How a Person with Vision Loss “Reads” Off the Screen – A Global Accessibility Awareness…

As much as technology has become more prevalent and intuitive, the Web remains inaccessible and inconvenient to some, due to its limited accessibility features.

Celebrated annually on the third Thursday of May, Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) aims to raise awareness about digital accessibility and inclusion for everyone, especially for persons with disabilities. In this GAAD feature, we find out how a person with vision loss can access the computer and mobile devices.

Technology may not be accessible for all

It is easy for many of us to browse the Web with a click of a mouse button or a swipe of the thumb. Connecting and chatting with loved ones over messaging apps? Easy-peasy.

However, as much as technology has become more prevalent and intuitive, the Web remains inaccessible and inconvenient to some, due to its limited accessibility features.

Digital accessibility issues tend to occur more frequently for users with vision loss, noted accessibility advocate and SPD Inclusion Champion Joshua Tseng, who, by the age of 16, had lost most of his usable eyesight due to long-term deterioration caused by glaucoma.

Joshua graduated from the Singapore Management University recently with a Bachelor in Information Systems (Digital Cloud Solutioning, Management Information Systems), a field of study which required him to work a lot on the computer. Which brings us to the question: How does he access his computer and mobile devices if he cannot see the options on a screen?

Leveraging assistive technology

One form of assistive technology that Joshua uses to navigate his computer and mobile devices is the screen reader software. The one he uses on his computer and smartphone is JAWS (Job Access with Speech), which reads off information on the screen either with text-to-speech output or by a refreshable Braille display.

A refreshable Braille display
A refreshable Braille display  (Image Source : Tech Able)

It verbalises not just the text but also the apps and programmes (e.g MS Word, MS Excel), and their functions such as ‘Save As’ and ‘Print’. With JAWS, Joshua could move easily to different parts of a website to read the screen and navigate around freely using the keyboard shortcuts such as ‘Tab’, ‘Control+Tab’ and ‘Windows+D’ on his computer.

In 2022, Joshua started uploading videos on YouTube where he shares different aspects of his life as a blind person. In this video, he demonstrates how he accesses his computer and smartphone.

Greater awareness of e-accessibility needed in web community

From our observation, many developers, web designers and creators may not have the expertise or knowledge to provide adequate accessible solutions for people with visual impairments.  Some issues commonly encountered include:

  • Screen readers like JAWS or keyboard accessibility software not being able to function properly when websites are not properly coded.
  • Lack of alternative text, or Alt Text, which is a written description of an image. It is read by screen readers in place of the images, allowing the image content to be accessed by people who have visual impairments. In the absence of Alt Text, blind people cannot make sense of what the image is.
  • Poor colour contrast which impacts the readability of content on the web and in print. It affects people who have low vision or are colour-blind.
Samples of bad contrast with light grey text on white background, and good contrast with white text on dark blue background
An example of poor colour contrast that affects people with low vision or are colour blind. (Image Source: Big Hack)

To overcome barriers obstructing people with vision impairments and other disabilities from accessing information, web developers and creators should strive for accessible content by following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2, an international standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organisations, and governments internationally.

Only when more developers, web designers and other creators become aware about and put greater focus on providing accessible content, can we then create a more inclusive online space for persons visual impairments as well as other disabilities.

This article was written with inputs from SPD Inclusion Champion and former APB Foundation Scholarship recipient Joshua Tseng.