The following article is based on an interview with Kit Englard, a Blind-Deaf person living in the U.S.
As many may assume, technology is a great tool for the blind community, and we have been greatly impacted by tech advances. A screen reader can be used for streaming through hearing aids, or a Braille display can be connected to a phone or computer. One can use Bluetooth streaming to hear their TV better. The new Apple iOS11 update even displays subtitles in Braille, so a phone or an Apple TV’s subtitles can be read by someone who has enough vision to see the screen, but not enough to read the subtitles.
But it can also be limiting. Most blind people won’t “see” font changes, as the screen reader won’t mention them to you unless you ask it to. When I, a legally blind person, am editing a document and I need to insert italics, I can have the computer read my font attributes. Although Braille has indicators for underline, bold, and italics, most of my blind friends do everything with audio, including editing. Reading Braille is not as common as people think: only 9-11% of legally blind people will ever learn Braille. I myself have always been a visual learner, so I’ll almost always choose Braille over audio. I can’t pay attention to long strings of speech, and I’ve always struggled with understanding the world through sound. So, when I lost my vision, I gravitated toward tactile images and Braille.
In order to “read” pictures and videos, accessibility captions need to include what is visually important to understand the image. So, for a comic strip for example, you need to figure out what things in the comic are important for getting the punch line. For a family photo, you’ll need to capture the essence of the photo: who’s in it, their expressions, et cetera. The goal is to answer the question of why the image is there – extra information is mostly unnecessary noise, because I just want to quickly understand why this photo is important, and then move on or continue within the article.
Going through an article quickly is a challenge. Skim reading Braille isn’t really a skill you can master. At best, you can read the first sentence of a paragraph with the Braille display. If you’re a fast Braille reader or you have a full page of a book in Braille, then you can sort of skim-read. But very few people using Braille to read will master such literacy the way sighted people do. Skimming to a blind person is like listening to something with the audio speed set at twice as fast as its original recording (200%).
Personally, I’ll choose Braille 99% of the time over audio. But for things that are above my reading level, I will listen rather than read; things like Shakespeare, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and the Torah. Most of my friends use audio for everything, including editing. Blind people can become incredibly good at this, but even the best screen reader user will opt to have a sighted person read through a paper, just to make sure. Blind users often have spelling errors – when you’ve spent most of your life listening to speech and not reading words, spelling errors become very common. Braille comes back into use for math, even for someone who prefers audio.
As great as technology is, there are some pretty severe limitations. On Facebook, which is full of pictures and GIFs (pronounced with a hard G by my software), skimming becomes impossible. It’s pretty annoying to go looking for an accessibility option. Most blind people prefer using the mobile version of Facebook or the app instead of the desktop version, as the regular website isn’t very accessible. But this means we don’t have the full range of features sighted people have. Plus, searching for an accessibility copy (text captions for the picture or GIF) can be a lengthy process. Often if I can’t find the accessibility caption in the first comment, I’ll just move on.
Another issue is that my screen reader pronounces different spellings the same way. So if I’m just listening, I have no idea how a word is spelled unless I give the screen reader a command to spell a word. People normally only do that for names or places. I recently had a hilarious encounter. I emailed someone and called her “Sara,” and she responded, “I prefer Sarah, not Sara.” But my screen reader pronounced both spellings EXACTLY the same. I had to go to the original “Sara” I used and tell my screen reader to spell it. Then I had to go to “Sarah”’s response and ask my screen reader to read that, and finally compare them to figure out what she was talking about.
As a whole, today’s technology is a huge help for blind people. But within these technologies there are still problems of accessibility, and these have yet to be addressed.
Edited and adapted by Ilana Peters
©Kit Englard, 2018. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the kind permission of the author.