How a blind person ‘sees’ the Internet

By Caleb Garling, San Francisco Chronicle (SFGate), December 10, 2013

Head shot of Kevin Jones wearing a set of headphones.

Kevin Jones chatting over the Internet

Kevin Jones consumes reams of information each day on various sites across the Internet, and this would be unremarkable except that Jones is completely blind.

“I never surf really,” he tells me over Skype from Madison, Wisconsin. “I do Google searches, but I never just wander around the web.”

That cruising from page to page is even a possibility for someone who cannot see may give people pause. There are organizations like Lighthouse and other tools that help the visually impaired navigate a computer.

But Jones says there are still serious hurdles. Dragging and dropping, bringing up right-click menus on a specific part of the screen or just reading through a webpage become complicated tasks. Jones uses Apple’s VoiceOver software which, via a number of keyboard commands, moves from element to element on the screen and speaks the words, forming that bridge to the digital world. “It made a lot of blind people very happy.” (Windows has JAWS and Android has TalkBack.)

Jones has been speaking recently at small software development conferences on how to make considerations for the visually impaired. “When you look at a computer screen, you think of it as a two dimensional array,” he says of sighted people, pointing out the huge amount of information — “the bigger picture” — available with a quick glance at a monitor. “But with a screen reader, it’s a one dimensional display.”

Jones has a computer science degree and uses a Braille reader to read code, a device that generates the tactile language on a small pad. He’s learning AppleScript to, eventually, write accessibility improvements for VoiceOver. But Braille readers can come up short for navigating the Internet.

“Braille is great for reading exactly, but it’s not very fast.” He has VoiceOver’s “Alex” cranked to just under 500 words per minute — giving the tone something resembling a tape being fast-forwarded. (If you’re on a Mac, go to Utilities, pull up VoiceOver and have a listen.)

So Jones travels every webpage along a narrow highway of robotic dictations, word by word. “I can’t really skim too much.” Screen readers have keyboard commands that allow skipping to different parts of the page, like the sighted do easily with a mouse. But to know what part of the page you are on requires waiting for the computerized voice to read the content.

Jones says that a blind user’s best friend is the Find functionality on a webpage because he’s learned what keywords to search for (“Login” or “Contact Info”) when arriving at a new page; only after an exhaustive single visit or many separate visits, can someone “build a mental map” of the webpage.

But websites with overly-active pages are problematic. He can’t really use Facebook’s news feed. “There’s so much going on on the page — maybe I could get more used to it — but it’s a lot of jumping around.” Facebook often automatically refreshes the page to pump new content in front of users, yet this throws off the screen reader. “Dynamic pages are often a problem because you’ll be reading something, it’ll update and then you’ve lost your place.”

Unlike most sighted folks, he finds Facebook’s mobile version easier to navigate. VoiceOver works on iOS as well. Rather than relying on touchscreen functionality, Jones carries a portable bluetooth keyboard which helps him to navigate from app to app on his iPhone, though he says the small touchscreen is still pretty usable. (Siri helps too, but occasionally give him fits.)

One of Jones’s favorite information gathering sites is Twitter (his handle), but for him, the web version is also unusable. He relies on YoruFukurou, a lesser known third party client like HootSuite, because it breaks up messages in a way that’s simpler to parse with the screen reader.

And when big news breaks it can be difficult to get signals in the noise. For instance when actor Paul Walker died last weekend, Jones says he was sorry for the tragedy, but didn’t know who Walker was. Yet he had to listen to (through) repeated tweets about the story to find other news he was interested in. Twitter does have filter settings but Jones notes that then “you’re not sure what you’re skipping.”

Other common Twitter techniques throw monkey wrenches in the gears. “What’s really annoying is when people just tweet a link [with no context] or they put the link before the text, because then you have to wait for the screen reader to speak the whole link.”

Of course one of the biggest voids in Jones’ experience is a staple of the Internet: images. “Sighted people like to use images for everything,” he says. But unless the graphics have alt-tags — embedded text descriptions — the image is basically dead space. “Often times there’s nothing. The screen reader will give me the filename, but that doesn’t help very much.”

This does mean he rarely notices Internet advertisements. But avatars and profile pictures are meaningless and, for better or for worse, a lot of the humor subcultures on the Internet are lost as well, like memes — graphics and text that deliver jokes or a clever bit of rhetoric. Jones says people have tried to explain memes to him, but he still finds them foolish.

“I’m guessing because most of it is visual,” he says.

Regardless, now Jones is looking to bolster his consulting work. He gave a couple talks this past year to developers and is reaching out to app developers that have built products in ways that are not usable for the blind. With about two percent of the United States reporting a visual disability in 2011, it’s certainly needed.

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