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Accessing the digital world with a visual disability

Close up of James Warnken who is smiling and has short brown hair

What is a visual disability?

Blindness is a spectrum and can affect people in a variety of ways. A visual disability cannot be corrected with contacts, glasses, or surgery. For me, my visual disability is caused by genetics, which cannot be fixed. When looking at the blindness spectrum, ranges from 20/20 vision through total blindness and it could also include conditions like colour blindness.

Visual impairments and legal blindness simply mean that the vision is below a certain threshold and cannot be resolved with common solutions. When it comes to total blindness, many people can still perceive light and shadows, but may not be able to perceive colours and details. Colorblindness comes in a variety of ways including red-green, yellow-blue, and even grayscale which all impact how someone might perceive different colours.

Technology impacting the blind user experience

Whether a user cannot perceive certain colours, has limited vision, or has no vision at all, each is impacted by the website’s design, formatting, and overall functionality. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Many websites use and rely on colour as a means of communicating with users. For users with colour blindness, this is a big problem and can lead to a process being impossible. A prime example is status messages and whether or not an action failed or was completed successfully. Failures are usually indicated with the colour red while successes are typically green.

  • When someone with low vision visits a website, they are likely to be viewed with some form of magnification, browser or software-based. With the rising popularity of mobile devices, the issue of resizing and reflow has decreased. However, some elements, widgets, and page layouts do not mesh well when magnified beyond 200 percent. This issue introduces a second axis of scrolling, side to side and up and down, which can nearly double the time to read or complete an interaction.

  • When a user with no vision visits a website, they are likely to be using a screen reader or even a braille display. Screen readers convert content into audio while braille displays present the page contents in braille. For users who are blind, if elements are not structured or labelled properly, this makes things very difficult and even sometimes impossible. Similarly, if interactive elements like forms, buttons, and controls are not structured properly, blind users might feel frustrated by the lack of control over their experience and the lack of information being provided.

Assistive technology isn’t confined to specific users

We all have personal preferences and methods for achieving our desired goals, whether it be on a mobile phone or a desktop computer. The same is true among users with visual disabilities. Some users who have limited vision might use a magnifier for general everyday tasks but may switch to a screen reader when reading a book or article. Someone who is completely blind may use their phone for some tasks with the phone’s native screen reader software but may switch to a computer when something like filing out a form is involved.

It is not a good idea to assume that all blind users use a screen reader on a desktop computer or that users with low vision only use magnifiers. It all comes down to personal preference and what makes the most sense in order to achieve a goal in a timely and effective manner.

The businesses responsibility

Any business that is open to the public should have a goal to provide an equivalent experience to all its current and potential customers. I say should because most businesses do not have this goal. Businesses should ensure that if users cannot see the content they can hear it if they cannot hear the content they can see it if they cannot use a mouse they can use a keyboard.

The content should also be designed to consider cognitive disabilities to reduce the risk of distraction, irritation, and confusion. If these are considered and applied, it is very likely that a website, app, document, or online platform is fairly accessible. The step that takes a website from fairly accessible to most accessible is including users with disabilities in testing and feedback.

In the business world, products and services are tested before being released, so why not invite a more diverse group of testers to explore your products and services before they release? It really is that straightforward.

From user preferences to business applications

At the end of the day, users with disabilities are going to find solutions that fit their needs and allow them to be independent and successful. From users with disabilities like blindness to users who do not have disabilities, we are all looking for a great experience that works for us. The business should be on top of changes in technology, user behaviour, and personal preferences to ensure that no matter the user’s preferences, an equivalent experience is always available.

If you are interested in learning more, contact James Warnken today.

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