Yo, Human! A Screen Reader's Rant: Accessing Life with Adaptive Technology

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

A Message for the Blind

Are you sending a decent message to the blind community? Are you sending 'any' messages to the blind community? If you are a web or app developer, a blogger or a YouTuber, if you use Facebook or any messaging app or email, I am here to tell you that you 'are' sending a message with everything you create. The question one should ask is, "Am I sending an intentional message?" Those of us who use a screen reader or Braille display get the message literally loud and clear, intentional or not.

According to the best stats I can find on the web, there are approximately 300 million visually impaired and over 50 million people classified as blind in the world. Add them both together and they equal the population of a major world country. For clarification, Visually impaired does not mean that one needs glasses, although one might. The term Visually Impaired, the way it may apply in life, actually refers to a visual state that can range from near-sightedness, to barely detecting light. Many of us have changing eyesight and progress from one condition to another. Using myself as an example, my eye condition is now to a state where I cannot read or write printed material, see a computer or device screen, cannot read any handwriting including my own signature and I am down to barely being able to detect light sources. And I am classified as Visually Impaired because I was not born completely blind. Weird.

Note: I mention the numbers above only to stress the point of how potentially large of a community a message can reach, intentional or otherwise.

So what is this message I am referring to? It is something that all developers know about already, but may not realize that it applies in the way described in this article. If you still have use of your vision there is one thing to keep in mind. The digital world that appears on your screen is just the surface layer. There is an underlying layer of code that makes it all happen. Using a screen reader or Braille display, depending on the individual settings, can read all or part of this underlying structure. In other words, we who use screen readers can discover many things about your creation that never make it to the visual surface. We not only 'can,' but we 'do' on a daily basis. It is how all screen readers work, we can't help it. If you produce materials that include additional helpful information in the allowed places of the underlying structure, then that becomes part of your message. If you do not include this information, then the empty and unlabeled areas become part of your message instead. Regardless of your attention to these information areas, whether you intend to or not, you 'are' sending a message with everything you create. What does your message say about you and your materials?

Not that I am pointing fingers, since I developed content for a while myself. Until I needed the use of VoiceOver, the Mac screen reader, I had not investigated my own message. Other than using metalanguage in HTML 1 and 2 back in the prehistoric days, which was intended for the Search Engines, I knew nothing about screen readers. And I was legally blind at the time. I wasn't aware that there was a need. Screen readers were part of those funky talking computer things. I guess I know first-hand that it is a matter of awareness. I will include some links at the bottom that lead to information about incorporating accessibility into your projects. Admittedly, there are others who know much more about this than myself.

But first, let's take a look at a few common sense examples. The following are things I and many others run into on a daily basis. :-)

The Button!

Far too many web pages and apps have unlabeled buttons, as well as other elements. Again, I know nothing about labeling elements in the code of an application. I do know that those areas exist in the code. I also know that having an app tell you to click the Continue button at the bottom does no good when what you find down there is, "Button, button, button." Okay, I'm supposed to click something down here. Oops, I just signed up for something. A driver in a car rally. Hmm. I hope I can find their Cancel button. :-)

The Unknown Element

My screen reader will tell me which type of element it is currently sitting on, button, link, image, table, etc. On web pages it will also read any alt text or item labels.

All too often I will be reading along on a web page that says, "Check out the offer and click the link below to receive a chance to win a bazillion dollars!" Then all I can find is something like, "1335836gbfig_27x.png, image, link." Then "Button, link." Then "Link, link." If that wasn't clear on which item you were supposed to click, well, it wasn't to me either. If I click on the incorrect item, I get stuck in some ad or survey. There goes my chance at winning a bazillion bucks. Oh well, back to the grind for me.

Off the Top of my Heading

Some of the worst web page issues are when multiple types are combined with navigation modes, like Headings. Especially if they mislabel items with other element names. You press the right arrow key once and end up landing on an object named, "Group, Button 6, 3.jpg, image, link, heading level 3." Huh?

A really bad one I found was where everything on the page was set to Heading level 1. Each individual word and web element was set individually . The only way to navigate was one word at a time, and VO said "Heading Level 1" after each one. "Hello Heading Level 1, there Heading Level 1, valued Heading Level 1, clientHeading Level 1." Ugh! And that was on a web site devoted to helping the disabled.

It's Not Just Devs

Sometimes it is the way digital things are used by the public that become inaccessible. Social networks, messaging apps, even email can become inaccessible by the latest fad or feature. Keep in mind, 'accessible' includes ease of use. For instance...

The Emoticons are Coming!

Social networks are over-run with emoticons. While I like a little mini picture myself once in a while (Cough!), some people need to use a little discretion. Someone messaged me the other day and said, "Sup? Smiling face with tongue sticking out, smiling face with tongue sticking out, smiling face with tongue sticking out, smiling face with tongue sticking out, smiling face with tongue sticking out, smiling face with tongue sticking out," etc. This went on for about twenty five repeats, then said, "Call me. Arm with flexing bicep, Arm with flexing bicep, Arm with flexing bicep," with about thirty repeats. With their phone number at the very end.

Hmm, before I dial their number, let me think. What should I call them. :-)

Emoticons are easy to look past, until you have to listen to them. I love to hear some of them, just not thirty times in a row. And please, put them at the end of the pertinent information, not strewn throughout. (Sigh!)

Grumpy face with smirking scowl, Grumpy face with smirking scowl, Grumpy face with smirking scowl, man yelling at kids on his lawn, man yelling at kids on his lawn, man yelling at kids on his lawn, smiley face.

Please, Be Punctuational

I hate those emails or messages where the person never stops or pauses in the typed text they just keep on going without any punctuation what so ever in one incredibly long sentence that never stops even though it begins to drive you little crazy but you dare not reply because you will simply get another long uninterrupted string of words all mashed together with no apparent break in between without really saying much and taking up a lot of time for no real reason yet they continue on oblivious to their own message just blabbing on and on without discrimination and by the time they are finished you already forgot the first part of what they had said. :-)

Quick, where's the mute button! Whew. Right?

Punctuation causes a screen reader to pause for varying amounts of time, depending on the sentence structure. A comma causes a slight pause, without dropping the level of intonation much. A period causes a longer pause and drops the intonation at the end of a sentence. An exclamation point pauses while emphasizing the last few words. A question mark pauses while raising the intonation at the end of the sentence.

The punctuational situation exists for developers as well. I can't tell you how many RPG games I have tried to play and even though they were text based, the lack of proper punctuation made looking through any stats screen a real chore. examine the line of text below. You may already see the problem.

Health: 50 Power: 25 Agility: 14

You might think that the sentence above is obvious, but the lack of punctuation mixes it up in a misleading way. Because of the lack of periods or commas in the proper places, my screen reader reads it like this...

Health, 50 Power, 25 Agility, 14.

To me, it sounds like Health does not have a score, the Power is 50, the Agility is 25, and there is a 14 hanging out on the end for no apparent reason. With a few periods added, it becomes...

Health, 50. Power, 25. Agility, 14.

Ah, now I get it immediately; Health is 50, Power is 25, and Agility is 14. It even 'Sounds' correct. I can and do navigate through stuff like this in single character mode to discover its layout. But I can tell you honestly, nothing draws you out of the mood of a game or app faster than having to stop and dink around with this kind of stuff. Honest.

While nicely designed text can create pictures in your mind, try to refrain from using it to decorate the screen. Text designs are almost as annoying as lacking punctuation. I mean, who doesn't want to hear "asterisk, asterisk, asterisk," 87 times in a row, just to realize that there is nothing else on that line. The very next line has 20 asterisks in a row, then four important words you needed, then 20 more asterisks. Okay, that was it for that line. Whew! Now, what was I doing again?

The End of the Rant

Underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline underline, etc.

There are many aspects to "accessibility" that are not apparent unless you experience it for yourself. The need for awareness is obvious. The current state of technology is no-ones fault. Regardless of the hopefully humorous and somewhat sarcastic nature of this post, accessible tech has taken many strides forward. I hope my little rant will help give a viewpoint from the trenches and maybe be a little food for thought. If we try and keep an open mind, maybe we can all be a bit more accessible.

WebAIM: Designing for Screen Reader Compatibility
https://webaim.org/techniques/screenreader/

Accessibility for Developers - Apple Developer
https://developer.apple.com/accessibility/

I invite you to comment with more helpful links concerning designing with accessibility in mind. Feel free to comment with your own accessible gripes as well, but please keep things respectful. There are more than just show-stoppers to be considered when interacting with the world. We all find little things that make us shake our heads in wonder. What are some of yours?

This stuff always reminds me of one important idea...

All of our cool digital stuff that we work with, play with and enjoy, is all about "Living." Live well!

Hey, you kids get off my lawn! :-)

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19 Comments

Great post

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Good point that it's not sufficient to just be "accessible", but it's also very important to employ a good design that's easy to use. I've seen far too many web pages and apps that meet the minimum accessibility requirements and are nonetheless difficult or impossible to use. Here are a few of my pet peeves.

1) Even WebAIM fails to consider the low vision community. As a result, we see many overly complicated web pages with far too many links to wade through. We also see web pages and apps that employ multiple color schemes (light on dark here, dark on light there) that defeat the purpose of color inversion. Yet all these pages and apps are considered "accessible" because a blind person can use them with a screen reader. Many low vision users do not use screen readers.

2) Hotkeys on web pages. Facebook, Twitter, and Google Mail all have web pages that employ hotkeys as accessibility shortcuts. I've tried using them and just find them tedious and difficult to memorize, perhaps because each page employs its own scheme with no attempt at standardization. Do any blind or low vision people actually use these shortcuts? Or do you just use an ap?

3) I can't think of the third one. When it comes to me, I'll post again. Doh!

Thanks, Ted, for giving us all a place to vent our frustrations.

unlabeled buttons

I have my own pet peeves. The 1st is unlabeled buttons! I agree 100% with you on that! The 2nd is when there's content on a webpage that screen readers cannot see. I've had to ask Mom for help with things and turn voiceover off so the whole page could be visible. Or, she'd look on her ipad and we'd compare what the pages look like.

The sad thing is, I have more issues with government sites than anything! And what's even sadder is that those sites are suposed to be accessible by federal mandate!

To the devs and dissigners who make their apps and webpages accessible I say thank you! Keep at it! I'm sure it's hard and a bit time-consumming, but trust me, it's well worth it! I have a few other pet peeves but those are my big top 2! What a great post.

Genius post

Congratulations to the Author on this most genius of Posts. This is sheer brilliance.

Couldn't Agree More

Hello,
I feel that this post was written very well!
It expresses many of the nuances of being a screen-reader user of content.
And it gets right down to the nitty-gritty of the whole thing.
So much of the time, the huge and obvious problems are the unlabelled button, button, button, button, etc.
And as the author expressed, these are definitely barriers for seemless screen-reader access to interfaces.
However, I most admire how the author has indicated just how critical punctuation, and differentiation marks, that the user experience is needing, but too often neglects.
And this is very well-explained in their post as far as the screen-reading user experience is concerned.
Too often, it is not only the user access elements that prove unusable by screen reader users, but it is also the way in which text is laid out, expressed, and presented.
The natural pauses and inflections provided by the proper use of punctuation throughout written text is subtle, but absolutely critical, necessary, and meaningful for those who use screen reading technology.
However, I must stress, that the most important thing about all this is that controls be labelled properly, so that anyone using them, if it is someone who will click, or someone who arrows/mouses/tabs to them, is able to clearly read, and activate the control.

Excellent Post!
May devs follow your wisdom!

Root cause

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

I think the root cause of the issues here, at risk of stating the obvious, is that most sighted developers / UI designers design interfaces for sighted users and do not consider how a blind user (or user with other impairment) would use their product. If added at all, accessibility is an afterthought, much like movies made for sighted audiences with descriptive audio added later with obviously zero involvement or input by the film's director.

The question becomes: How are UI designers trained? What level of importance is accessibility given during training? How can more emphasis be placed on accessibility training? What leverage can we place on software vendors who fail to produce accessible products?

And the really big question - What incentive do software vendors have to make accessible products when even Apple itself has problems with good accessible design?

re Paul

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Paul,
Thanks for bringing in the low-vision side. I went through a low-vision state about 6 years ago myself. I remember dealing with the invert colors thing as well. Sometimes the color schemes were all over the place. I was/am extremely light sensitive also, so many of them were not only difficult to use, but became painful. I started adjusting my screen brightness dimmer and dimmer to accommodate. Of course, this made other sections of these pages something I had to squint at to read, which started causing migraines. Too many web designers treat their pages as if it were a billboard, almost beating the user over the head with their message. It reminds me of those commercials on TV that yell at you. What's the very next thing that happens? The mute button. So much for their message. I can say from past experience as a design artist, pick a color scheme and stick with it. It makes for a much more elegant experience for the user, low-vision or otherwise.
I never use those "accessible shortcuts." Why reinvent the wheel? Just learn what is already in place.
Thanks for the great contribution! Keep them coming.
Best.

re Dawn

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Dawn,
Thanks for your great contribution! I can sympathize with the government website thing. I was trying to listen through a webinar on one of them recently. It was a webinar on returning to work for the disabled. In the video, which I cannot see, the man pointed at something in a slideshow and said, "Here is something very important, if you look at this..." He pointed at some info on a slide presentation. "You can see why it is very important." He never described what he was pointing at. They had so many tech issues during the video that I couldn't sit through it. I found a link leading to various supposedly accessible formats and followed. I found the text transcript. Cool, I can use my screen reader. Yup. There he is, stating the same in the text, still not describing anything. Oh look, here's the slideshow itself. Maybe that will give me the very important info. I took way too much time comparing the text to the slides, trying to find the one with the very important info. Okay, here it is. What I find is "27_pctsjj48.jpg."
Spitting out inaccessible material in various file formats does not make them accessible. It simply presents their inaccessible materials in a whole new way, but still inaccessible.
Sorry to hear of your struggles, many of us can relate.
Thanks again for the great comment! Every comment makes this post more educational. Please feel free to include more.

Absolutely Brilliant

I wish I could just send this to all the staff and volunteers of Center for Independent Futures and JJ's List, which is now some sort of conglomerate of Search Inc. Please note these are 2 organizations in which I've been involved for several years. I am considering quitting both, but that's a whole topic inandof itself. For the most part it's unrelated, so I'm not discussing it here. But suffice it to say I agree with this post 110% . I've been a screen reader user since the mid-90's, having used most but not all of them. I was recently asked to test out a web portal for screen reader accessibility. This portal was developed by the first organization which I mentioned here, and while it may not present such a problem for people with working eyeballs to use the accessibility for VoiceOver and Chromevox is a different story. I'm only a Mac user at this time so I can't and won't speculate on how it works with the other screen readers that are on the market today. But I'm curious about that. I would also like to say that while I've found that Apple has gotten it right regarding accessibility for the most part, take a look at their official support communities portal. It seems to time out a bit prematurely, and I've found some other problems on there.

re webinars

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Okay, I'm going to comment on my own comment. I should follow my own advice and be respectful. I should point out the amount of time and effort it takes to create and put even one webinar online. However, Dawn is correct about the government sites are sometimes the worst. It's a shame, but true. It shows how parts of materials can become inaccessible from something as simple as the slip of a tongue. Accessibility should be implemented with intention from the very beginning of development, not bolted on afterwards. And Paul was spot on, a little more training should happen at the beginning of development, not brought in as an after-thought.

re Seanoevil

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Seanoevil,
Thank you for the very kind words. I call them like I don't see them. :-)
I am very gratified that this post is coming off well. I was a little concerned at first. I had just gotten stuck in some websites that were giving me fits. I couldn't take it any more and just started typing.
Thank you again for the kind words and please feel free to include anything you come across. In this case, more is better.
Best regards.

re Adam M

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Adam M,
Wow, thanks for the great comment! And for helping emphasize the punctuational situation. It's one of my peeves, and for many others as well.
You seem very experienced with screen readers. Please feel free to contribute more if you wish. And thanks again for the awesome comment!
Best regards.

re Ekaj

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Ekaj,
As always, thank you for your continuing contributions, not just here but across AppleVis. I see and read your posts everywhere here, and I always learn something new from your insights. Also, feel free to share the link to this post anywhere you wish. Sounds like you probably come across many of the issues out there. More examples lead to better awareness, feel free to share more if you wish.
Thanks again for the great comment!
Best regards.

inaccessibility

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

inaccessibility

Hello AppleVis viewers,

At the risk of overly occupying the forum, I wanted to say one more thing, and then I will stop commenting on my own blog. Promise. :-)
Accessible tech and practices are a hard thing to understand, especially if one has never had exposure to it before. Eyesight can be a very dominating force in one's life and it can be very difficult to think beyond. I lost what I call my "functional eyesight" about three or four years ago and being self taught, it had many rewards and frustrations. I guess I'm saying that I come from both sides of the tracks on this one.
Accessibility effects huge portions of the population. However, 'inaccessibility' extends far beyond those of us with additional needs. In the dev realms, regardless of formats and professional venues, dealing with inaccessibility can become a major issue. From resource materials that should be included, but aren't, to sets of instructions that give you the 'What' without giving you the 'Why'. Components and packages that were created by separate groups that never collaborated, compatibility of resources that updates and changes every few months. Development pathways that require a long term commitment, financially, legally and otherwise. Many times the software changes faster than the realization of the commitment. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
I wanted to make sure that this post was open to app/web/content developers as well. The full scope of the development process is largely an unknown in the general population, until you try it for yourself. I realize there may be longterm commitments that must be protected. Sporadic exposure on the web may not always be a good thing. However, please feel free to include your own peeves as well. Or at least, I wanted to shine a light on both sides of the tracks. Inaccessibility of accessible resources exists in the development realm as well.
Finally, I would like to echo Dawn's excellent notion, to all of those striving to help with our additional needs, Thank you!
Except for replying to commenters, I'll stop hogging my own blog now. :-)

This blog post is absolutely

This blog post is absolutely first-class. I read this and got an image of me in my head standing on a big rooftop with print copies of this post and bellowing my head off. I'll share this around. thanks again!

this is why laws need major overhauls

this post right here clearly shows exactly why accessibility laws such as the ADA need to have major overhauls and put in strong punishments for things like inaccessibility especially where the government is concerned. I've come accross web pages that didn't have proper heading navigation, links were not labeled, and images were not described very well either. I truly believe our laws have a lot to do with this problem, that continues to plague us every year, simply for the fact they do not have teeth in them to hand out punishments, or require that accessibility training be involved from the start and not as an after thought.

article on coding

It sounds like you have been trying to read certain tweets coming out of Washington DC. dot dot dot dot dot dot

re Ezzie

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Ezzie,
Thanks for the kind words! I am very gratified that the post found a connection with so many. Also, if your eyes are anything like mine, I would advise not getting on the roof. :-)
Thank you for the great comment.
Best regards.

re brandon

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello brandon,
I whole heartedly agree. A law with no teeth is pretty pointless. More of a legal suggestion really. Which in the commercial tech industry is also pretty pointless.
Thank you for the great contribution, here and all across AppleVis. I see and read your posts all the time. Really very nice!
Best regards.

re Fred

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hello Fred,
…tweets from DC…
Yup, I should probably stop that. (cough). :-)
Thanks for the comment and the smile.
Best regards.