The Internet is Not for Everyone

What I’ve been learning about ADA compliant design and the things able-bodied people don’t think about.

Image with a wheelchair, blind, and deaf symbols

When I was just 15 years old, I spent a summer studying molecular biology and legal research at Columbia University in NYC. Like most other students embarking on this summer session, I was living on campus in the dorms. It was exciting to be in the Big Apple with so many like-minded people my age from around the world.

On the first day of class, I was exhilarated. I went out of my way to stock up on all the Columbia University notebooks and pens. I woke up super early in the morning, walked around the neighborhood, grabbed a coffee, and then I was off to the classroom.

Sitting in my legal research lecture, I noticed a blind student walk in with his cane and sunglasses. For the first few days, the class was lecture and individual reading heavy. I spent hours in my dorm highlighting my books and taking notes. In the second week of lecture, our professor told us to group up in pairs to prepare for a legal debate presentation. I paired with the blind student (I’ll refer to him as John to maintain anonymity). Over the following days, John and I worked closely to develop our arguments. I was impressed by his usage of a screen reader. To me, it seemed so disorienting to hear the screen reader rapidly buzz through all of the text. But to him, it was second nature.

One afternoon, John and I were walking out of class when I asked him about his blindness. He told me that he wasn’t always blind. He had started to lose his sight when he was in middle school. I will never forget the pang I felt when he also told me that he wanted to be a painter until he could no longer see. After going blind, he started to dive into literature and poetry instead.

After our debate presentation, Columbia hosted a trip to a few major law firms around the city to meet with lawyers. We all traveled to the firms via subway. The school offered to transport John in a private car and he turned it down. He insisted on taking the subway with the rest of us. I remember feeling an instinctual need to keep an eye on him while traversing the underground tunnels. With the hustle and bustle of people in a rush and the screeching of the trains, I was in complete awe at, what seemed to me, pure bravery and perseverance. It’s possible that for him, this was just second nature.

I went back to my dorm later that day and I cried for hours. I remember calling my mom and telling her how beautifully sad and painful it was to realize how much us able-bodied people take for granted. How so many of us whine and complain about having to take the subway in the heat pushed up against sweaty strangers. And yet, here was this kid who wanted nothing more than to do just that.

It was a heartbreaking, inspiring, beautiful, humbling realization. All I could think about that night was how painful it would be to once have been able to see the beauty of the natural world, only to lose that ability one day- and at such a young age. The world around me started to appear more and more vibrant after meeting John. But there was still a pang of sorrow knowing he couldn’t see it too.

For a while I was fixated on learning about technological advancements for the blind. I read about kick-starter sonar device shoes and the improvements of cross walk signals. I just wanted to know what could be done to improve the lives of those who lost one of the most incredible and important human senses.

My dad had once written to me in an email, “Show gratitude because things can always be worse — I often appreciate running water while bathing. Many gifts are free — like the wind, your vısion, your hearing, and a clear state of mind.”

I cry every time I read that email and think about John. But I’ve started to come around to the idea that “vision” can mean many different things. One’s imagination can be their vision. Their passion, ideas, religion.

So, now being 26 years old and working full time as a product designer, I find myself in a position to actually make a difference for those with disabilities- including blindness. No, it’s not anything like sonar device shoes, it might actually be even more important than that.

There’s an average of 5.6 billion Google searches per day. There’s an average of 1 billion people actively using Instagram. Wikipedia averages more than 18 billion page views per month. The internet is the largest source of information. Yet, so much of it is only easily accessible to those without disabilities. This creates an information disparity amongst able-bodied and disabled individuals. Not only does it create an information gap but also many sites are negligent with their design practices. Meaning, they don’t consider how their content impacts individuals with epilepsy, autism, amputations, and more.

At Hearst, we‘re doing a complete ADA design overhaul and pushing ADA design to the forefront of our priorities list. We’ve spent days auditing all of our sites and content. We’ve hired specialists to guide us through the auditing process to make sure we don’t miss anything. As product designers, we learn how to design the best experiences for people by putting ourselves in others’ shoes. Experimenting with the iOS voice control and voice over was completely jarring at first. Every single element and word on the screen is read aloud. So imagine a screen like this:

Screenshot of homepage.
Alt text available

When hovering over the Ebay logo on with voice control enabled, the following text gets read aloud at an extremely fast speed:

Voiceover on chrome, electronics, cars, fashion, collectibles & more | eBay — google chrome, window, a360 update dec 2020- go
Alt text available

This pretty much makes no sense because when a user clicks on the Ebay logo, it essentially just refreshes the page. Yet, the alt-text being read with voice control is describing a category of items.

When hovering over the “Shop Now” CTA in the pink box, voice control reads this:

Costway 50+ recessed electric fireplace in-wall wall mounted electric heater $309.4936” electric fireplace recessed ultra thi
Alt text available

This is far, far from ideal for someone with a visual impairment considering there is no separation between item descriptions. All items are described at one time and in seemingly no particular order. The voice reader prices are also different from the visual prices. A wall mounted electric heater is read aloud as costing $309.4936. Makes no sense.

When it comes to identifying a clickable object, certain elements will be read as a “button” or a “tab” within a group. This entirely depends on how the html/css is written. If something is created as a button it will read as button. The problem here is that many devs aren’t identifying buttons as literal buttons in their code. Imagine how confusing this is for someone using a screen reader.

The lack of ADA design isn’t readily apparent to those with no disability. Someone with perfect vision has probably never used a screen reader and therefore wouldn’t be able to design for one. That’s why it’s so important for more designers and devs to increase their awareness of the challenges disabled individuals encounter on the internet. Conducting user interviews, experimenting with voice control, and paying attention to flashing animations are all good places to start. Adopting successful ADA design practices is becoming increasingly more important each day as the internet expands exponentially.

Product Designer prone to overthinking everything. Writing about mental health, self truth, and tech.

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