Usability Tips and Tools for the Visually Impaired on the Web


The internet is the most important tool in modern society. Through its use, people have access to a wealth of opportunity and information. This access of course includes things like communication, business, social interactions, entertainment, shopping, and so much more between people virtually anywhere in the world on a daily basis. Simply describing the internet as an important tool would just not be enough. In actuality it is a vital necessity, and one can’t truly survive without it. With that being stated, can you imagine what it would be like not to be able to view the internet?

As web designers, it is our job to create and design web interfaces that are ideally easy for all types of users to use. However our profession has looked over one very important percentage of the population with the way we go about designing websites. This percentage of the Earth’s population consisting of those with impaired vision. That is why in part one of this three-part series, we are going to first explain to you this forgotten portion of internet users.

How the Web Industry Ignores the Visually Impaired

Image Credit: White Ribbons 

As mentioned earlier, it is the job of a web professional to consider all types of users that may access their website in the design or development process. However, the visually impaired percentage of internet users are the ones that are most often overlooked. One might expect this would happen in a field that is so visually driven, and for the most part never touches on those that may have vision problems. Here are a few ways in which we as a community are ignoring this group of internet users.

They are hardly ever mentioned

A web professional of any skill level has spent a good amount of time looking at blogs, publications, video tutorials, books, and other resources such as these to improve their skills and learn what is happening in the web field. It should come quite as a surprise that through all the resources, online and offline, available to web professionals that we barely, if ever, have mentioned this user group.

We Move Forward Without Taking the Time To Look Back

The web industry is a very fast paced field, and all involved in it know this all to well. Every month or so there is something new out gaining a buzz around the web, and something else that is quickly becoming a nuisance. Because most aren’t quite familiar with this user group, or the software they are using to view internet information, there is a good chance that the advances being made could very well be new disadvantages for the visually impaired internet user.

We don’t always use Clean and Semantic Code

The software being used by visually impaired internet users rely heavily on web developers to use clean coding practices so they can properly access the information on the site. For example take a look at someone newly using HTML5. If that person doesn’t fully understand the purpose and place of every tag, it will create problems for this type of software because this is how they gain the hierarchy information of the site.

Bad Linking Practice

Doing such things as making “click here” a hyperlink are a bad practice in general, however this little tendency is quite bad for the visually impaired. This is so because the software they use is not visual, most commonly will speak the text, so how will this in any way benefit them? The better solution is of course is to link the text stating the next destination.

Types and Levels

Now there are four different types and/or levels of vision, which can also be categorized into three distinct groups.

Normal Vision

This level is where the majority of internet users belong, and is the only level we take time to cater our designs to. Members of this group have no trouble at viewing things online. Also members of this level are those with minor vision loss, or near-normal vision. This vision range going from 20/20 to 20/60.

Moderate Vision Impairment

This level belongs to people with a vision of 20/70 to 20/160. Members of this level are usually able to get their vision fixed with glasses, contact lenses, or possibly laser eye surgery if they choose.

Severe Vision Impairment

This level belongs to the people with a vision of 20/200 to 20/400, or a more profound and severe range of 20/500 to 20/1,000. Members of this level have a lower chance of being able to correct their vision with the methods of those with moderate vision impairment.

Legal Blindness

This level belongs to anyone with a vision of more than 20/1,000. At this level you are considered to be blind, and no form of technology available at the moment has the ability to cure your vision.

The three categories these levels are classified into are Normal Vision, Low Level Vision, and Blindness. Normal vision and Blindness coincide with the levels of the same name, but Low Level Vision is the grouping of those with Moderate and Severe Level Vision Impairment.

Web Applications for the Visually Impaired

Internet usage by those inflicted with impaired vision was around 1.5 million people 15 and older, in 1999. Considering this estimation was done over a decade ago, the number of impaired users today will really start to make any web designer feel like they have done a disservice to a portion of their possible website’s audience. So it is only natural that there are web browsers and applications created specifically to address the visually impaired percentage of internet users. Lets take a look at some of them.

1. Microsoft Narrator

Microsoft Narrator is a lightweight screen reader application that comes already installed on Windows PC, from Windows 2000 to the present. This screen reader can  do basic functions like reading the dialog boxes and window controls in a number of the more basic applications for Windows. This is a great app to have, but visually impaired users will need to pursue a more advanced solution.

2. VoiceOver

VoiceOver is a screen reader application that is built into Mac OSX, iOS and iPod operating systems. This is a cool app because it allows for its user to access and navigate through their computer by speaking, or keyboard use when using a desktop.

3. Linux Screen Reader

Linux Screen Reader is the Linux answer to Microsoft Narrator, and is probably a must have for anyone with vision problems using a Linux OS operated computer. The main focus for the people behind this application is not to just make a quality screen reader for those using Linux systems. In actuality, it is their mission to further and improve the experience of internet users with disabilities that may hinder their online experience by providing an extensible platform to create from.

4. WebbIE

WebbIE is a web browser specifically designed for blind and visually impaired internet users, and has been in use since 2001. Visually impaired users will still need access to a screen reader to fully benefit from this browser. With WebbIE users gain a way of accessing news and audio, podcasts, online radio and read RSS and news feeds with your screen reader or something similar. It is also good to note that this app is freeware.

5. BrailleSurf 4

BrailleSurf 4 gives visually impaired users a simplified reading environment for the information on the web. The cool thing about this browser is that the information can be displayed on a braille bar, or spoken out to you by a speech synthesizer. It is also adjustable to suit different levels of vision impairment.

6. eGuideDog

eGuideDog is a project that specializes in creating software for blind computer users. Their current focus at this time is WebSpeech, Ekho, and WebAnywhere.

7. Qwitter

Just because you have less than desirable vision, doesn’t mean you can forgo the allure of Twitter. Qwitter is an application that gives visually impaired users an accessible way to use Twitter by an intriguing merger of the functions of Twitter and your screen reader of choice.

What To Expect in Part 2

In the next installment of this series, we will be looking at how websites can be improved or better implemented for this percentage of online users.