebAIM last screen reader user survey in 2021 has found JAWS to be the most popular screen reader among those surveyed. However, it's high price tag can be a barrier. 

NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA)

NVDA — one of the most popular portable screen readers — is a free open-source application for Microsoft Windows. Like all other screen reader software, NVDA reads the text shown on the screen aloud in a computerized voice of the user's choice. Like JAWS, NVDA has a learning curve as users learn shortcuts to control how they navigate digital content.

NVDA works with refreshable Braille displays to convert the on-screen text on into refreshable Braille. WebAIM's survey puts NVDA close behind JAWS.

VoiceOver

According to WebAIM's survey, VoiceOver is the third most popular screen reader. It works similarly to JAWS and NVDA with one notable difference. VoiceOver works with macOS computers and iOS devices. It comes built-in Apple products, so there are no costs or downloads.

You can turn on VoiceOver through Siri and say "Turn on VoiceOver" or go to Settings > Accessibility > VoiceOver to turn it on or off. When VoiceOver is on, you can use your voice and gestures of two-, three-, and four-finger taps and swipes to navigate digital content with VoiceOver.

Refreshable Braille Display

Refreshable Braille displays are small devices that can translate digital content by raising and lowering different pins to create braille that continuously changes with the text. As the image shows, people using a refreshable Braille display do not use the standard QWERTY keyboard. They use what’s called a Braille keyboard, which has fewer keys than a standard QWERTY keyboard.

A person's hands on a refreshable Braille display

The American Foundation for the Blind explains why some people use these devices stating that “the advantages of braille displays over synthetic speech are that it provides direct access to information; allows the user to check format, spacing, and spelling; and is quiet.”

Additionally, people who are deafblind may not be able to hear speech. They are able to navigate digital content with a refreshable Braille display. Unfortunately,  refreshable Braille displays are expensive as they cost anywhere from $5,000 to $11,000.

Screen Magnifiers

Screen magnifiers can make text, icons, and graphics larger, up to 20 times their original size. Some of the newer models say they can magnify the screen by 32 times. Users can magnify the whole screen or a specific area of the screen. Magnifier tools have advanced to the point that they can read the text on-screen aloud, making them a valuable option for users who are blind, low vision, visually impaired, or have other disabilities. 

A screen magnification software can smoothen the edges of text that is hard to read or invert screen colors from light mode to dark mode. Users who use a mouse can customize the mouse pointer or cursor by circling it. Doing this makes it easier to find the pointer. Most available options come with control panels that can customized. Windows and Mac operating systems come with built-in screen magnifiers.

Speech-to-Text Technology

Techopedia defines speech-to-text or speech dictation software as “a type of software that effectively takes audio content and transcribes it into written words in a word processor or other display destination.” This tool allows people to use verbal commands when navigating websites, apps, and devices. 

Some people who are blind or have low vision find it easier to issue voice commands to conduct searches, write emails, or enter text messages than to type, especially on a cell phone with its flat onscreen keyboard. 

Desktop keyboards, otherwise known as “QWERTY” keyboards, can be hard for some users with disabilities to use, particularly for people with mobility disabilities. Speech-to-text technology makes browsing the web a lot easier without the need for a standard desktop keyboard. 

Website Challenges That Affect Assistive Technologies

In a world with innovative assistive technologies, there are several important issues regarding their accessibility and compatibility with websites you need to know about. Many internet sites are not properly designed to support screen reader text-to-speech software or navigation without a mouse. This can prevent a user who is visually impaired from using a company’s website or product. 

Furthermore, websites that have incorrectly designed pop-ups, such as email subscription offers, customer support chat boxes, or other pop-ups may lock out visually impaired users from using the website. 

Other website issues that might arise for those with low and no vision are incorrect use of headings that confuse the screen readers, missing alternative text for describing images, and poorly written text links. Avoiding these problems will improve your website’s accessibility for people who are blind or have low vision. 

Tips to Optimize a Website for Users Who Are Blind or Low Vision

Developers and designers can use this list to ensure they create an accessible website for those with vision disabilities. Doing these will enhance their brand presence because it will allow more people to be able to use their website.

  • Provide labeled controls and information on every button and action. This lets screen reader users know what they are and what they do.
  • Limit overloading pages with content or pop-ups that can interfere with a user’s experience whether they use a refreshable Braille display, screen reader, or dictation software.
  • Add links to the right text that tell you where the link will take them, so users can decide if they want to visit the link or not.
  • Use proper headings (<h1> to <h6>) to create headers instead of formatting the text. 
  • Add alternative text on all images so the users know what the images are in relation to the content.
  • Test the mobile versions of your website to ensure they work with assistive technologies. 

The Bottom Line

This article shares the challenges of people who are blind or have low vision in how they access the internet. It delves into the innovative technologies they use to consume digital content without barriers.

The article answers the question "How do blind people use the internet?" by discussing technologies such as screen readers, refreshable Braille displays, screen magnifiers, dictation text-to-speech software, and other innovative tools that help visually impaired people navigate websites. But that’s only part of the equation. 

Companies and their web developers, designers, and product owners still need to do their part to ensure they follow accessible and inclusive design tips like those covered here. When they don’t, assistive technologies used by people who are blind or low vision cannot properly navigate the website. When you apply these useful tips to design an accessible website, you’ll reach far more people.