Did you know that an experienced blind person can use a computer at least as efficiently as a sighted person? If you want to write about a character with a visual (or some other physical) impairment, it doesn’t preclude that character from using a computer.
Assisstive technology (AT)
There’s a whole class of technology that helps people with physical challenges use computers. This is called assistive technology (AT). A lot of AT is focused on helping people with visual impairments, and that will be the focus of this post. But AT helps lots of people: Stephen Hawking is able to use a computer just by moving his cheek.
(The following paragraphs have a couple of YouTube links. If those links no longer work, try searching for “using a screen reader” on YouTube.com.)
People with diminished vision may use a screen magnifier, software which magnifies part of the computer screen. Here’s a short video of someone using a screen magnifier.
A person with little or no vision probably uses a screen reader, software which interprets what’s on the screen. Here’s a video (around 13 minutes long) of a woman using a screen reader. She has the screen reader set to read pretty fast (the reading speed is configurable), and it can go even faster. Someone who is good at listening to a screen reader can consume content even faster than a sighted user reading it off the screen.
I’m a web programmer, and there is a vast array of techniques available to me to make web pages and web applications easier to use for people with certain types of difficulties (especially visual impairments). If you hear someone talking about web accessibility, they’re probably referring to these techniques. I don’t know nearly as much about this as I wish I did, and I quickly feel overwhelmed by the staggering amount of literature on the topic.
Making web pages accessible is important work. And it’s more than just the right thing to do. There is federal legislation requiring it, and there are real consequences in failure: there have been successful (and costly) court decisions requiring Netflix, Target, and institutions of higher education to make their electronic resources available to people with disabilities.
Here are a few simple things you can do to make your web pages more useful:
- When you create a link, make sure that the link text is meaningful by itself. People often tell the screen reader to read out a list of a page’s links. A link that just says “click here” is worse than useless.
- If the thing you use to make web pages allows it, provide alt text whenever you put an image on a web page. The alternative text should give a brief description of the image. The screen reader will read the alt text aloud, and this allows a visually impaired person to know what information you wanted to convey when you included the image. (And remember that uploading an image of text, a popular way of circumventing twitter’s 140-character length limit, only works if the user can read it.)
- If you are writing a long page with lots of different sections, use headers and sub-headers to break up the page (like the Web accessibility header on this page). Make sure you’re using actual headers, not just large text set off by itself (you probably want to look in the styles gizmo for something like “heading level N,” where N is a number between 1 and 7). People sometimes tell the screen reader to read off the page’s headers so that the user can jump straight to the part of the page that interests them.
- Make sure your page has good color contrast. Light grey text on a white background is really hard to read for all kinds of people. You can use the WebAIM color contrast checker to the test the contrast between two colors.
At the time of this writing, I’m hosting this blog on wordpress.com using their free plan. As such I’m limited in the variety of themes I can use. The theme I selected (the twenty sixteen theme) is pretty bland, but it has better accessibility than most of the nicer-looking themes (which is why I picked it). Even so, it’s not perfect: the share this buttons have poor color contrast. This blog is still an experiment. If it seems successful, I’ll probably upgrade to one of the paid plans which claim to offer greater theme customization.
So if you have a character who’s as blind as a bat, she can probably use a computer even better than some 20/20 mouth-breather.