Access to the What Sorts blog for Users of Screenreaders

As Spirit of The Times and others know, I have for some time been concerned about access to the blog for users of screenreaders. While there has been some discussion of the lack of captioning of YOUTube and other videos posted to the blog, there hasn’t been any discussion thus far about the exclusionary implications of posting images, pictures, graphs and other visual representations.  (This is not permitted on any of the disability research lists I subscribe to.)  One contributor to the blog recently commented that “images speak louder than words”.  That may be true for some, but it is not true for all.  If one is blind or has low vision, pictures and images probably don’t “speak” to her at all unless they are raised, tactile pictures of the sort philosopher of art Dominic Lopes has written about.  At present, some pictures/images are textually identified in this way: “Cover of So-and-so’s [book title]”.  What is on the cover?  What does it look like?  If there were textual description accompanying these book covers, pictures and images, access to the blog for users of screenreaders would be improved. Even videos which have an audio element would be made more accessible to users of screenreaders if a textual description accompanied them:  What is happening in the frame behind the person who is being interviewed? Is she seated in a wheelchair?  Are there people in the background who aren’t saying anything? Does the interview take place in a bookstore? In a park?  Elements such as location, scenery, colours, and objects in view to the sighted person create a context for the video and the action that takes place in it. Someone who uses a screenreader won’t get these from an audio presentation. So they should be provided in the form of textual description.

I would like to open up a discussion about this and encourage you to contribute your ideas in the comments to this post. I’m not a screenreader user, so I hope those who do use screenreaders will give feedback, even if only to correct me about what works for them.


6 thoughts on “Access to the What Sorts blog for Users of Screenreaders

  1. I want to make a slight modification to a parenthetical remark I make in this post. I stated that none of the disability research lists to which I subscribe permit posting of visual representations such as pictures or graphs. It is probably more accurate to say that the lists are configured in ways that will not allow this, nor do their configurations allow for words to appear in bold or italics or with underlining.

  2. Dear stremain,

    I take your point about captioning images — this is definitely something we should be putting more thought into, and as you say, the more detail the better. I’ll certainly be taking that on board.

    I don’t think it’s fair to single my comment out about ‘images speaking louder than words,’ however, given the context of that comment, which addressed the digital modification of images and how the widespread use of this affects young women’s self-image. This blog does deal with a broad range of material, and I think in that case I shouldn’t be chastised for commenting on an issue that clearly isn’t inclusive of vision impaired participants, but has implications for the project for other reasons.

    I agree that every post should strive as much as possible to include through format — and attempting to provide better and more detailed descriptions is an essential aspect of this. But are you really suggesting that we don’t include images at all? Or that we shouldn’t address material relevant to the project that necessarily deals with images (like digital enhancement, or even plastic surgery)?

    It’s been suggested by others that we need to use more images to attract a broader readership. We might want to strike a balance between appealing to people who had not yet thought about the issues discussed on the blog (and whom obviously we want to provoke to think more about them), and providing a welcoming environment for everyone who wants to use the blog. But I would be interested in hearing from those who are reliant upon text about this … whether they feel excluded by the use of images at all, or whether we should just pull our socks up in providing fuller descriptions.

  3. I received this comment in the form of an email from Joanne. I responded to it, then discovered that she had posted her comment here.

    What I wrote to her, generally, was this. I wasn’t “chastising” her and didn’t even mention her by name. As I pointed out, someone would have to go through the archives and read every comment to every recent post in order to associate the remark with her. The post, that is, my post about access for screenreaders went past Rob Wilson, the blog coordinator before it was published. He didn’t think it was unfair or offensive to Joanne or anyone else, but rather that it was “great.”

    Joanne asked if I am “really suggesting” that there be no images put on the blog. In response, I indicated that she should read my post again more carefully, for the greater part of it is devoted to suggesting ways that images and videos can be made more accessible to screenreader users, i.e., by accompanying them with textual description. I don’t quite understand how this message behind my posting could have been overlooked.

  4. Just in case anyone gets the impression, somehow, from Shelley’s last comment, that we have a habit of vetting posts for content before they go up, rest assured, dear reader, that that doesn’t happen. (I really WANTED to get someone to do this, but then thought I’d have also to get someone to vet the vetting of posts, and then someone in turn to vet the vetting of the vetting of posts, and before I knew it, I’d run out of people.) Contributors can pretty much say what they want, and if things do take a turn for the even-more-offensive-than-BlogAdminers-can-bear worse, then we’ll toss buckets of cold water on the dogs until they stop biting each other.


  5. My apologies to everyone, and especially Shelley, for my oversensitivity about this post. After an extremely trying week, I was feeling very tired and emotional… and on the defensive. Let’s all (she says to herself) just calm down and relax.

  6. As a screen-reader user and contributor to this blog, I thought I should offer my opinion on this topic.

    I’m a JAWS user. JAWS is one of the more sophisticated screen-reading programs and thus one of the more expensive ones. It’s also a fairly complicated program to learn to use, and I consider myself a somewhat advanced user. Not every person who could make use of it will have access to this quality of screen reader, and those who can will not necessarily have the training and experience to make full use of it. All this to say that I’m not speaking on behalf of all screen-reader users.

    That said, I find the general accessibility of this blog for screen-reading programs to be far better than that of the average website. As an example, each post has a “heading” associated with it. I don’t know what a heading looks like, so I’m not sure if you know what I mean, but JAWS allows me to jump back and forth between headings. This means that I can easily move back and forth between posts. Without these headings, it would take much more time to locate the beginning of each post, and the blog would be much harder to read. I’ve been very happy with how easily I can maneuver around the blog; even contributing my own posts has not been difficult.

    As for describing images, it hasn’t been a concern of mine. I may be wrong, but the images seem mainly to be designed either to provide a break from the straight text, which can be taxing on the eyes (especially text on a computer screen), or to associate a mental picture with the idea being conveyed, which seems to help people better remember the idea. In both cases, a textual description cannot really replace the image. So what I’m saying is that I haven’t felt excluded by the lack of textual descriptions of images because I don’t think the images are essential to grasping the meaning of the posts. When the image is being relied upon to convey the ideas in the post, then a description really should be provided. Just ask yourself if the image you are including supplements the post for visually-oriented people or instead contains something essential to the meaning of your post. In the latter case, I’m sure all screen-reader users would appreciate a textual description of the image.

    I can’t stress emphatically enough that other screen-reader users may completely disagree with me. For some, the description will be desirable regardless of whether it contributes to better understanding the post. Me, I can take it or leave it in these cases.

    I’m glad this topic has been raised, and I will offer suggestions on making the blog more accessible to screen-reader users if anything else comes to mind.

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