Blind and online: Progress, not perfection, for visually impaired tech users

Today's digital environment has a lot to offer blind computer users, but the Web remains a minefield of frustration.

Gayle Yarnall of Amesbury, Mass., is blind. Consequently, photography is not a skill she ever anticipated mastering.

"But the iPhone will tell you if the face in the viewfinder is centered, or if [the face] is small or large," notes Yarnall, who runs a lifestyle consulting firm called Gayle Connected. "Otherwise it's dumb luck, but I am getting pretty good at it."

Yarnall is taking advantage of a trend popularized by Apple four years ago. After decades when the industry emphasized graphical interfaces in computing products, effectively marginalizing users with impaired vision, Apple added an optional voice interface to its iOS operating system in 2008.

Other platforms have followed suit, most recently Microsoft's improved Narrator voice interface in the new Windows 8 operating system.

But even the best user interface is of little help to a blind person trying to make sense of a website whose designers have given no thought to accessibility, often leaving important buttons unlabeled so that blind users have no audio cues about how to proceed or interact with the site. (See sidebar, below.)

There is a central authority on the Web that issues guidelines on how to assure accessibility, under the auspices of the World Wide Web Consortium. But so far, the results appear to constitute a drop in a bucket. Accessibility issues are so common that visually impaired users and other experts agree that a blind-friendly commercial site is one that has only a couple of problems per page. Others have hundreds per page.

In one source of good news, though, a blind person today can use technology to instantly acquire a book and load it on a device that will read it aloud, and not have to wait for the bulky Braille version.

"I know blind people with personal libraries of thousands of books; that is a big change," says blind adaptive consultant David Porter, head of Compunique in Chicago.

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