Guest blog: Siobhan Meade, Journalist

"Technology & digital inclusion is the reason I can live life as productively as I do"

As a totally blind person, technology and digital inclusion is the reason I can live life as productively as I do.

For the first 16 years of my life, I leant heavily on specialist technology that enabled me to maximise the poor vision I had until that point. Extreme magnification software helped me read large text for short periods of time. My sight was never good enough to take full advantage of the internet age from the mid 90s. In fact, it wasn’t until I lost all of my sight in 1999 that digital doors were opened properly to me. I had already been introduced to screen reading technology but for the first time, I had specialist training in navigating what was a very sparse world wide web.

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As time has progressed, online shopping has grown at an exponential rate. Amazon grew from an online book seller in the US to the global supplier of nearly everything today.  Music would eventually become available legally through download services, and Apple would revolutionise the landscape of movie, music and entertainment consumption, trailblazing when it came to inclusive practice.

The rise of assitive technology

It was around the early to mid-noughties that the first fully functioning talking screen readers became available for Nokia telephones. I remember wandering into the Vodafone store and picking up the first phone that would let me send and receive text messages. It had a basic mobile web browser but it wasn’t very usable. Like a tsunami, innovation flooded the market and email became available on other Nokia smartphones. I was able to use email and access my phone like a sighted person.

Web accessibility started opening up before then. Early screen readers such as Jaws for Windows, which is still live and kicking today, was able to understand and read HTML content and make PCs usable by those of us with no vision. I’m told Apple Macs were pretty decent too but I didn’t start using one until the past decade. As with their in-built accessibility software on iPhones, iPods and iPads, Apple led the way with an in-built screen reader called Voice Over that made any Apple Mac accessible out of the box. Interestingly, I understand that the Mac’s voiceover screen reader came about to make coding and design accessible to a blind engineer on their team, yet the inclusion of text to speech software means anyone can walk into a store today and access it on any Mac in the world without paying an extra penny.

Why inclusive design matters, for you and for me

Whichever screen reader a user engages, all that’s required is for website designers to adhere to the really simple W3C accepted standard - WCAG 2.1. This includes using heading labels, ideally correct heading structures and levels, and making sure that any text that appears is actual text and not simply an unlabeled image of text. A great website is one that I feel I can access fully. These aren’t specially adapted, they are simply inclusive at the design stage.

A very bad website for inclusion and accessibility is one that goes out of its way to disguise pop-up ads as other coded functions. They are usually the same site that grabs screen focus from the screen reader. That means that a user can be interacting with text, and a ticker bar or other element pulls the screen reader to that focal point, and navigation is lost. This repeats and the content itself cannot be read. We all know the ‘sort’ of site we are talking about here, a website that focuses on ‘news’ or perhaps more accurately infotainment. I understand that from their point of view, page impressions are everything and story clicks are what their ‘journalists’ are judged on but it renders that content totally unusable for those of us who are supposed to read through all news sites. This sort of site may think, who cares, we don’t wish to be socially responsible and we only care about the bottom line, but they would be wrong to take this attitude because people with disabilities and their family are, according to the UK Government, worth more than £250Bn a year. That’s a lot of cash. The site I’m thinking of simply doesn’t get my click but how many others in my position are not adding to their clicks and revenue?

Digital inclusion is important for retail and making bookings. Some hotels no longer accept booking by phone and those who do charge less when booked online. It’s difficult to live offline and so easy to make websites accessible online. It helps attract all of society and it will result in commercial success for those who take a very small amount of time to be inclusive.

Away from web browsing, digital inclusion stretches out to smartphone apps. For instance, I pay £24 a month to a tech company called Aira that matches visually impaired users with trained staff who can either read things, help navigate using GPS systems, and perform other day to day tasks. The vetted agents can even remote dial in to your computer if you want them to so they can help to access websites that are frankly rubbish.

In summary...

Technology and the internet is central to all of our ways of living now. Shops are moving from bricks and mortar to ‘clicks and mortar’ with zero inventory shops soon to be a reality on our changing high streets. Smart TVs that talk, and streaming services with audio descriptive voice overs, mean I am included and part of society. If we fail to be inclusive, we succeed in nothing less reprehensible than excluding many, and invalidating those whose needs we can so easily accommodate.

If you would like to learn more about web accessibility, and what you can do to become more inclusive in your digital communications, check out our dedicated resources area. You'll find free guides, recorded webinars, and more.


About Siobhan

Siobhan Meade is a freelance journalist who was born severely sight impaired and has been totally blind since 1999. She can be followed on Twitter @sibbymeade


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