What accessibility really means
We all know building accessible websites is important, and that there's legislation* and corporate guidelines that enforce it. However, have you ever wondered what it's actually like for the target audience?
Mark is 55 and has a son aged 15. He works with access technology for blind and partially sighted people at the Royal National Institute of the Blind. He is blind.
Brands that do it for me include Wetherspoon's, Dell, Sony and Nokia. I use a somewhat aged Nokia 6680 with a program on it called Talks [a screen reader for mobile text], which makes just about everything on it accessible to me. Even the camera is useful. I don't use it much myself, but I ask people to take pictures and then I can at least find named photos when I want to show them to others. My favourite sites are Dabs, Savastore, Expansys and the Official Census sites.
I mostly use the web for checking out and buying gadgets, downloading music and books, booking holidays, paying bills and for researching just about anything – all the things everyone else does, but it's ten times more valuable to me because I usually won't have any alternative way of doing it. I also need to check out for myself the many ways in which my son is keen to spend my money online.
I use Jaws, a screen reader that makes the computer speak in reasonable synthetic speech for the purposes of navigation. I don't use the mouse at all and control the whole thing from the keyboard, using a combination of Windows and Jaws keystrokes. The most useful thing I learned at school was touch-typing.
What annoys me are images with no text associated and registration procedures that end with the security requirement that you type in a string of characters, which are usually a graphic, so not identified by a screen reader.
The access technology alternatives are often purely token – an offer to contact you and complete the process manually, which doesn't in fact happen, or some poor-quality speech. I also find it annoying when, on a holiday site, the facilities in a resort or hotel get shown in a video clip or virtual tour. If I'm lucky, the only alternative I might find is a list of pictures from which I can deduce just the basic list of amenities.
To be fair, web designers still often don't realise there are people like me, using the stuff I have to, trying to get into their sites. If you take the trouble to give feedback, the response is usually at the very least interested, and sometimes there's real subsequent improvement.
Dean is 26 years old and works at Mencap as an accessible communications assistant. He also does stand-up comedy. He has a learning disability.
What annoys me are links saying the same thing, as I don't know which is the best to click on. Too much information can be overwhelming. I would prefer just important information that's easy to understand. When information is unclear it can stop someone from being independent.
Companies do listen but do they listen enough? I'd like them to approach me in a way that shows they're listening to what we say, and that they really do care for our needs.
Diane is a 24-year-old student living in Scotland. She is registered blind.
I have a Nokia phone with Talks on it. It's quite pricey to buy, though, and I only heard about it through word of mouth. I got the program free in a deal with Vodafone, but I think it has stopped doing it. On my PC I use Jaws.
I use the internet all the time, for studying and personal use. I use Google Scholar loads for my course and have both a Hotmail and a university email address. Hotmail can be difficult to use with a screen reader, though. You have to tab around a lot and it's jumpy, with tonnes of junk on it. I also watch a lot of digital TV. I have a digibox with an audio description facility, which is very good, but most programmes don't have audio description. There should be more available, at the cinema as well.
I love shopping for clothes but not, generally, online, because the descriptions can be so vague. If there was more information I'd definitely shop online more. Even if it says 'red skirt' that's no use – how long is the skirt? What kind of red is it? What shape?
I'm quite happy to use Tesco online to shop for food. Milk's milk, you don't need to know much else, although sometimes its cake descriptions can be a bit rubbish. I'm looking for a place to live at the moment and I'm surprised by how inaccessible lots of the housing sites are. For example, people with special needs can't search specifically on them. But this would be useful for more than just disabled people, like couples with young children who don't want stairs.
Companies should see talking to us as two-way communication, and realise that everyone's needs are different – there are lots of different kinds of disability.
*The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 made it a legal requirement for companies to provide fair access to their services for those with disabilities, including websites.