Growing up as a young girl with significant visual impairment, I would’ve believed that I was the only person living with such challenges. On the contrary, the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness estimates a global population of 253 million people with moderate to severe visual impairments. Over time, I’ve realized the prevalence of the disabled community. I now embrace my place within this group, as a member, yes, but more importantly, a proud advocate.
I was born with achromatopsia, a rare genetic disorder characterized by an increased sensitivity to light, color blindness, nystagmus (shaking of the eyes), and reduced visual acuity. As a child, I never realized how different the world looked to me in comparison to others with normal vision. Since achromatopsia is quite rare, affecting only 1 in 30,000 people, it took me and my family quite some time to understand my visual condition and how to best deal with it. It wasn’t until after years of searching that my parents found the right doctors who could put a name to my visual symptoms.
Of course, every person experiences their own version of a diagnosis. In my case, achromatopsia means I have 20/200 visual acuity; I cannot go outside without magenta-tinted eyewear; my eyes shake minimally; and I struggle to discriminate “dark” colors, including blue, green, purple, brown, and black.
Because I have held the status of “legally blind” since birth, people are regularly surprised to find out that I didn’t learn about the benefits of assistive technology until middle school.
At eleven years old, I met my first TVI (Teacher for the Visually Impaired), who introduced me to an entirely new world of closed-circuit televisions, magnifying devices, customized keyboard shortcuts, grey printer paper, and large-print textbooks.
Since then, I have been continually impressed by the life-changing technology, programs, and gadgets that have emerged to better the visually impaired community. As a spring 2021 Marketing Intern for UsableNet, I’m enjoying the process of learning even more about the specific, behind-the-scenes work that goes into web accessibility.
Assistive Technology – What Exactly is it?
For me, the term “assistive technology” covers a vast array of different tools I use in my life, whether it’s every day or in specific circumstances. It can mean the simple act of using my phone’s camera to zoom in on a street sign, or it can represent the complex features of my computer magnification software.
I might consider my second monitor, a 32-inch screen adjusted to low brightness, backlight, and contrast settings, to be a piece of assistive technology. Similarly, the term brings to mind my monoscopic device, which I use to view the board during classroom lectures. Assistive technology is anything that makes life easier for anyone - disabled or not.
The UsableNet blog post, “How a Blind Person Uses a Website,” does a great job explaining the elements of screen reader technology, but I think it is important to note the use of screen magnifiers in the low vision community. Even though I am considered “legally blind,” I am thankful to have a considerable amount of usable vision, which allows me to navigate websites with only my ZoomText Screen Magnifier. My preferred settings are 2.5x magnification, high contrast (white text on black background), and an enlarged, invert-colored mouse/cursor, among other customizations. Using a screen magnifier has made a world of difference in my life; it's allowed me to gain a sense of freedom and comfort that I previously lacked when using computers.
Assistive Technology and Website Navigation
Being a student, I visit a variety of websites daily. In terms of the accessibility of these sites, I’ve seen everything from great to not-so-great. I'll be exploring what makes the difference and common challenges I find in my next blog post.
I navigate these sites using several ways and settings that others don’t always expect. To some people’s surprise, in certain instances, it is actually easier for me to turn my ZoomText magnification software off, especially when I am visiting a very image-heavy site. For example, suppose I am shopping for clothes online, viewing Google images, watching videos on YouTube, or attending a Zoom meeting. In that case, I do not want the pictures or videos to be cut off from increased magnification. Furthermore, I don’t want those images to show up in high contrast mode (take my word for it, it’s scary!)
I also turn off my magnification software when using word processing programs such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs. In those instances, it works better for me to increase the font size rather than continuously scroll left to right when typing on a zoomed-in document. I sometimes use this same practice with other programs that offer in-app magnification.
Other Tools for Website Accessibility
I sometimes use other assistive technology measures in place of or in conjunction with my screen magnifier. For example, desktop apps such as Microsoft Suite allow users to customize themes (I go for dark mode), background color, speech-to-text capabilities, sounds, dimensions, and font size/style/color. Additionally, I can reduce my screen’s brightness and glare by adjusting my computer's colors and display settings.
Why Assistive Technology and Web Accessibility Are Important to Me
The presence of assistive technology and web accessibility allows me to live life to its fullest. Not only does it help me with my studies and career tasks, but assistive technology also lets me navigate, search, watch, communicate, celebrate, and learn with an entire online ecosystem. When you make a commitment to web accessibility, it’s a promise that your business values me as a consumer and as a human being.
Make that commitment today by speaking to a UsableNet accessibility expert.