Every Day is an Audio Challenge
I’m ninety percent through the long and complicated process of filling out one of those lengthy internet sign-up forms. They’ve wanted everything from my phone number to my Social Insurance Number, and it’s getting a little excessive. There’s only one more field though, so I’m almost there… and then my screen reader cheerfully states “Type the two words below! We need to check that you’re human!”. At this point, my very human impulses urge me to start keyboard mashing until something explodes. I calm down a little, though, since there’s an equally cheerful “Visually impaired? Get an audio challenge!” button below the text field. Normally, when I hit this button, garbled but mostly comprehensible speech guides me so that I can successfully prove my humanity and move on with my life. Unfortunately, there are exceptions to everything, and this is one: I type the spoken numbers as carefully as I can, trying to ignore the weird, swirling background noise that sounds creepy enough to be a horror movie’s soundtrack. Then, with pounding heart, I hit “submit”. The page refreshes, and asks me to try again. So I do. And again. And again. And again. And because I am most definitely human, I give in to my exhaustion and give the whole thing up. So, no account for me, and there goes all the info I took so much time to input. Audio challenge, indeed!
When you’re a screen reader user, every day is an audio challenge. Websites change with the weather, and new updates often present more and more issues. Screen readers themselves are only updated now and then, so the only thing we’re left with is our ingenuity. Most often, larger websites will make a concerted effort to accommodate visually impaired users, but even they slip up, and they slip up a lot.
The reason I choose to use the word “challenge”, though, is because I don’t mean to sit here and rant about how horrible it is that we can’t use the web as easily and efficiently as sighted people. As I’ve said before, disability automatically bars us from total and perfect equality, so to expect such out of the internet–a network that changes constantly–is only going to result in disappointment. However, there are some websites–large and small–that manage to provide a near-perfect experience, and they are what keep me from resorting to the keyboard mashing mentioned above.
I won’t waste space going into detail about which web features are useful and which are not; you’ll find many resources online that will give you far more information than I ever could. What I will do, though, is explain why accessibility is so important, and what inaccessibility can do to even the most casual of internet users.
I’ve seen the way sighted people react when they’re having difficulty with a website. They become very angry very quickly the moment something doesn’t operate exactly the way they expected it to. Sometimes such anger is justified, and sometimes it isn’t, but the point is that the frustration sighted people occasionally experience is something screen reader users deal with on a near-daily basis. We’re not talking about blind gamers who have difficulty performing complex maneuvers, or blind web developers struggling with code. We’re talking about the average, everyday user, who only wants to check her email and scroll idly through Facebook.
Take a very simple example: a friend of mine was recently struggling to get Facebook to sort her news feed by most recent post rather than by “top posts”. This should be a very easy task. All you have to do is check the little “sort” box so that the sort method is changed. It should be the work of five or so seconds. Unfortunately, she was having no such luck. On the regular version of Facebook (the one that loads when you log in with your computer), the sort box isn’t even present. On the mobile version, it is present, but you can only access it with an iPhone, as far as I know. So, my friend would have had to switch to her iPhone specifically to log in via Safari, find the “sort” button, and tick the appropriate box. (Just to add insult to injury, Facebook automatically changes the sort style back after a few days, so this process must be repeated indefinitely. Facebook doesn’t like it when we think for ourselves.)
Sometimes, the consequences can be very serious. You might be thinking that being unable to sort your Facebook newsfeed to your liking isn’t much to get upset about, and for most people it isn’t. But what if inaccessibility begins to interfere with your performance at work or school? What if you can’t get a certain job purely because their databases don’t accommodate your screen reader? What if you can’t format a paper properly because of constraints beyond your control?
Here is the biggest accessibility stumbling block I’ve ever encountered: my university, like so many others, uses a platform called Blackboard to manage just about every aspect of university life. Assignments are posted there and must be submitted there. Notes are placed there for review and download. Readings are announced (yes, announced!) there and must be accessed before the next class. Some instructors even post links and other information there, so that if you can’t fully access Blackboard, you will find yourself very behind in a tearing hurry. Can you guess where this might be going? … Yes, exactly: Blackboard was not fully accessible with my screen reader when I started at university two and a half years ago. I could access some readings, but not others. I could click on some links, but not others. I could read some instructor announcements, but not others. As for downloading the files they uploaded? Forget it. I had other screen reader users try it, and none of them had any more success than I had. Until i managed to get instructors to understand that they’d have to eliminate Blackboard altogether when interacting with me individually, I was constantly struggling to find the material I needed, access it, and then post material of my own back to the site. I even know some professors who are so enamoured with Blackboard that they refuse to use any other medium (even email) regardless of the student’s issues with it.
So, sometimes we deal with a little more than a stubborn Facebook news feed. Sometimes we can’t even get hired because we won’t be able to use a company’s software properly. Sometimes we struggle with important tasks like online banking, student loan and scholarship applications, schoolwork, basic shopping, etc. Everything is online now, and alternatives to internet-based services are becoming more and more scarce. To say that it’s “just the internet” isn’t really a comfort anymore. Gone are the days when the biggest problem we had to face was an inability to access a message board about our favourite annagram games.
Experienced screen reader users (and anyone else who struggles with other accessibility issues) become very adept at working around most accessibility road blocks. Within seconds, I can post a question to my Twitter feed and receive answers (assuming my Twitter feed is accessible, of course!). We help each other out. We post detailed articles about how to circumvent some of the nastiest issues common to many of us. Getting by on the web, just as we do in real life, is something we’ve long realized will be the norm for the foreseeable future. However, whenever web developers help us out by making their websites easier to navigate, it offers us some much-needed breathing space. It’s lovely to visit a site and have it just…work. So, if you ever manage or develop a website of any sort, please consider being as inclusive as possible. Learn about all disabilities that hinder internet use–not just blindness–and do your bes to accommodate them wherever you are able. There are a significant number of us out there, and we could really use your help. Most often, the necessary changes are small and won’t interfere with the rest of your website.
Still need convincing? Have a look at a screen reader mailing list sometime, or cruise on over to a forum about accessibility issues. You’ll see staggering amounts of people in genuine need of assistance because they can’t make things work the conventional way. If you had to deal with that level of frustration every day, you might feel more inclined to help out.
Finally, I want to conclude by thanking all the web developers out there, sighted or blind, who continually work to make the web as accessible as possible. You guys are amazing and I am thankful for you every time things work as they should. You save me more time than you know (not to mention my limited sanity).