If you are new to the term assistive technology, it is basically an effort to help disabled people use technology in the same way as we do. The term refers to hardware and software that enables people with disabilities to access technology.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are more than 4.2 million Americans who are legally blind or suffering from low or limited vision. The CDC predicts that this number could more than double by 2050, mostly owing to the increasing age-related eye issues and other chronic diseases.
For visually impaired or blind users, assistive technology comes in the form of different devices that adapt the use of a computer or smartphone. There are two types of people here: ones that can see nothing (blind) and people who are visually impaired but can still see light and many variations in between. Today, we are focusing on assistive technology for both groups of people.
Is The Internet Currently Accessible For These Users?
Accessibility is a big standard nowadays. However, the Internet as we know it is still inaccessible for many. A lot of that can be attributed to web designers not being aware of the accessibility guidelines or their choice of ignoring them.
Also, the target user group of the visually impaired is often considered to be too small for someone to invest the necessary time, money, and effort in making the Internet accessible.
On the other hand, the Internet is a platform that allows participating in all activities and taking advantage of various business opportunities. Therefore, all individuals should have an equal chance to browse through websites, use apps, and be able to read information from the Web.
The good news is that over the past few years, assistive systems and tools have already emerged, giving the blind user the ability to access information across a range of devices.
Still, there are many digital barriers that exist and prevent users from using these emerging technologies. These include issues like incompatibility with screen readers, complex layouts, photos and graphics used instead of text, new content, etc.
Assistive Technology For Blind People
As we said above, the main point of assistive technology is to find ways and devices to help any user with disabilities access technology. People who are blind use screen readers, braille displays, and speech recognition software as examples of this technology.
Screen readers are a perfect device for people with a lack of vision. For those of you who are new to the concept, a screen reader analyzes the layout of the website and its content, providing a smooth text-to-speech translation.
One of the best things about screen readers is the fact that they can be configured in terms of speed and other commands. For instance, blind people can skip from heading to heading, click on links and perform various other tasks on the screen. In the same way, sighted individuals can navigate through a website, blind ones can use a screen reader to perform all kinds of tasks.
Some of the best examples of hardware screen-based readers include Apple’s iOS VoiceOver, Android TalkTalk, and the Kindle Text-To-Speech. Screen reader software examples include NVDA Non-Visual Desktop Access, Job Access With Speech (JAWS), Microsoft Narrator, and Fusion.
Refreshable Braille Displays
A refreshable braille display is an electro-mechanical device that resembles a keyboard, displaying braille characters. This piece of computer hardware has a series of refreshable (also known as fluid) braille cells on its surface, where each dot is represented by a tiny pin that can be raised or lowered.
The anatomy of the device represents a grid of small rectangular cells, each of which has holes for raising round plastic pins which form the braille characters.
Once the user has read a line of text from the braille display, they can refresh it with a press of a key on the keyboard. Designed to work with screen readers, using these braille displays will turn any ordinary website into a “braille website.”
Most of the braille displays are available in 40,70, and 80 characters, but there are also pocket-sized braille devices that are available with only 14 refreshable cells. From the presentation of spelling to word layout and text formatting, these displays are ideal for quiet perusal.
Blind and visually impaired individuals can use it to read text using their fingers. Braille displays come in a hardware form (Focus by Freedom Scientific and Braillant by Humanware are some of the best) and software versions (iBrailler Notes and Google Braille Back).
Speech Recognition Software (Dictation)
There are plenty of dictation tools that fall under the category of software that can recognize text and translate it to commands as assistive technology.
Also known as voice-to-text, speech recognition software is another technology that provides computer assistance and increased accessibility to disabled individuals. With it, blind and visually impaired people can use the Internet to navigate, type, as well as interact with web content using their voice.
There are many common examples of software programs and assistants like these. They include Siri, Apple Dictation, Windows Speech Recognition and Google Docs Voice typing. All of these have capabilities that can read aloud text and help people with low vision search and use the Internet.
Also, there are commercially available software packages that can integrate the features of screen-based readers and dictation, but they are often expensive for people. Services like DictationBridge for NVDA or JAWS are some of the best open-source alternatives.
Assistive Technology Designed For Blind Users
Aside from technology, it is important for every website to have accessible design for blind and visually impaired individuals. There are plenty of accessibility issues that can potentially restrict access to people who are blind. These include the following.
First on the list is keyboard accessibility. Each web page needs to provide access through the keyboard for navigation, but not all websites respect this. Keyboard accessibility is a priority for all websites and programs.
Pop-up windows can prevent blind people from moving forward to another page. They can also block the path of going from one page to another, and make the user feel lost and unable to get back to where they were.
Clutter on pages and carousels
Pages with clutter and carousels that are full of moving text can be hard to navigate through for the blind. Aside from that, they are not user-friendly for other people.
ARIA markups are sets of code that expand HTML’s capabilities, making it easy to optimize the site for screen-based readers. However, misuse of this markup can create problems for visually impaired people and the way they use the Internet.
Document headings and labeling
Heading tags are crucial for screen readers. Without them, the software cannot properly locate the text blind people want to read.
Linked text can also create problems and should be optimized accordingly. For instance, visually impaired individuals prefer longer link texts instead of a couple of linked words only.
Alternative (ALT) text
Alternative text (also known as alt-text) is the text that describes images so that blind people and visually impaired users reading through the website can understand the description of the image.
Basic Steps In Making A Web Page Accessible
- Always provide textual descriptions for images, tables, and embedded content.
- Use the right markup to separate page elements (headings and paragraphs) from other elements, so that screen readers can navigate through your site with ease.
- Provide “skip links” that allow low-vision individuals to skip directly to the main page content, instead of having to listen to the menus, banners, and other content.
- Make sure your form elements have clear labels and can be navigated by the keyboard alone.
- Make all links on your website self-descriptive rather than context-dependent.
There are nowadays special browsers for the blind which can interpret the HTML structure of any webpage, conveying meaningful information to each user in an intelligent way.
These technologies can also simplify navigation and provide support in an intelligent way, becoming a guide for the visually impaired. In that manner, browsers like these have many capabilities and are able to provide voice identification and dictation, text-to-speech, integrated screen readers, screen magnification and zoom, as well as text identification when interpreting characters from images.
Some of the popular options include:
- PwWebSpeak, a browser that allows users to interact with a website through auditory or combined auditory and visual methods.
- WebbIE, a browser that renders web pages in an easy-to-use text-only way, allowing blind people to search the Web.
- Lynx, one of the most reputable text-based browsers used by blind people. Its ability to read text aloud, voiceover options, and Braille support make it one of the most popular voiceover and assistive technology software solutions of this kind.
Main Capabilities Of Accessible Websites
- A great website uses proper markup, allowing individuals to understand the page’s structure and hierarchy even without seeing it. This allows individuals to navigate to section headings and document landmarks.
- Link text that clearly identifies the nature of the link, without using any ambiguous phrases (for instance, “click here” or “read more”).
- Images that have descriptive ALT tags.
- Instructions that are presented so that they don’t require any vision (for instance, “click the red button on the top of this window”).
- Controls that have clear labels, are easy to find and can be operated from the keyboard (allowing blind people to use the Internet without obstructions).
- Pages that are easy on content and make performing the tasks easily
- Unnecessary information that is not initially displayed, but often through a “Show More” button.
- When new content appears online, an announcement made to alert the user that new content is available, as well as a proper placement so that it is easy to locate.
Using Mobile Devices
Smartphones have been widely used by everyone, and lately, they also gave plenty of possibilities to blind and visually impaired users. For instance, blind people now use apps that help them recognize money, identify colors, scan bar codes as well as read product information, helping them navigate in new cities.
How Do Users Who Are Blind Access Touchscreen Technology?
Accessibility features have a long way to go, and they have been helping blind people use the computer and Internet for some time now. The proper use of these features in touchscreen applications is synchronized through audio feedback, which is added to each tap on the screen.
In that manner, any blind user can tap on the screen in a specific area and hear information about what they tapped. To activate the area, they can tap again, and even people with no vision can understand what is on the screen based on the provided audio feedback.
Nowadays, Apple has probably the most mature accessible smartphone technology. Additionally, apps that are written for the iOS operating system are more likely to be accessible.
From location and purpose labels to gestures like tapping, swiping, and pinching, blind individuals need to recognize information on smartphones.
Mobile Experiences For The Blind
Nowadays, plenty of smartphones come with accessibility features. Below are examples of software for blind users that can help them search, surf, and navigate the Internet.
- Voice Dream Reader: This app can extract different words from PDF files and other documents. It can decipher text from web pages, too.
- Android Accessibility Suite: This collection of accessibility apps helps individuals read items from the screen, control the device through commands, use one or more switches or a keyboard instead of touch, etc.
- KNFB Reader: This app uses optical character recognition to read any text present in image files taken from a smartphone. The app can also be used by individuals who want to take pictures of books, magazines, or user manuals and the app would read the contents aloud.
Website Accessibility Is A Legal And Moral Obligation
Currently, all businesses should give everyone equal access to their online services. Failing to do so can result in plenty of expensive lawsuits with heavy fines and penalties. The companies that meet the accessibility compliance criteria have a higher chance of reaching out to a global audience.
There have been several legislations that were passed to protect the rights of disabled individuals. One of them is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which passed in 1990, making it compulsory for businesses to accommodate blind users in public places.
Design Needs To Center Around The Needs Of Blind People
Lastly, there is a lot of technology that can be optimized for the needs of individuals with disabilities. From hardware to software and other computer display options, color contrast, plenty of existing tech needs to be accessible.
Currently, this is a win-win situation for your organizations and people with disabilities. Fixes can go a long way in making a big impact on the user experience.
All in all, the advances in these technologies made it possible for the blind and visually impaired to learn, compete, and communicate equally with their sighted peers.
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The ADA prohibits any private businesses that provide goods or services to the public, referred to as “public accommodations,” from discriminating against those with disabilities. Federal courts have ruled that the ADA includes websites in the definition of public accommodation. As such, websites must offer auxiliary aids and services to low-vision, hearing-impaired, and physically disabled persons, in the same way a business facility must offer wheelchair ramps, braille signage, and sign language interpreters, among other forms of assistance.
All websites must be properly coded for use by electronic screen readers that read aloud to sight-impaired users the visual elements of a webpage. Additionally, all live and pre-recorded audio content must have synchronous captioning for hearing-impaired users.
Websites must accommodate hundreds of keyboard combinations, such as Ctrl + P to print, that people with disabilities depend on to navigate the Internet.
Litigation continues to increase substantially. All business and governmental entities are potential targets for lawsuits and demand letters. Recent actions by the Department of Justice targeting businesses with inaccessible websites will likely create a dramatic increase of litigation risk.
Big box retailer Target Corp. was ordered to pay $6 million – plus $3.7 million more in legal costs – to settle a landmark class action suit brought by the National Federation of the Blind. Other recent defendants in these cases have included McDonald’s, Carnival Cruise Lines, Netflix, Harvard University, Foot Locker, and the National Basketball Association (NBA). Along with these large companies, thousands of small businesses have been subject to ADA website litigation.
Defendants in ADA lawsuits typically pay plaintiff's legal fees, their own legal fees for defending the litigation, and potential additional costs. In all, the average cost can range from tens of thousands of dollars, to above six figures. There are also high intangible costs, such as added stress, time and human capital, as well as reputational damage. Furthermore, if the remediation is incomplete, copycat suits and serial filers can follow, meaning double or triple the outlay. It's vital to implement a long-term strategy for ensuring your website is accessible and legally compliant.