UX for the Blind: Considering Accessibility First

On a hot sunny day in May, attendees gather around stages on Hoboken’s boardwalk facing the waterfront of a Manhattan skyline for the Propelify Innovation Festival. Amidst a conference littered with “The Future of…” and “The Next Big…” -type talks, I am lucky to sit down just in time for a topic that is often marginalized: “UX for the Blind, An Untapped Market.”

There are two women on stage: Helen, who introduces herself as the CEO of Sociality Squared, and Mary, a Sociality Squared employee who is blind. Both work in the digital marketing space where experiences are heavily driven by pixels on a screen. This paradox is exactly why this talk is so unique.

In a question-and-answer style interview, Helen asks some questions that many people like Mary receive, questions at the intersection of technology, digital interactions, disability, and accessibility. But more than anything, Helen asks questions that humanize Mary’s experience.

Mary paints a picture of what it’s like to be blind. She tells the crowd, “Imagine this. You are invited to a large networking event, like Propelify. However, you can’t see all the colorful badges, flyers, programs, and maps that everyone else has access to. Even little details that are left out can easily make disabled persons feel excluded.”

Mary addresses how UX designers can all build a more inclusive world: Expand our scope of understanding of what our users look like. Stop thinking they are young and able-bodied, like ourselves.

She backs up her claims with statistics:

Statistics from the Census Bureau about how many people in the U.S. have a disability.
Statistics from the Census Bureau about how many people in the U.S. have a disability.

 

UX designers often talk a big game around empathy, but if we are going to put empathy into action, we should do all that we can to understand how disabilities, such as blindness, present specific design challenges and then take measures to address them.  

Mary addresses how whole organizations can work together. Engineers and designers should be collaborating around accessibility from day one, not just as a last-ditch effort. It boils down to this:

“Build in accessibility from the bottom up.”

Web users with visual challenges depend on assistive technologies to accompany their digital experience. For example, Mary uses a screen reader that picks up text on a webpage. She navigates the page with keyboard commands and unique gestures. Certain features and interface elements might hinder the screen reader’s ability to scan with ease. Images without proper alternative textual treatments might cause huge gaps in communication. Our designs should consider the limitations around the seen (interface), the unseen (system), and the assistive technologies used.

Types of disabilities image.
Web accessibility addresses these types of disabilities: visual, motor and mobility, seizures, auditory, and cognitive and intellectual.

 

In an extremely fast moving tech industry always focused on the next big thing, this talk was a good reminder for me to slow down and reassess my own blind spots. I see now that using Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) tools and adhering to 508 compliance is more than checking off the boxes to conform to regulations. I see this responsibility now as valuing those experiences that span a different range of abilities, ones that I have never experienced. I am glad to work at a company like Bixal that prioritizes Section 508-Compliance, an area of focus led by our wonderful 508-Compliance and Accessibility Specialist, Meg Brancato. I hope to continue having conversations centered around accessibility early in the discovery process. I am motivated more than ever to foster a collective effort for building a more inclusive future within the teams and projects I am a part of.

Here are a some web accessibility resources to get you started:

 

Check out these web accessibilities thought-leaders on Twitter: