By: Melissa Carney, Community Outreach and Graduate Support Manager
and Meka White, Client Navigator
Today, on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we want to share our experiences and shed light on the importance of accessibility and inclusive practices in the digital world. We are Meka and Melissa, both graduates and employees of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an organization dedicated to empowering individuals with vision loss through greater confidence and independence.
As individuals who are blind, we rely on assistive technology such as screen reading software to complete daily tasks, including, but not limited to, responding to emails, creating Word documents, checking our mail, paying bills, and so on. While engaging in these tasks, we have encountered countless barriers and felt the impact of inaccessible websites and other digital content firsthand. In this article, we aim to raise awareness of critical issues, inspire change, and ignite a collective commitment to make the digital landscape accessible for all.
What is accessibility?
In our words, accessibility is the ability for an individual to access the same information, at the same time, as their peers. For example, if a restaurant offers customers a print menu, they should offer alternative options for those who cannot read the menu in that format, such as braille or online. Accessibility, or lack thereof, can be included in all aspects of one’s daily routine, but some areas are more substantive than others. Most often when we think of access to information, we think of the Internet, social media, and other widespread sources of material.
What is a screen reader?
There are several different screen readers to satisfy individual preferences and devices, such as VoiceOver on Apple products and JAWS for Windows. In essence, a screen reader is a software application that converts on-screen text into synthesized speech or Braille output, allowing those who are blind or visually impaired to hear or feel the content. Screen readers meticulously sort through and interpret web pages and documents, not only offering us a view of the text itself, but detailed description of their layout (headings, bullet points, etc.), interactive elements (links, buttons, search boxes, menus, etc.), and images that include alternative text to describe the pictures. However, their effectiveness and accuracy rely heavily on the accessibility of the websites they encounter.
Imagine trying to navigate a website that presents as more of a puzzle, with no visual cues, and seems to be missing half the clues. You have no context for the link you are about to click on, no pictures to guide your understanding of the content, and a series of articles in gibberish displayed on the screen. When websites lack proper attention to accessibility, we are excluded from research opportunities, products, services, and other key resources and information. We are constantly confronted by unlabeled buttons or images, indiscernible dropdown menus, and inaccessible forms and PDFs. This leads to feelings of frustration and isolation and has larger implications for our level of independence and access to education, employment opportunities, and social engagement.
By choosing to take strides in understanding and embracing best accessibility practices, you are actively adopting a proactive approach, rather than viewing individuals who are blind or visually impaired as an afterthought. Accessibility in all forms is a fundamental human right. It demands greater compassion, inclusion, and diversity. Accessibility benefits not only those with disabilities but also improves the user experience for everyone.
We strongly encourage developers, designers, and content creators to familiarize themselves with and abide by Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), but also to collaborate with individuals with disabilities to gain insights and perspectives that will best inform and enhance the and overall quality of their products. There are simple ways the public can create accessible content as well.
When posting on social media, make sure all pictures include alternative text, found in the settings for each individual photo, to describe your pictures for someone who is blind or visually impaired. Give them the chance to laugh at a meme or smile at your new puppy. When writing an article, think about how you could chunk the text and sort it into headings to provide a more accessible organizational structure. Be weary of excessive typos and hashtags that a screen reader would stumble over and not know how to pronounce.
On this Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we invite you to prioritize access and inclusion and make these concepts the norm, not the exception. If you have questions along the way, please do not hesitate to contact Guiding Eyes for the Blind for assistance. Accessibility carries more weight when we embrace it as a collective community effort and responsibility. Together, we can amplify our voices and inspire change.
Melissa Carney and Meka White