To The Blind, The Internet Isn’t Always So User-FriendlyBy: Drew Bowling - February 13, 2012
When people self-congratulate about the Internet, they usually laud either the speed of communication or the bulk of information that it provides to people. One very big detail that is undoubtedly taken for granted, though, is the fact that Internet accessibility is wholly dependent on the ability of its users to actually see the content on the Internet. When you think about it, how useful would the Internet be to you if you couldn’t see the what was displayed on the monitor? It’d be as helpful to you as bicycle is to a fish.
Internet accessibility to the blind is a grave concern, which is why Rakesh Babu has set out to improve the experience of blind people using the Internet and to utilize it to the fullest extent. Blind since fourth grade, Babu is now an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Information Studies where he has continued his research for making the Internet more blind-friendly.
Currently, blind Internet users use screen readers that runs through the information on a webpage at indecipherable speeds. Well, it’s indecipherable to me and you (presuming you’re reading this article with your eyes), but to blind people with a better tuned ear it makes complete sense. Listen to the screen reader race through a webpage in the beginning of the clip below, in which Babu talks about his research and the need for better navigability for blind people using the Internet.
Babu expresses dismay at the fact that most developers seem to overlook how accessible their product may be to blind people. Speaking with PhysOrg.com, Babu said developers assume blind people are like sighted people minus that whole seeing thing. “Because sighted people rely on their vision to construct models in their minds,” Babu continued, “blind people often think about computer tasks differently. Understanding these different ways of thinking is critical to designing blind-friendly systems and environments.”
While developers may comply with technical standards and laws, there isn’t really anything regulating or ensuring that websites are designed to be blind-friendly. “Web accessibility is not a legal issue,” he told PhysOrg.com, “It’s an equal opportunity issue.” Aside from his ongoing research, Babu said he hopes he can facilitate coordination between developers and blind users so as to optimize the accessibility of those who cannot see Internet.
I admit, I take the fortune of good eyesight for granted when it comes to the Internet and, honestly, before writing this it never even occurred to me how my experience and interaction with the Internet would be different if I couldn’t see. My ability to navigate the Internet wouldn’t simply be hampered – it’d be eradicated. Aside from the sounds that you make the Internet emit, the design of so much content on the Internet assumes that you will be able to see a webpage. With a current tally of 39 million people in the world, that’s a lot of people that the Internet is instantaneously leaving behind due a single – albeit major – accessibility issue.
If you doubt the pervasiveness of this issue, test it: Close your eyes. Now try to figure out how to close this browsing window.
Funny, if you actually did that exercise, you will never know when I will tell you that you can open your eyes because you can’t see this sentence. See how this is would be so troubling if you couldn’t see?