Happy Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2019

What is GAAD?

Today marks the eighth Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). The purpose of GAAD is to raise awareness of the importance of digital inclusion. We need to get people talking, thinking and learning about the need for accessibility on the web, mobile devices and software for people with disabilities. GAAD promotes accessibly awareness for all disabilities, but I’m going to explore the topic in the context of blind and visually impaired users.

Who is GAAD targeting?

It’s great to raise awareness of digital accessibility for people like me, who want or need to use it. But really, the people who need to be more aware of it are the back end developers, designers and every organisation and person who has a website. How high up on their agenda is alt text and compatibility with screen readers?

Me and digital technology

Let me start by saying I’m not an expert in assistive technology, accessible technology or technology or any kind. I’m pretty average in terms of my tech knowledge, but as a visually impaired person, technology is actually a major part of my life. I live in a kind of cycle of using assistive technology to access information, and using that information to help me in some way in real life. Sometimes it’s for practical purposes and lets me get things done independently, like finding my way around. Other times it allows me to to enjoy something I wouldn’t otherwise be able to, like reading a book. Of course this only works if that information is accessible. That is key. Despite all the assistive technology out there, there’s still a lot of technology and digital information which just isn’t accessible. Technology, if accessible, can be a life changing tool for a visually impaired person. I have found it not only allows me greater independence, it’s also a small step towards levelling the playing field. It can let us learn more and ‘see’ more than ever before. Reading about GAAD, led me to wonder if developers of digital products understand the reality of how accessible technology can affect the everyday life of a blind person? I’d like to share a few examples of how I use digital technology daily. So come along and take a peek into how this average blind girl uses tech to improve and enjoy life. I may not be using things for the exact purposes they were designed and I may not even be using things correctly or to their full potential, but this is just real life for me. I’m afraid truly tech savvy blind and VI friends will find this post terribly basic! It’s not the right way or the wrong way, this is just what works for me at the moment.

Smart Assistants

I use Alexa a surprising amount throughout the day. A lot of the time I use it as a sighted person would – to play music, listen to the news and listen to audio books. For me, it’s remarkable how unremarkable that is. Unremarkable, because I use Alexa exactly how my sighted friends would. There’s no assistive technology or software I need to use to make Alexa accessible. It just is. But to me, that itself is pretty remarkable. It’s rare that I can use digital technology in exactly the same way as my sighted friends. There are many other ways I can use Alexa, some of which help with my blindness related dilemmas. A really simple example is I ask Alexa the time and set timers throughout the day. This is much more convenient for me because I can’t see the clock and to use my tactile watch I need to stop whatever I’m doing so I can use both hands. When I’m choosing clothes or doing laundry, I ask Alexa whether it’s raining, because the only way I can find that out for myself is to go and stand outside. This takes a surprising amount of effort with small children tugging at your leg or insisting on being held. Alexa can also tell you how far away something is, what time the next train or bus is, control appliances in your home, tell you the time in other countries and even host quizzes for the family. I can use all of those functions in exactly the same way as a sighted person. I think Smart Assistants like Alexa and Siri special because they are both accessible and assistive.

Smartphones

I make calls, send messages, check emails, use the internet, bank online and do countless other things everyone else does. This is possible thanks to assistive technology such as zoom, large text, inverted colours and VoiceOver (Apple’s screen reader).

While assistive technology makes my smartphone accessible, my smartphone is also a key assistive tool, that helps with many tasks throughout my day. In fact I use it for assistive purposes much more than for it’s primary purposes as a smartphone. It’s not possible to list all the ways my phone helps me here, but I will mention a couple. Firstly, the phone itself has assistive features such as a magnifier, which I use several times each day, but my phone is also the place where I collect clever apps that really help me get things done. There are numerous apps designed specifically to help visually impaired people. My favourite such app is Seeing AI (which I wrote a separate blog post about here). It helps me read letters, labels and numbers, identify colours, people, currency and even furniture! I also use speaking map apps to help me find my way when I’m out and about. Other apps like Blindsquare could even help me find the gate in the park after I’ve been spun around on a roundabout! (Thank you to a fellow blind mum for this genius tip, she is awesome!). My phone is great in itself because it’s accessible, but it’s also a tool for keeping assistive technology apps all in one place. This is handy not only because it allows me to be more independent, but it also minimises what I need to carry around with me. If I’ve got my phone, I’ve got a digital magnifier, a colour detector, someone to describe the scene around me and read signs to me. Even though I don’t think the apps are quite as accurate as my standalone digital magnifier or colour detector, or of course having an actual person with me, it’s still pretty liberating to have some version of those things conveniently in my pocket. So do you see that having an accessible phone doesn’t just mean I can use a phone like everyone else? It gives me the opportunity to access life changing assistive technology that is really only available if my phone is accessible. So when the smartphone developers tick that accessibility box, perhaps it’s actually opening more doors for both their business and the end user than they might have considered.

Online

The internet has given visually impaired people the potential to access information as easily and as quickly as people with sight. The limitless information available at our fingertips means there’s no more waiting for large print or Braille books from the library, or needing someone to look up and read something to you. In theory, we can look up information and read it whenever and wherever we want. In theory, the internet is a huge equaliser. However, not everything online is accessible to those with a visually impairment. There are some excellent examples of accessible websites out there. The BBC news website seems to work well with my screen reader, it’s clean and intuitive and their pictures have alt text so I don’t feel like I’m missing out when I can’t see pictures clearly. Unfortunately there are other websites which are not very VI friendly at all. Some aren’t compatible with screen readers, don’t have an option to change the font size and have poor contrast in their colour scheme. Some are very busy with features that clutter up the page, like pop up boxes and adverts which appear when you open a webpage and some have confusing menus and buttons without labels. It is in an organisation’s best interest to ensure their sites are accessible, and I don’t mean just to avoid penalties incurred for failing to meet legal requirements in this area. The World Health Organisation estimates there are around 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world. Does it make business sense for any organisation to have a website that alienates this number of people? If I visit an online shop that is not accessible enough for me, I can’t be bothered to spend time trying to navigate it. I’ll just move on and find the product I need at another online shop with a more accessible website. Imagine if 285 million potential customers all did this. Perhaps accessibility is more important than you thought?

However, progress is being made. Like the majority of people, I use social media regularly. Key players in the world of social media have taken steps to make their channels more accessible. For example, Facebook has an automated alt text feature which uses artificial intelligence to describe objects in pictures. Facebook also has shortcut keys which are great for people who use screen readers and only use their keyboard for navigation. Twitter has a feature which allows you to add alt text to a picture before tweeting. If you enable this feature, you’ll be prompted to add a description to your pictures before you post them. These things might go unnoticed by most people who use these channels, but they do improve the experience for people who are visually impaired.

Digital World vs Real World

In some ways the digital world is streets ahead of the real world in terms of its accessibility for people who are blind and visually impaired. Finding information has never been quicker and assistive technology features heavily in my day to day. I can’t imagine how hard life would be without it. Real world VI barriers such as lacking confidence, not having a guide and travel restrictions don’t apply in the digital world. Parts of the digital world are easier to navigate than the real world. In other ways I feel like the digital world is just catching up with the real world. People are less aware of what is important to blind and visually impaired users because they don’t see it. In real life, if someone sees a blind person in a particular setting, they may have an idea of what would make that setting more accessible (such as moving a physical obstacle out of the way), or they might simply ask what assistance is appropriate. Online, people don’t really ‘meet’ each other in the real sense of the word. There’s little opportunity to observe and understand what a blind website or app user needs from a product, to enable them to use it fully, unless you formally seek feedback. In 2018, regulations regarding the accessibility of websites and mobile apps came into force in the UK. Much like in the real world, this kind of legislation is necessary, positive and a step on the right direction, but I’m not sure how much a change in the law, changes the mindset of the general population. There are plenty of signs that we are moving in the right direction and GAAD is designed to reinforce that and push the industry forward. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying having access to the tech that I do. It helps me do all the little things that make a big difference to my day. I’m also aware there’s a lot out there I haven’t come across yet and am excited to learn what’s happening in the digital world that is relevant, or could be made relevant to someone like me.

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