“Are You Afraid of the Dark?”: a Sighted Person’s Adventures With the Screen Reader Experience

When my friend Laura told me she was considering a screen-free vacation, I assumed she was speaking of a general unplugging from all her favourite technology. She clarified the point: she would spend her holiday using nothing but screen readers.
For the average screen reader user, this doesn’t sound like much of an undertaking, but while Laura works with screen readers constantly in her role as accessibility tester, she is fully sighted and had never depended exclusively on a screen reader before. Since Laura is always finding new ways to become even better at what she does, she felt this challenge would enhance her skills at work and give her a better, if not complete, understanding of what the computing experience is like for the everyday visually impaired person.
To my immense delight, Laura agreed to write an account of her adventures, her discoveries, and her advice for other sighted people who want to try the same experiment.


“To alcohol,” once proclaimed Homer Simpson, “the cause of – and solution to – all life’s problems.” Apply this logic to screen readers and this quote sums up my recent winter break.
Screen readers and other assistive tools make technology usable for people with differing abilities relating to vision, hearing, motor skills, etc. Assistive tech achieves this by converting one type of information into other types depending on the user’s preference. For example, screen reader software converts what would be visual words on a computer monitor or phone screen into electronically generated speech and sounds. Likewise, captioning turns speech and sounds into visual words. The field of accessibility covers both the production of technologies like these, and information conversion. To further my skills in this field, I decided to try using these tools on a more personal level. I decided that I was holding myself back in my accessibility career by relying on looking at the screen while using a screen reader. It was the easy way out, and as JFK once said, “we choose to go to the moon… and do the other things… not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The “Screen-Free Holiday” Experiment

In my life, I’ve undertaken some wacky challenges that have brought me some new and interesting insights. My week of wearing DIY upcycled thrift store clothes taught me that while a duct taped hem is good in a pinch, it can get pretty uncomfortable when it starts to stick to your legs; that yes, free chocolate is so powerful a force that it is possible to give a single talk about making both bacon chocolate truffles and vegan chocolate truffles without starting a riot. Most recently, I decided to rely as much as possible on assistive technology for two weeks, even though I am sighted, just to see what would happen. Here were my plans for a screen-free holiday break from work with the following rules:

  • While in my hometown of Pittsburgh, I would avoid looking at screens and would instead rely on screen readers and other assistive technology as needed.
  • Paper wouldn’t count as a screen, so reading newspapers and books was okay. There was no way I was going to pass up my grandmother’s Reader’s Digest magazines.
  • If I cheated and looked at the screen, I’d need a good reason to explain why I did it.

I knew there would need to be exceptions built in to my process. For example, I was planning on going to the movies with a friend, and while I would request the industry-standard free headset that describes what’s happening in the movie to me, I would not watch the movie with my eyes closed. I also knew I’d be unable to avoid screens around the house, like clocks or oven screens. And, since my dad takes great pride in being able to show people cool things on his smartphone, I wouldn’t object if he called me over to watch something. Overall, I wanted to establish guidelines, not black and white rules.

What This Article is Not About

Here are a few necessary disclaimers before we get to the fun stuff:

  • The opinions expressed in this article are my own and not those of my employer. This was an independent experiment.
  • This challenge should not be construed as a blindness simulation. The article covers my own personal experience, not those of others, blind or sighted.
  • My challenge was not specific to any platform. In fact, I will intentionally use ambiguous language to avoid revealing which tech I used. All that’s important is that I used a phone and a laptop.
  • Finally, I won’t be complaining. I have the luxury of choosing when and if I can depend on assistive technology while others do not.

Screen-Free Stage 1: Biting off More Than I can Chew

Much like grief, learning to use a screen reader brought me through multiple emotional stages.
First, there was the initial “biting off more than I could chew” phase. I had some previous experience with keystrokes and smartphone gestures, but I hadn’t actually done much beyond the basics. I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn, and did my best to avoid slipping into hopelessness.
I found myself soldiering on through brute force, trying everything I could think of to get what I wanted done. Often, I was so focused on figuring out how to perform a task that I’d forget what I was attempting to accomplish in the first place. That note I had wanted to take was lost from my memory by the time I’d thought to try the speech-to-text engine, for example.
Full disclosure: I resorted to cheating when entering longer blocks of complex text, such as wireless network passwords. Cheating also became necessary when trying for literally hours to perform what I thought were basic tasks, like copy/pasting a URL or entering a new phone contact.

Screen-Free Stage 2: Embarrassing Run-Ins (and a Dash of Swearing)

Next, I entered the swearing stage, in which I had several embarrassing run-ins. I couldn’t figure out how to prevent the mobile screen reader from announcing everything out loud, even when the screen was locked. It’s a good thing I don’t lead a secret other life!
I felt such a sinking feeling when a friend sent me an image with text inside it. These are ubiquitous online, but screen readers can’t interpret them without additional software. I ended up using OCR (optical character recognition) to read the picture, but struggled to tell her about what she had done wrong in a tactful way.
Using speech-to-text was another significant adjustment for me. I kept treating dictation like recording a voicemail, failing to speak punctuation and often ending all texts with “ok, bye.” The quality of my messages improved after Meagan, an experienced screen reader user, kindly pointed out that I could (and should!) speak my punctuation aloud to make my messages more readable, but the process remained challenging.
There was a humiliating incident where I couldn’t figure out how to answer the phone when an extremely time sensitive phone call was coming through.
Eventually, my abnormal behaviour became apparent to my family and friends. I was struggling and needed a way forward.

Screen-Free Stage 3: Back to Basics

Tired of the chaos, I decided to go back to basics and RTFM (read the “freaking” manual). I went through each tutorial slowly and carefully, searching for more information online along the way. Things seemed to get easier, but really the only thing that changed was that I got better at using screen readers, slowly but surely. Learning to use a screen reader is just like any other skill, such as learning to play an instrument. In both cases, you press buttons to try to get the sound you desire. Beginners can hit some jarringly wrong notes, while experienced players sound like geniuses to those around them.
My high school band director liked to say that practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent. I had been practicing using a screen reader while still relying on my vision, so I was developing some bad habits that could have become permanent if not for this practice, like using the mouse to navigate instead of learning new keystrokes. I may not have tested every facet of the screen reader experience—I was not brave enough to try online shopping, since my confidence was not high enough to risk spending money—but I did make real progress. By the end of my break, I had tried a few “stunts,” like sending an important, although short, email to a colleague and I even took and posted a picture to social media, all without looking at a screen! My crowning achievement was writing this blog post without using my sight. (Fortunately, Meagan used her excellent editing skills to make this legible. I came back in and added some more comments afterward without using a screen reader. Since I was back in my “normal” life I realized that if I wanted to just finish this piece I couldn’t also take the time needed to become a screen reader user who can also do word processing well. Progress, not perfection.)
Finally, I reached a place of acceptance. Acceptance is not agreeance, and it doesn’t mean I liked everything about my experience, but I was at least about to sit down and face reality.

New Lessons, New Growth

I learned a few unexpected lessons along this journey…
First up: earphones are so important! As I mentioned earlier, screen readers can seriously compromise privacy, especially for novice users. Earphones fulfill the dual purpose of protecting your privacy while letting people know you are occupied with your phone or computer. (Since your eyes won’t necessarily be on the screen, people may not realize you’re working on something.) I have started wearing my headphones over just one ear with the other ear exposed, to signal to others that I’m open to talking if they want. I also learned that screen readers can help with focusing in on specific content; listening to just one thing can be easier than looking at multiple information streams simultaneously.
Second, using a screen reader does not have to be a chaotic experience. Despite the issues I faced at the beginning, using screen readers helped me relax during my vacation by allowing me some time away from social media and my email while I was learning. I had felt anxious about disconnecting, but I’m glad I did. Moderate disconnection gave me the space to work on a new skill while moving into a growth mindset. After a few days of consuming less media, so many ideas came to me.
Third, using a screen reader means heavy exposure to synthetic speech, so choosing the right voice is essential. I learned that the voice employed by the screen reader can really make a difference. I switched between four types of English during the challenge, and the variations helped me keep things fresh and prevented me from getting annoyed by too much of the same voice.
Fourth, going screen-free can open up the visual world in unexpected ways. As my eyes spent less time glued to a screen, I was able to notice small details, like a cute cat-shaped zipper pull on the bag of the person ahead of me in line, and the larger ones, like the beauty of snow and holiday decorations.

Advice for Future Challenge-Takers

Here are a few words of advice for sighted people thinking of following in my footsteps and taking a screen-free break.

  • Learn to use your computer without a mouse before diving into screen reader use. Keyboard navigation is available for nearly every function a mouse performs and it will cut down on the learning curve required for the whole screen reader experience.
  • Be prepared for your friends and family to be confused by your new strange behaviors and messages.
  • Don’t be afraid to take notes with pen and paper, even if you tend to lose paper the way I do. It can make life so much easier.
  • Enjoy non-computer entertainment, especially when you need a break from learning.
  • Try to be patient with yourself and persistent against the problems around you.

What’s it all for, Exactly?

Fellow sighted tech lovers may well ask why I put myself through this while on vacation, over and above the career development possibilities. Their confusion would make sense: I remember when I set the screen on my phone to go dark and I was really in for the project. It felt like a door slamming shut and made me really nervous. However, when I sent my first text after that, I felt amazing! It was worth it.
Screen readers are a vital part of the computing experience for so many, but those who don’t need them don’t typically understand what it’s like to depend on technology few people understand or accommodate. I hope that, by reading this guide, sighted people may be inspired to take a closer look at screen readers, how they function, and what steps can be taken to build a more accessible computing experience for everyone.
A final analogy that came to me during this time seems relevant here: Imagine that you run a business that ships shiny, fun gadgets to your customers. For a certain percentage of your customers, the shipments arrive without issue and they are happy. However, other customers open their packages to find that the labels have fallen off the buttons, the instructions have been replaced with a list of meaningless file names, and there is a bunch of extra junk in the box that makes it hard to find the actual product. These customers paid the same amount of money and are equal users in every respect except that some of them got this bad deal. Now imagine that instead of a fun gadget, you’re actually shipping out the tools people need to do their jobs or connect with loved ones. When web content is put up that isn’t accessible or new problems arise with an app or phone interface, it’s equivalent to sending out that terrible package and product. Imagine opening it on the first day on a new job or giving it as a gift to your grandmother. Do your research on this aspect of product design. Accessibility matters.

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Yes, Blind People Can Use Computers

Being blind in the 21st century means I get to have conversations like the following two:
1. “So, I’m interested in this job…”
“Oh, no, impossible, sorry.”
“Why?”
“Well…you’d need to use a computer, you see…”
2. “Hi. I’m new to this chat site and I can’t figure out what I’m doing. I’m blind, so I need some shortcut keys instead of mouse commands. Does anyone know any?”
“If ur blind then how are u using a computer? Ur obviously faking it.”
“…What?”
“Ur looking for attention”

I’d like to think that awareness of what blind people can and can’t do is more widespread than it’s ever been, thanks to the internet and the many blind writers and speakers out there. Despite all the awareness campaigns and advocacy groups, the idea that blindness and computers don’t mix remains stubbornly entrenched. While most people seem to understand that I must use some kind of computer—probably a “special” one—many are still under the impression that I must dictate my blog posts to a hired aide. Given how prevalent computers are in every facet of society, and how vital they are for the accomplishment of even the simplest tasks, it’s no wonder that people believe we’re on the fringes! It’s not surprising that we’d be lumped in with, say, Great Aunt Rosie who still refuses to touch a keyboard.

No matter how often we tweet, “like,” share, blog, and text, some people are still convinced we are unable to use a computer or similar electronic device independently (or at all). I suppose they assume we have assistants who manage every aspect of our online lives. Who knows what they assume goes on when we try to work? When you think about it, it’s not altogether unreasonable for these people to believe we couldn’t possibly work, because of how deeply computers have penetrated the workplace. How can we be expected to function as equal, contributing members of society if we can’t even update our Facebook statuses or pay the phone bill on our own? Even if we can use computers, how exactly do we manage it, since we can’t see the screen?

In my everyday life, computers are not only usable, but necessary. I have a smart phone and a laptop, and I use both daily. As I’ve previously discussed on this blog, computers help me through a variety of hurdles, among them reading printed documents, deciphering labels, finding my way around the city, and communicating via all the social networks. Computers are not only within my ability to use; they are also a portal to parts of the world I never could have accessed without them.
So, how do I use computers? Since I can’t see the screen at all, my smart phone and laptop are both equipped with a screen reader, which is a piece of software that runs in the background and reads the information on the screen using text-to-speech output. (For the low-vision users among us, screen magnification suffices.) It is also possible to read what’s on the screen in braille, provided you have a braille display handy. If you have an iPhone, you can demo Voiceover, the built-in screen reader; it’s lots of fun. Otherwise, there is a wealth of information online about all the different screen readers, so if you want to learn more about them, you could easily dedicate an afternoon to that research. For our purposes, all you really need to know is that, with the help of special software, computers and phones are mostly, if not totally, accessible to blind people all over the world. Assistive technology is expanding so that we can access everything from GPS trackers, to smart televisions, to bank machines. With the help of this software, I can do most of what a sighted computer user can, putting me on a more equal playing field than a blind person from the past could even imagine. While using a computer to navigate the internet, you’d never even know there was anything different about me at all.

Yes, blind people can use computers, and have done so for decades. Yes, we can (usually) perform well in workplaces using computer software, as long as that software supports our screen readers. Yes, we can send texts, write tweets, and manage online banking independently. Yes, we can develop software, write programs, and administer technical support.
Yes, we can keep up.

So, next time you meet someone who believes blindness and computers are like oil and water, do us all a favour, and pass on the good news!

Every Day is an Audio Challenge

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).