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Keep things user friendly (also to the visually impaired)

As a developer we have a responsibility to ensure that most users possible can use the Blind man sitting at a computer with his dog besides him.things we make. Lately I saw an example of someone who went through the trouble of disabling ARIA in a project.

Disabling and ignoring features meant to help those with impairments it way to common for developers. Therefore I’ll dedicate a “few” words on where you can do something. Most of it is based on my blind friends personal experiences with screen readers and using computers as a VIP (Visually Impaired Person).

First of all: Never ignore or disable features to help VIPs, unless you have a very very good reason to do so. I have yet to see one, but you’ll never know.

How to keep your work accessible (it’s quite easy actually)

A lot of graphical development environments have done extensive work to ensure that everyone can use it. Examples of those is GWT, GXT, WPF, GTK+ and so forth. As long as you keep to the standard components of those frameworks your work should be fairly usable. Yet there’s some good advices for how to ensure it:

  • Be aware of tab order. This is especially true if you use a visual designer for your GUI. Even to normal users a bad tab order can be annoying, but to VIPs it can be horrible.

  • Use sensible naming. Don’t call your text field textField1. Rather give it the name firstNameTextField. This will also help you keep track of your code later.

  • Stick to the standards, usually this will solve most problems. For instance if you code correct HTML (it can validate) then the alt-attribute is actually required for img-tags. Why? <img src=”images/img_00112358.png”> doesn’t provide a blind user of a way of knowing what is actually on the image. By adding alt=”Me and my dog in the forest” a screen reader can actually tell what’s on the page.

  • When deviating from standard components (it can hardly be avoided). Use the built in features to ensure that it’s actually usable.

Another thing seen way to often is PDF files where the creator actually disable access for accessibility tools. But why on earth would anyone do that? I know a lot of eBook companies have the delusion that it will help prevent piracy. What it will actually prevent is potential customers. (In general copy protection never helps preventing piracy on the contrary).

A few examples where the lack of accessibility have been a problem

  • My friend gets his pay checks on PDF, great then he can read them without help using a screen reader – Wrong! Some bloke felt it was a good idea to block accessibility tools. Why?

  • A lot of complex homepages with AJAX is inaccessible out of the box, mostly due to the way non-standard way components is used. There’s no way telling if a button is actually a button or a manipulated div-tag. W3C created ARIA for this reason, so please use it. GWT and GXT does this without you even changing your code.

Visually impaired people have very few limits!

One last thing is a myth I want to kill: but a blind user will never use this

Although this can be true for some cases be really careful with that thought pattern, since it will rarely hold true. Of course programs such as Photoshop will probably be true, consider this:

My blind friend is a programmer, using C, C++ and C# primarily. But he also knows how to use basic CSS. Yup that’s right he actually knows a bit about how to use visual tools even though he have never seen them himself.

Pictures and drawings etc. can actually interest blind people. I’ve been with my friend to an art museum, telling him what’s on the paintings – to great joy for him.

Blind people actually likes movies, although some are¬†beyond¬†what the can get something from, never underestimate what isn’t. My blind friend is even developing a system to display subtitles on a braille display, so he will be able to see movies from all sorts of countries.

Touch phones such as Android phones and iPhone is actually usable by the blind. Don’t ask me how, but it’s more common that you’d expect.

And finally, how on earth can you be sure that your program will never be used by a blind person. With computes, the web, normal phone and touch phones being accessible to blind people, is there any way you can guarantee it won’t be used by a blind person? Even mouse simulation is to some extend available.


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