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Seeing with a Screen Reader

David Krueger

Like most people, I have always relied on my vision to help me navigate the internet. Being a sighted auditor for an internet accessibility company has been an eye-opening experience. It seems cliche to say I’ve taken the ability of sight for granted, but I never realized how true this statement was until I experienced web navigation from a non-sighted user’s perspective. Closing my eyes and listening to a web page being read to me by a screen reader was a slap in the face, and an especially important experience for someone like me, who is a budding software programmer.

Each day at work, I hear how the web sounds to the blind. Sometimes this is through the experiences of my co-auditor, as I am always paired with a non-sighted auditor on projects. But I have also been blessed with the training to use a screen reader. The first day I turned my screen reader on, I scrambled to hit any key to stop its mile-a-minute chatter. Next, I found the control panel to slow the speech down; I was not ready for the advanced level yet. In fact, I couldn’t even listen to the screen reader speak at a normal conversation rate. It felt like learning another language and having to ask native speakers to slow down while they talked.

Once my screen reader was speaking in slow motion, I was ready to listen to my first web page. After a few minutes in total confusion, even with my eyes open and following along with my cursor, I pulled up a text-to-speech window so I could also follow a bastardized version of captioning. Even with this captioning as a crutch, I was lost, and the page I was on met accessibility standards! Of course there’s a learning curve for anything new, and with enough practice, I was able to increase the speed of my screen reader. As I improved, I was struck with just how messy the internet is when viewed through the lens of a screen reader.

I felt helpless – and keep in mind that none of the people I work with could ever be characterized as helpless. But nonetheless, I encountered navigation wall after navigation wall on poorly coded web pages. I could see, with my eyes, where I wanted my keyboard to take my screen reader, but I wasn’t able to get there with any key. Can you imagine having your money in a bank account, trying to manage your finances on the internet, and not having access to your funds? I would be livid, and rightly so. As our society, with blinding speed, has moved many of our daily functions to the internet, we have a duty to make the internet accessible for all. But sadly, I didn’t realize the scope of this issue until I was able to step away from the privilege of the majority.

It’s mind boggling how many incorrectly coded sites are dumped onto the internet. Sadly, most of these sites do not get fixed once they are launched, because the majority of the people using the internet are sighted and most terrible coding practices don’t affect sighted users. Without getting into too much detail, sighted mouse users simply don’t encounter issues that screen reader and keyboard users do. So what can we do? Buy screen readers for all sighted users and make them close their eyes as they surf the web? Our economy would collapse in a matter of hours. Joking aside, we could all use a little perspective.

I have the pleasure of working alongside blind auditors. We work as a team to find accessibility issues on the internet. The speed with which our screen reading auditors work is impressive, and the screen reading technology we use helps us find some issues quicker than our sighted auditors can. None of our blind auditors have ever asked for a handout. But we want the right to be able to view any webpage on a screen reader with the same effort it takes a sighted user. My hope is that some developers are just unaware of screen reader accessibility, and would be open to trying a screen reader or reading up on WCAG guidelines. It’s our experiences, especially the ones that force us out of our norm, that help us grow, and give us newfound perspective.

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