The Internet is becoming more accessible, but it's mostly by accident.
If a website is designed haphazardly, it doesn’t only look out of control. The user experience can be just as messy for someone who can’t see.
"News apps are just completely frustrating," said Christopher Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. "Blind people, the way we deal with this, is we share information about what apps tend to work, so I don't tend to download something unless I have a pretty good sense that I'm going to be able to deal with it."
The problem with much of the web—and, in particular, its newsier corners—is that it's designed without consideration for people who aren't navigating by sight. In many cases, the busier a website looks, the harder it is for people who use tools like audio screen-readers to get where they want to go, or even figure out where to go in the first place.
But Danielsen says design for accessibility is getting much better, albeit largely by accident. "The mobile world is taking over where the web used to be dominant," he told me. "For blind people as well as for sighted people in many cases, that's a good thing."
A World Without Flash
It makes sense that the shift to mobile—and the stripped down, sparse aesthetic that in many cases comes with it—makes web navigation easier for someone using screen readers and other tools designed to help people with varying levels of sightedness. Mobile sites often mean a more pleasant experience for sighted users, too.
Retailers like Amazon and grocery-delivery service Peapod have great mobile sites, Danielsen says, where most news organizations are still lagging. He’ll often log onto a website's mobile iteration as a way to cut through the clutter. (Check out m.theatlantic.com/technology, for instance.)
Things have also improved as designers move away from Adobe Flash and toward HTML5, which allows for more labeling coded into the designs that screen readers can identify for someone who can't clearly see what's on the screen.
"If you're using a screen reader, you can often tell there are buttons there, but you can't necessarily tell what they do," said Danielsen. "With Flash, the screen reader will say something like 'unlabeled button zero,' and I'm like, 'Great. I have no idea what that does.' I could hit that button and blow up the world."
There are still plenty of obstacles. Danielsen says he "routinely" visits a news site where a video is posted but there's no way to tell how to control the player. And the web has inherited an ambiguity problem from television, where people on screen are identified with text on the screen but not verbally. For someone who can't read printed text, that kind of labeling can be "very frustrating," Danielsen says.
At the same time, the Internet has provided everyone a content smorgasbord. If someone's annoyed by one site's functionality, there are plenty of other places they can go to get their information fix. This should be a cautionary reminder to news organizations who aren't thinking proactively about accessibility, but there are all kinds of realities about journalism that journalists are more reluctant to acknowledge than anyone else. (See also: futility of paywalls, death of print, the newspapers not worth saving, etc.)
"I'm a news junkie," said Bryan Bashin, director of LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired and a former journalist. "I don't need a special blind-ghetto news site. We're swimming in news now. There has never been a more golden age for blind people."
Bashin says he's found that many news organizations may not think about accessibility from the beginning, but some are willing to make improvements when alerted to their limitations.
"I'm a fan of Frontline, and the PBS website had this really pretty selector page at one time," he said. "You could select a cover image of a documentary or a program, but there were no labeled graphics... I actually emailed PBS and they fixed the problem."
Available Everywhere—But Not Always Accessible
It's not always so easy. The Internet, of course, isn't just where people consume information, but also a place where they can produce it. Yet many publishing systems are designed without blind or visually impaired people in mind.
Twitter is pretty good because of its relative simplicity—though it can be annoying to click on a link expecting an article and have it turn out to be an unlabeled GIF or photo, several people told me. Facebook, on the other hand, is harder to navigate.
"There's an awful lot of work that goes into accessing Facebook," Bashin said."Most blind people use the mobile app of Facebook, but depending upon what week it is and [founder Mark] Zuckerberg's whims, sometimes it's better and sometimes its worse."
For those who have watched content-based industries sometimes flail in an era of communications driven largely by technology companies, it is perhaps no surprise that platforms are less reliably accessible than the devices we use to get to them. The iPhone has robust accessibility settings that many blind people praise. Yet even though Apple has accessibility guidelines for app developers, they're often ignored.
Meanwhile, those who advocate for inclusivity in design argue that it's not about catering to one population of web users—it's not about a "blind ghetto," to use Bashin's term—but based on the idea that inclusive design will create a more dynamic and functional Internet for all users. The way anyone interacts with information online ought to be dictated by her individual needs and preferences, says Sara Hendren, an artist and researcher focused on inclusive design.
"Even if it's just changing your font size really easily, or changing your contrast really easily, a lot of web users don't realize you don't have to accept the defaults of your web browser," Hendren said. "There's no reason we should accept the web should be primarily visual, or even visual with accommodations for visuality."
Even the way we talk about accessibility can change the way developers approach it, Hendren says. She likes to remind people that "all technology is assistive technology," and that the "assistive" part is why we love technology in the first place.
"What we need is a big turn in the tone of the conversation about accessibility from, 'Eat your spinach,' to 'Wow, this is a real design opportunity.'"