Here’s a question for accessibility experts: what technologies do low vision users actually use in 2022? I surveyed hundreds of low vision users through social media and learned that the assumption that low vision users only use screen magnifiers isn’t true. More than half of the respondents, who are low vision users, rely partially or exclusively on screen readers - a technology that many people assume is used only by blind users.
Blind users use screen readers and low vision users use screen magnifiers, right? Traditionally that is true. If you read any article discussing assistive technologies among the blind and visually impaired communities, they will all say the same thing. Although that does not seem to be the case in 2022. I, as a legally blind user, can attest to it.
As a legally blind user, I personally use a combination of screen magnifiers, my smartphone's camera, and a screen reader. During my research and studying to gain web accessibility certifications, I kept reading about assistive technologies. How to make the experience of blind and visually impaired users accessible, typically thinking about screen readers for the blind and screen magnifiers for low vision. This didn’t sit right with me, so I took to social media to ask the #BlindTok community a question, “Do you prefer screen readers or screen magnifiers?” The reason behind posing the question was due to the fact that as my vision gets worse over time, I use a screen reader for longer articles and magnifiers when browsing social media or doing shorter and less demanding tasks. After reading with magnifiers for extended periods of time, my eyes start to fatigue, and sometimes it causes headaches.
The responses to the question confirmed that my intuition was accurate, not all low vision users use solely magnifiers on the internet.
Out of 227 total comments, 123 of them responded directly to the three options I posed: Screen reader only, screen magnifier only, or a combination of the two.
- 21 people said they only use screen readers
- 57 people said they only use screen magnifiers
- 45 people said they use a combination of screen readers and magnifiers
When you look at the traditional assumptions and compare them to the responses in this video, it is slightly different. Instead of it being a 100% assumption around the assistive technologies used by the visually impaired, it is only about 46% of low vision users that only use a screen magnifier. The remaining 54 percent use something different.
Outside of magnifiers, and screen readers, there were a number of comments that were solutions being used every day by people with low vision. Here are a few of them.
- I use the screenshot function on computers and smartphones to enlarge anything on the screen
- I use large and bold text options
- I prefer a traditional magnifying glass
- I copy text and paste it into notes or word documents, to customize the size and color
- I hold the device 1 inch from the face
- I wear glasses
Diving A Little Deeper Into Low Vision User Preferences
Things get more interesting when looking at some of the reasons behind why some users prefer their own solutions. For example, some of those responded that they only use screen readers, and explained that they use it in compliment to bold text or braille displays. While one user explained that they use a screen reader unless they are on social media because we all know how inaccessible social platforms are. On the other side of things, some examples that came from magnifier users explained that they use them along with text to speech, speak on touch, low levels of brightness, or just when viewing the environment around them via the camera on their smartphone. One magnifier user explained that they use a magnifier due to being hard of hearing. Many of the respondents who opt for a combination of the two shared that it depended on the task or the length of the reading. However, the best response of all, was that they prefer to use both in certain scenarios because their sight dog cannot read.
Some Things To Keep in Mind
- With rapid advances in technology, assistive technology has seen significant developments. Such as providing users with low vision options to customize their experience based on what works for them.
- Blindness is a spectrum and what works for one user may not work for others. It is important to keep in mind those personal preferences and the different degrees of blindness.
- Smartphones are powerful devices for the visually impaired as the high-quality cameras, built-in accessibility features, and customization options make for a personal and convenient experience.
- Assistive technology and user solutions only go so far. Like social media, much of the internet is still not designed with persons with disabilities in mind, and without being designed properly, assistive technologies can only support to a certain extent.
- Persons with disabilities are very innovative and when push comes to shove, we always find a way to overcome barriers and challenges. Even if it means taking our business elsewhere and finding different, more accessible, options.
- Don’t assume or follow traditional assumptions about persons with disabilities and the assistive technologies they use. Ask your employees, customers, partners, and community members what is currently effective for them and what you can do to enhance their experiences.
Wrapping Things Up
I have experienced inaccessibility, both in the built environment and the digital environment. Aside from frustration and extended time to complete a task, it also leads to physical fatigue such as headaches, eye strain, and mental exhaustion. I encourage any business to take a moment, think about your internal teams, consumers, and partners, and ask yourself one question, “Am I making the lives of those around me easier or more difficult?” If the answer is unclear, it may be time to start conversations around enhancing experiences and providing support for those connected to your business, regardless of disability or ability.
About the Author
Hi, I am James Warnken.
I am a 24-year-old, visually impaired/legally blind online accessibility specialist with a deep background in digital marketing and design. I have recently obtained my IAAP CPACC certification and am currently pursuing the IAAP WAS certification to become CPWA. Over the last few years, working in marketing and online accessibility, I have realized that I have a very unique perspective compared to most. Living with a visual disability, 7+ years in the tech/marketing space, and now almost 2 years in the digital accessibility space. My mission is to educate, guide, and connect organizations so that they can own their accessibility initiatives instead of relying on overlays, third party providers, or hoping that it solves itself.
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