Accessing the Digital World with a Visual Disability

Blindness is a Spectrum

Blindness is a spectrum and can affect people in a variety of ways.

A visual disability cannot be corrected with contacts, glasses, or surgery. For me, my visual disability is caused by genetics, which cannot be fixed.

The blindness spectrum ranges from 20/20 vision through total blindness and can include conditions like color blindness. Visual impairments and legal blindness simply mean that the vision is below a certain threshold and cannot be resolved with common solutions.

Of those who are totally blind, many can still perceive light and shadows but may not be able to perceive details and colors. Color blindness comes in a variety of forms, including red-green, yellow-blue, and even grayscale, which all impact how someone might perceive different colors. Vision issues can also include those whose ability to discern text on various backgrounds has decreased due to age.

At the end of the day, users with disabilities are going to find solutions that fit their needs and allow them to be independent and successful.

Accessibility Issues that Impact the User with a Visual Disability

Whether a user cannot perceive certain colors, has decreased contrast perception due to age, has limited vision, or has no vision at all, each are impacted by website design, formatting, and overall functionality.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Many websites use and rely on color as a means of communicating with users. For users with color blindness and low contrast perception, this is a big problem and can lead to a process being impossible. A prime example are status messages and whether an action failed or was completed successfully. Failures are usually indicated with the color red while success are typically green.
  • When someone with low vision visits a website, they are likely to be viewing with some form of magnification assistive technology, using the built-in browser zoom features, or other software. With the rising popularity of mobile devices, the issue of resizing and reflow has decreased because of the ability to zoom the content with a pinching gesture. However, some elements, widgets and page layouts do not mesh well when magnified beyond 200%. This issue introduces a second axis of scrolling, side to side and up and down, which can nearly double the time to read or complete an interaction.
  • When a user with no vision visits a website, they are likely to be using a screen reader or even a Braille display. Screen readers convert content into audio while Braille displays present the page contents in Braille. For users who are blind, if elements are not structured or labeled properly, this makes things very difficult and even sometimes impossible. Similarly, if interactive elements like forms, buttons and controls are not structured properly, blind users might feel frustrated by the lack of control of their experience and lack of information being provided.

Any business that is open to the public should have a goal to provide an equivalent experience to all its current and potential customers.

Assistive Technology Is Not Confined to Specific Users

We all have personal preferences and methods to achieving our desired goals, whether it be on a mobile phone or a desktop computer.

The same is true among users with visual disabilities. Some users who have limited vision might use a magnifier for general everyday tasks but may switch to a screen reader when reading a book or article.

Someone who is completely blind may use their phone for some tasks with the phone's native screen reader software but may switch to a computer when something like filling out a form is involved.

It is not a good idea to assume that all blind users use a screen reader on a desktop computer or users with low vision only user magnifiers. It all comes down to personal preference and what makes the most sense to achieve a goal in a timely and effective manner.

The Responsibility of Businesses

Any business that is open to the public should have a goal to provide an equivalent experience to all its current and potential customers. I say "should" because most businesses do not have this as a goal.

Businesses should ensure that if users cannot see the content, they can also hear it. If they cannot hear the content, they can see it. And if they cannot use a mouse, they can use a keyboard.

The content should also be designed to consider cognitive disabilities to reduce the risk of distraction, irritation, and confusion.

If these are considered and applied, it is very likely that a website, app, document, or online platform is fairly accessible.

The step that takes a website from fairly accessible to mostly accessible is including users with disabilities in testing and feedback. In the business world, products and services are tested before being released, so why not invite a more diverse group of testers to explore your products and services before they release?

It really is that straightforward.

From User Preferences to Business Applications

At the end of the day, users with disabilities are going to find solutions that fit their needs and allow them to be independent and successful.

From users with disabilities, like blindness, to users who do not have disabilities, we are all looking for a great experience that works. The business should be on top of changes within technology, user behavior, and personal preferences to ensure that no matter the user's preferences, an equivalent experience is always available.

If you are ready to be proactive and embed accessibility into your content development lifecycle for the benefit of your users, feel free to inquire about a baseline web accessibility audit and to find out how WebAlign can help guide your efforts.

About the Author

Portrait of James Warnken

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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