Accessible technology has had an enormous, positive impact on my life. It has enabled me to do things that used to be impossible, as well as facilitating my ability to empower other people. When I started setting up my home on the internet, I was very lucky to be introduced to David Murrin (a talented Web Developer at Talked About Marketing), who was enthusiastic to make sure that my website would be as accessible as possible for me as well as for my audience. Working with David has reminded me that building accessibility in from the beginning is a choice, not a problem.

When technology and the online world are accessible, a blind person can do more and be more. In contrast, when technology and the online world are not accessible it feels a bit like being a balloon that just got stabbed by a pin.

The aim of this blog post is to let technologists who make their products accessible from the beginning know how much this is appreciated, and to let technologists who don’t make the effort understand what it is like to feel excluded from the world.

My experience with accessible technology began in October 1997, when I started learning to use JAWS for Windows. JAWS stands for Job Access With Speech: it is a screen reading software package that allows me to hear everything that is happening on a Windows computer while controlling what happens via keystroke commands.

JAWS for Windows 20th Anniversary Video by freedomscientific:

I travelled one and a half hours each way, to the Royal Society for the Blind SA, so that I could use a computer equipped with JAWS to complete my final undergraduate essay. Learning to understand Windows, use screen reading software, and write and edit a three thousand word essay at the same time was exhausting, but exhilarating. By the end of that essay I knew that, once I had my own laptop with JAWS,I would be able to have a serious go at getting a high mark for Honours, and, as they say, the rest is history.

What I didn’t know at the time was that JAWS was going to enable me to prepare lectures, teach tutorials, and mark essays, forever altering the trajectory of my life. Even though it took one minute per page to scan a book into my computer in 1998, and Optical Character Recognition software was not yet super accurate, I could scan whatever printed material I wanted and have the computer read it to me.

In the early 2000s it started to feel like I was an extension of my desk: almost always connected to my laptop, scanner, and the phone cable that delivered dial-up internet. Another part of the internet would become accessible every few months, and the potential of the online world to empower blind people felt almost limitless. There was regular friction between the functionality of Windows and JAWS, but the bugs kept being fixed in less and less time.

I experienced my next big leap in accessible technology when I bought my iPhone 5 in 2012. Instead of having to load screen reading software like JAWS on to my iPhone, Apple had built in a screen reader called VoiceOver. VoiceOver was not as powerful as JAWS in 2012, but it didn’t matter, because my iPhone was always in my pocket. Apple’s commitment to built in accessibility meant that more apps that could do more things became available by the month.

How to navigate your iPhone with VoiceOver – Apple Support by Apple Support:

The combination of a Windows laptop running JAWS and an iPhone with VoiceOver enabled was amazing. No matter where I was, I had tools that could make most online activities possible, and many activities in the world far easier than they had ever been.

I could give you lots of examples of how accessibility has improved over the last few years, but one single app can illustrate what has been achieved and what might happen next. In 2016 Microsoft launched SeeingAI for iOS. Within SeeingAI there are channels for instantly reading printed text, scanning whole documents, describing scenes, identifying money, determining the light level, identifying colours, and now a channel that employs the lidar sensor on my iPhone 12 Pro to describe the environment around me. Through this single app I have multiple ways to transcend the limitations of being blind.

Seeing AI: Making the visual world more accessible by Microsoft:

If you would like to know more about SeeingAI and the amazing person who has guided its development, then please have a listen to the following episode of Blind Insights.

Blind Insights – Artificial Sight – Profound Accessible Technology with Special Guest Saqib Shaikh: d-accessibl

At this point I hope you can appreciate the magnitude of what accessible technology has done for blind people. I have no idea how many thousands of technologists have made contributions to making my life bigger and better, and I would like to say thank you to all of you.

And yet, at least once every two weeks, I encounter something in the online world that is inaccessible, even with all of the amazing technology I have. Unlike in the late 1990s, it is not inaccessible because no one has worked out how to make it accessible, it is inaccessible because someone couldn’t be bothered to do a few minutes extra work to meet well known and widely disseminated accessibility standards.

I could name and shame this week’s example of failing to meet accessibility guidelines, but my aim is to contribute to positive change, not to cause punitive action. Instead, I will describe the accessibility failure and what it was like to deal with it.

I was in the process of purchasing something online. I had chosen what I wanted to buy, put it in my cart, and was most of the way through completing the transaction. I clicked on the complete transaction button and nothing happened. I waited a few seconds, refreshed the screen, and gave pressing the button another try. Nothing happened. The website in question belongs to an organisation that trumpets its commitment to accessibility and inclusion.

At this point I felt frustrated and helpless. I couldn’t do something as simple as paying for something I had to pay for on my own. I had to ask my wife (who is sighted) to come and work out what was going wrong. Karen could see that a pop-up had appeared with an additional pay now button, which JAWS couldn’t see. It was easy for her to press the button for me, but I shouldn’t have had to wait until she was home to use a new website to do something so simple.

The online world fails to be accessible often enough for me to plan for it to fail. I wait until I have spare eyes handy before doing important things online, and I expect to feel frustrated and helpless on a regular basis. In contrast to feeling productive and effective most of the time, these moments when accessibility fails are not fun.

To all of the technologists who make accessible technology work: thank you. You will probably never know how much you have contributed to improving a lot of people’s lives. To the technologists who can’t be bothered making technology accessible: reflect on what it would be like to feel frustrated and helpless on a regular basis as a result of thoughtlessness.

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