How Blinds explores the Web
Let's take a look on how blind persons uses the web in this article.
- Screen Readers
- Keyboard Navigation
- Braille Displays
- Quick and Dirty - Tab and Cursor keys
- Aim and Search
- The House Metaphor
- Read more
The cornerstone of internet accessibility for blind individuals is the screen reader. A screen reader is a software application that converts text and visual elements into synthesized speech or Braille output. By "reading" the content aloud, it allows blind users to perceive and interact with websites and applications. Popular screen readers like NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access), and VoiceOver have made the internet accessible to countless individuals.
Keyboard navigation is another fundamental skill for blind internet users. Instead of relying on a mouse, blind individuals navigate websites and applications using keyboard shortcuts. This method involves using various keyboard commands to move between links, buttons, and form fields. Properly designed websites ensure that all interactive elements are accessible via keyboard navigation, guaranteeing an equitable experience for all users.
Braille displays are tactile devices that convert digital content into Braille characters, allowing blind individuals to read and interact with information in Braille. These devices are particularly useful for tasks like reading long documents, coding, or engaging with Braille-compatible applications and websites. Braille displays are a vital tool for blind users who are proficient in Braille reading.
Many blind individuals also use text-to-speech software and voice commands to interact with their devices and the internet. Voice-activated virtual assistants, such as Amazon's Alexa or Apple's Siri, enable users to perform various tasks by simply speaking commands, from checking the weather to sending emails.
Even if every blind person has their own personal configuration of operating system, screen reader and configuration, there are generally three strategies for explore websites.
Quick and Dirty - Tab and Cursor keys
The quick-and-dirty strategy is ideal for third-party websites that you will probably never visit again and for poorly structured pages. Incidentally, this also includes most of the pages optimized for mobile devices.
All you need for this strategy is the tab, cursor up and down, and the page up and down keys. On touch screens you just run your finger over the display until you find the interesting spot.
The Tab key moves from one clickable element to the next. Larger areas can be jumped using the page up and down keys, and text and other elements can be skimmed over using the arrow keys.
Jaws and NVDA have a button to skip clickable items, so it's usually pretty quick to find the area of content we're interested in.
The second mode is suitable for websites that are well known or that are well semantically structured. This is where the so-called navigation keys of the screen reader come into play. By pressing "H" you can jump to specific exceeded, with "F" you will find form elements. Apple has cleverly solved this for the touchscreen with the “rotor”. If you perform a rotary gesture on the touchscreen with three fingers, you choose between the various elements (headings, links, etc.) and can find the set element with the standard swipe gesture.
More advanced users can also jump directly to the various areas of the website if they have been marked up semantically via HTML5 or ARIA. If you know the website very good, you can also work with the different heading levels. Pressing "1" should usually lead to the main heading of the content.
Aim and Search
Mechanisms for a targeted search are available for extensive and complex websites. Jaws and NVDA allow a listing of all headings and links on a website. This makes it very easy, for example, to scan the news headlines on a well-structured news page.
The search function of the screen reader helps on very extensive websites. For example, I search the German Deutschlandfunk website for a program called “Sprechstunden”. The site lists a few dozen shows, so structured mode wouldn't get me there efficiently. Instead, I enter the character string "Sprechstunde" hour" using the screen reader's search function and it jumps directly to that element.
If a term occurs several times, the list of headings or links is very useful. For example, if I want to call up the "Science" category on the Deutschlandfunk website, I call up the list of links and press "W" until the focus is on the relevant link. Then I don't have to remember whether the link is called "Wissen" or "Wissenschaft", which is an advantage for info junkies like me who consume many different news portals.
The House Metaphor
It is always difficult to explain to sighted people how blind people explore the internet. My current idea is to use an unknown house as a metaphor. I like to work with metaphors because even showing is sometimes too abstract.
Imagine you enter a building you don't know. You are looking for something specific, but you don't know exactly where it is or what it looks like. So you stand in the entrance area and have no idea how the building is constructed. But you are allowed to look everywhere and open everything, the owner is not there and you are so free for once. The rooms are the metaphor for sub-pages, the boxes are the individual areas of the page.
Before you come in, however, you have to press a certain spot on the wall of the house (cookie message). But where is this spot? Well, now it's time for trial and error. You want to give up in frustration, but then you finally find a somewhat worn-out area, which must be it, and that's what it was.
If you are lucky, the individual boxes are labelled: Navigation, Content, Footer and Page Area. But if you're unlucky, you'll have to open the box to find out what's inside. Imagine a pile of locked boxes for each room: You have to look inside each box to find out what it contains.
Each room/underneath looks a little different. So you have to explore it anew every time you enter it. You also have to actively go to each box and open it to find out what is inside. Similarly, a blind person can't just visually survey a webpage and "get" where they want to go.
Shoot, this room has the lights turned off. You can feel a bunch of switches and knobs at the entrance. For some elements you don't even know whether they have a function or not. Unfortunately, you don't know what the individual elements are for, so try it out on the off chance. Shit, now you have beamed out of the room and are back in the entrance area. Which room did you just look at again?
Yippy, you've found the content room and the box with the contents you were looking for. Unfortunately, some jerk threw in a lot of stuff that doesn't belong in there. So while you are looking at the content, something keeps popping up that doesn't belong: advertising, subscribe to our boring newsletter, take part in our fart boring survey. And what a bummer, the contents are divided into several boxes, the second box is in the next room, then have fun searching.
After you have made a voodoo doll of the house owner and pierced it with plenty of wooden pegs, you stumble enervated to the exit. But wait, unfortunately you still have to fill in a form, we are in Germany after all. But some joker, probably the house builder, has torn off the part of the sheet that says what is to be entered in the respective fields. Bad luck, without a correctly filled in pass A38 you won't get any further. Unfortunately, there is no happy ending for that story.