Helping blind and partially sighted users get the most out of digital communications

A Partially sighted woman sitting on sofa looking at her Android smartphone at close up

Following on from my last post, I want to share with you another project that’s been keeping me from blogging lately. For the past couple of months I’ve been working with residents at Queen Mother Gardens, a sheltered housing centre for blind and partially sighted people run by New Outlook housing association. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about helping blind and partially sighted users access digital communications.

Helping residents get the most from digital communications

A partially sighted user using a high contrast PC keyboard
A partially sighted user using a high contrast PC keyboard. By Francisclarke (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
So far, my work at Queen Mother Gardens has fallen into main areas:

  • Ensuring the communal PC is secure, up-to-date and accessible to all residents who want to use it.
  • Providing 1-2-1 training for residents who want to become more confident users of their laptop, tablet or smartphone.

Personal empowerment

As a former Disability Equality Officer, I’ve particularly enjoyed having the chance to work again with blind and partially sighted people. The project has reminded how digital technology and the internet can be a force for personal empowerment. For example, after showing Raheela how to use the screen magnification features on her Android smartphone to compensate for her low-vision, she was able to much more easily browse the web and send emails.

Accessible technology goes mainstream

Partially sighted woman sitting on sofa looking at her Android smartphone at close up
Raheela, a partially sighted resident, using her Android smartphone. By Francisclarke (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Working with the residents at Queen Mother Gardens has brought home to me how much more accessible digital technology has become in the age of the smartphone and tablet. Whereas on desktop users (especially those using Windows machines) relied on specialist, costly screen reader software such as Dolphin Guide, iOS and Android (the operating systems powering Apple and Android devices) rely primarily on a comprehensive set of native accessibility features.

So far, the residents I’ve supported so far have found the in-built accessibility features easier to use and more helpful than the specialist accessibility software. One one level, this shouldn’t come as a great surprise. After all, Apple and Google have tremendous financial resources compared to the specialist providers and would therefore be expected to bring a level of polish to the table. I, however, think there’s more to it than that.

To me, a specialist accessibility product such as Dolphin Guide represents an attempt to create an accessible ‘walled garden’, separate to the mainstream operating system it runs on top of. As a result of this decision, blind and partially sighted users are limited to using Dolphin’s implementation of a web browser, email client, word processor and so on.

By contrast, iOS and Android’s accessibility features, by and large, allow blind and partially sighted users to useĀ  the same software as everyone else, benefiting from the substantial investment this software has received over years if not decades. While there will no doubt still be cases where specialist software is better able to meet the needs of blind users with high levels of need, I expect these cases will become less common as mainstream accessibility features continue to improve.

Voice control is perhaps the area which best illustrates just how far accessible technology has gone mainstream. At Queen Mother Gardens I’ve seen first-hand how, with the right support, residents can use the Siri on iOS or Google Now to complete everyday tasks. Raheela, for example, has been able to use Google Now to call friends and compose and send WhatsApp messages without having to navigate through enlarged screen menus.

Plans for 2017

I’ll be continuing to work with residents at Queen Mother Gardens in 2017. Once residents are more confident using digital technology I am hoping to encourage them to apply their skills to particular projects. One idea that’s been floated is to developing a ‘talking newspaper’ project, with residents using smartphones to record, edit and share audio clips of news and views.

Supporting digital inclusion

Please do get in touch if you’d like some support around accessibility and digital inclusion. OpenUp Digital can provide a range of options, including group trainingĀ  and 1-2-1 support. We can also advise staff on how to support service users.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *