How Do Blind People Read a Web Page?
We all know by now that blind people love accessible web sites. But what most people are wondering about is how exactly do blind people surf the Net in the first place. Do they browse web sites like sighted people? Do they have different techniques?
Here, we’ll explain in detail how blind persons read and navigate web pages. Helping us out in this discussion is Ed. Ed is totally blind and is currently learning how to read web pages. Today he wants to visit a few web sites, but first, there is something he needs to run in his computer.
An Important Software for the Blind
Ed loads a software called a screen reader in his PC. A screen reader allows Ed to hear the currently highlighted text on the screen. It also speaks the keys he presses on the keyboard. Without the screen reader, it would be truly difficult for Ed to use the computer.
Ed presses a shortcut key to load the screen reader. He also has the option to make the screen reader automatically load when his operating system starts.
Like most of us, Ed uses a browser such as Internet Explorer and Firefox. He moves to the desktop, finds the icon for his browser, and presses enter on it.
His screen reader guides him in loading the browser, as well as the tasks he would do later on. After a few seconds, the screen reader speaks the title of the browser. This tells Ed that the browser has loaded.
Ed is happy that his screen reader works well with the browser on his PC. But not all browsers work well with screen readers. If a screen reader doesn’t support a specific browser, users would be able to interact with the browser at a minimum level only. Sometimes, screen reader users won’t be able to interact with the browser at all.
Browsing a Web Site
The browser has loaded its home page but Ed has a particular web site in mind. This website contains a review of the CD he is planning to buy. To go to that site, he presses a keystroke which sends his focus to the address bar of the browser. Here, he enters the address of the web site.
After a few seconds, Ed’s screen reader speaks the title of the web site. Ed presses a keystroke that takes him to the top of the page. Generally, this is what screen readers do when they visit a page for the first time. Ed uses the down arrow key to move to the next line. If there is content in that line, his screen reader reads it for him.
How a Blind Person Views a Web Page
Web pages typically organize their content in groups positioned in a specific area. For instance, the page Ed is viewing is divided into three main sections. The navigation links are at the top left of the page. At the top right, we have links to available CDs. And the main content, which contains the CD review, is at the third and bottom section below the top left and top right sections.
For sighted people, it’s quite easy to understand the page’s structure and go to the main content. They can simply scan through the three sections and find the review at the third section.
The approach used by blind people is very different. They normally browse a page using a top to bottom approach. This means that they need to go through the first section (top left), and the second section (top right), before they can reach the main content (bottom section).
To explain this further, let’s imagine an open book. You have a page at the left and one at the right. As you read the book, you first would focus on the lines on the left page. You certainly won’t read each line from the left all the way to the right as this really won’t make sense.
Applying this to web pages, the screen reader makes sure that Ed hears the contents on the left section first, before he can hear the contents of the right section.
So basically, through Ed’s perspective, the web page looks like this: The top left section is at the topmost part. The Top right section is at the middle. Then the bottom section containing the review is at the lowest section.
Identifying Elements in a Page
As Ed continues to press the down arrow key, he hears the contents read by the screen reader. Here, you may wonder how Ed would know if the current content is a link, a heading, or any other element.
It’s true that web page elements have visual indicators to tell us what they are. Links normally have lines across their text, headings are darker and larger, and tables are arranged in columns and rows.
Since blind people can’t see these things, their screen readers would tell it to them. So for example, Ed moves down to the “Contact us” link. Instead of just saying “Contact us”, his screen reader will say “Link, Contact us”. This makes Ed aware of the type of element he is focused on.
It is quite time-consuming to browse through web pages if you’re only listening to the content. That’s why screen readers provide helpful keystrokes to speed it up. For instance, if Ed wants to go directly to each heading of the page, he can press a keystroke which takes him to the next heading. This also applies to lists, tables, graphics, buttons, and other web page elements. And if he wants to read only the links, he can press a keystroke that lists down all the links in the page.
Finding the Needed Information and Moving on
Ed has gone through the first two sections and is now at the main content. It took a few minutes, but for Ed, the feeling of being able to surf the Internet is gratifying. Also, as Ed uses the Internet more and more, he would find techniques to make browsing pages easier. He gladly reads the CD review, and goes to other web pages he is interested in.