When you’re a blind user of technology you are going to depend on a screen reader and it’s very likely you read the web the way I do ordinarily. From top to bottom and then from left to right. This is just how traditional screen readers on Windows, Linux and the Mac do things. Now, let me explain this to the sighted readers of this blog. Take the website TheRegister .co.uk This site has content arranged in columns and it’s very easy to glance through the headlines that are of interest. Almost at a glance you can pick an article and click on that page. Traditionally, a computer user who is blind utilizing a screen reader will need to navigate past the navigation links at the top, down by the search link, past the advertisements until she or he gets to the content. When he or she finds a page and navigates to it the entire journey starts again. I’m dramatizing it slightly to make a point. That is, web browsing for an individual using a screen reader is very linear. Over the past six or seven years the situation has improved steadily with screen reader makers developing shortcuts that allow navigation by heading, table, list, frame, paragraph, image, form element and other standard HTML elements. This revolutionized access to the web as sites that use decent HTML mark-up can be navigated easily by jumping past huge chunks of text.
I think or rather, I hope a new revolution in web accessibility has been reached. It’s in the form of a device I originally publicly discredited as being nothing more than an oversized iPod. Yes, I’m talking about the iPad. I think this big touch screen is actually the most enjoyable interface I have ever used for browsing the web. It’s so nice to be able to explore the layout of a website. Getting a sense of where the navigation links are, where the content starts and where the form fields are located for example is so much nicer than remembering that to find the content on my favourite website, I press h three times to jump to the third heading then I press down five times to move past all the junk. Just like I assume a sighted person reads through the timeline on Facebook very quickly by glancing at specific parts of the screen, I can glance at different parts of the screen with my fingers. I know, it’s very different still but it is probably the closest I have ever been to actually reading a site in a similar way to sighted friends.
It’s also a lot less keyboard commands to remember. For obvious reasons of course.
I recently designedthe website for Computer Support Services from the ground up. Compared to the work of professional web designers, my attempt at design is basic at best but I’m quite proud of it. I regularly checked my layout using the iPad. Making sure I aligned things correctly was so much easier using a touch screen interface. I’d make a change to the style sheet and as soon as it was saved, I’d have a feel of the iPad to make sure I hadn’t broken something and then when I was happy that everything was still in the right place, I’d look for the new component that I’d added. For example, if you look at the twitter feed at the bottom right of the Computer Support Services website. I wanted to give that just enough space to let it stand out but I didn’t want to overwhelm the bottom of the home page. Finding that balance was made a lot easier by exploring the size of the section by touch.
If you haven’t tried browsing the Internet using an iPad, I’d encourage you to give it a shot. If you tried it before and you aren’t convinced, spend some time with it. If you want specific tips drop me a comment.
I should also mention that I’ve written this blog post using wordpress on my iPhone and I finished it using the iPad. The wonders of modern technology ay? 🙂