6 technologies that empower the blind and visually impaired to access the internet
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Many people are curious as to how the blind and visually impaired use the internet. One of the most common questions I get asked when talking about web accessibility is: “how can the blind “see” websites?” The short answer is that if a person is blind, they cannot see websites. However, they can still access the internet and the content of websites, as long as the websites follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 guidelines on web accessibility. This is a very important point. In order for the tools I will show you below to work effectively, a website must be made in accordance with the international standards mentioned above, the WCAG 2.1.
Visual impairment is a very vague term. It covers anything from a slight loss of eyesight to blindness. When talking about how the visually impaired access computers – and the internet – we need to be mindful of the huge spectrum and that every person is different. Below i covered the most common assistive technology being used by the visual impaired and blind.
Let’s start with the oldest assistive technology for the visually impaired. Something you undoubtedly know about: glasses. Eyeglasses have been around for nearly 800 years and continue to be the number one tool to help people see better. Some people use actual magnifying glasses, either hand-held or attached to the computer screen. However, a more modern and less cumbersome solution is magnifying software or mobile app. It acts just like a glass, magnifying either the entire screen or just parts of it.
Computer monitor magnifier. Photo from kantek.com
The more sophisticated magnifying software go beyond simply increasing text. They can sharpen the images, increase the color contrast and change the color combination, making it easier for the color blind and others to read.
People can also increase the screen text (zoom in) on any modern computer by pressing “Control” and “+” on a Windows computer, or “Command” and “+” on an Apple computer. To zoom out, simply press “Control/Command” and “-”. To make it easier, some websites have buttons to increase and decrease the font. For an example, just play with the buttons on the top left corner of this website.
Image of buttons to increase and decrease the font size on this website.
Another very popular type of tool that enables the visually impaired and blind to access the internet is text-to-speech software, also known as screen reader, or reading, software. As the name implies, these software convert text into speech, reading out loud the content on the screen. In addition to reading letters and words, text-to-speech software can also read common icons and some graphical images.
This is the same concept of Global Positioning System (GPS) software, like Google Maps, which guides people step by step with speech. Similarly to GPS, most screen reading software allows users to change the language and the voice. Some will simply give you the option of selecting between a female and male voice, while others will give dozens of different voices and accents. Differently than GPS, these software allow you to control the reading speed, making the computer read the content much faster than normal speech. You can also change the tone and the pitch.
If you want to experience a screen reader software, simply install the ChromeVox extension on the Chrome browser. Alternatively, if you have an Apple device, you can turn on VoiceOver. It comes with all modern Apple devices. Here’s a very useful guide to using Apple’s VoiceOver. If you decide to try this out, just remember to turn it off at the end of your experiment.
Text-to-speech enables a person to listen to the information on the screen, but not to input new information. To edit or create new content, as well as to control the computer, another set of software is used; speech-to-text software. In this case, you speak and the computer types for you. With voice commands, the user can apply keyboard shortcuts, control the mouse, open and close software, and interact with the computer; Cortana on Windows and Siri on Mac. Here is a list of keyboard commands and shortcuts, written by the American Foundation for the Blind. The list includes commands for both Windows and Mac.
This type of tool is also commonly used by people with cognitive and motor disabilities. Some productivity gurus highly praise and recommend speech-to-text technology to sighted people as a great way to save time – one can write while driving, jogging, cooking, etc.
Some of the more advanced software have both speech-to-text and text-to-speech functionalities, enabling a user to control the computer and listen to the content on the screen. Software that does speech-to-text and/or text-to-speech cost anywhere from free to thousands of dollars.
Want to try speech-to-text? Turn on VoiceOver on your Apple device or install and enable Google Keyboard on your Android device.
Talking to the computer is great. However, some people prefer to type. There are a few ways in which a visually impaired or blind person can type. Some people memorized the order of the keys on the keyboard and just type freely. This is the case of the blind YouTuber Molly Burke. In this video, explaining how she uses her computer and mobile devices, she says that when she was younger, she knew she would probably lose her eyesight so she memorized the order of the letters on the keyboard. That’s impressive, Molly!
Well, since not everyone has Molly’s amazing memorization skills, some people add Braille stickers to the keyboards, so they can feel each letter. Still other people prefer to type directly on a Braille keyboard. These keyboards vary from a portable device that costs about $1,000, all the way up to a large keyboard that can cost nearly $10,000.
Braille stickers for keyboards. Photo from datacal.com.
Technology is truly amazing! It warms my heart to know that there are many incredibly intelligent people dedicating their lives to universal accessibility. If you are not yet familiar with Braille displays, these gadgets will amaze you. They convert the text on a computer screen to Braille. They vary in size from 18 to 80 cells. A cell is a group of eight elevated dots, which is the basis for the Braille system. The displays are usually equipped with a keyboard as well, so the person can both type and read. If you want to know more about these fascinating devices, read this amazing guide on refreshable Braille displays.
Braille keyboard and display with 40 cells. Photo from himsintl.com.
Though these Braille displays provide a great way for the blind to read, there is a huge shortcoming. It can only display one line at a time. Imagine looking at a computer screen that only has one line of text, nothing else. Engineers have been tinkering with a display the size of a normal tablet with a refreshable screen. The German government attempted to create this device, but shut down the project when they realized that the device would cost around $50,000 dollars each, making it infeasible. However, a team of engineers at the University of Michigan, led by professor Sile O’Modhrain have been working on a technology that would make it possible to create affordable full-screen Braille displays. The project is called the Holy Braille. Great name for an amazing device.
Last, but definitely not least important, a blind person can also print the screen, using a Braille printer (also known as Braille embosser), and then read the content. These printers convert the content of page into Braille and emboss into special paper. There are several drawbacks, however. Braille printers are noisy and slow, as compared to normal printers. Also, Braille paper is thicker, which makes it more expensive and leaves a larger environmental footprint. Furthermore, the printers are very expensive, ranging from around $2,000 to $80,000, depending on the volume it can print and whether it can do single- or double-sided printing. Wikipedia has a nice article on Braille printers.
With the assistive technology mentioned above, the blind and visually impaired are able to access the internet. Still, there is plenty of work to be done to bridge the gap, giving people with disabilities equal access to the internet. Perhaps you will feel inspired to join us to turn disabilities into possibilities by inventing the next cool idea. If you do, please let us know! Just remember that the first step in making the internet accessible to all is ensuring that your website is web accessible.