Imagine using the Internet as a blind person.
As an occasional web-developer, I had some awareness of the importance of accessibility for the web, but to be honest it was pretty superficial. You just add ALT tags to your images, make sure you can tab between all the controls on the page, and a screen-reader will sort out the rest, right?
I went to an event in London a couple of weeks ago, where the reality was brought home to me.
Screen-readers are not as intelligent or as helpful as I’d assumed. They just read out everything on the page.
Imagine a typical modern web app… for example, facebook. Start reading everything on the page, from the top left of the page, and carry on until you reach the bottom right. Imagine what that might be like.
The best analogy I can think of is to try and picture the worst possible automated phone menu experience. The sort of one where they read you a long list of almost-unintelligible options: “for blah-blah-blah, press 1, for blather-blather-blather, press 2, for something-or-other, press 3 …. for something-else-vague, press 9 …”
None of the options seem like an exact match for the task that you have in mind, and by the time you’ve got to the end, you can’t remember whether the option that sounded sort of vaguely similar was option 3 or option 4…
Imagine that for a web page. Apparently, a screen-reader can take three or four minutes to read out the contents of a typical web page today. Can you imagine an automated phone system that spent four minutes listing your options, then expected you to try and choose which one you wanted?
That’s the experience that many blind people face when trying to use modern web apps that we take for granted.
ALT tags are all well and good, but making a web page accessible isn’t the same as making it usable.
So… as geeks with a passion for technology and an interest in making the web useful to all, what can we do?