Two people standing in front of a mobile device with the microphone feature enabled.

Understanding Assistive Technology: How Do Legally Blind People and Others with Low Vision Use the Internet?

Understanding digital accessibility challenges is easy if you know people with disabilities. But what if you’ve never seen a person who is blind use their computer or smartphone? We’re here to help you understand a little bit about what it’s like to use the internet if you have a disability.

The first article in this series addressed people who are blind and require a screen reader or Braille keyboard.

Today, we will be looking at people with other visual disabilities.

What do we mean by “low vision”?

There are as many different definitions for “low vision” or “visually impaired” as there are people who fall into this category. When you meet a person with a visual disability, even one who uses a guide dog or a white cane, it is unlikely that you will be able to tell how much they can or cannot see.

This includes—and can be combinations of—the following:

  • Loss of central vision usually creates a blur or blind spot; however, an individual’s peripheral (side) vision remains. With this sight loss it’s hard to read, see faces, and distinguish most details in the distance.
  • Loss of peripheral vision is the opposite. These individuals are unable to see things from their left, right, or both sides. In addition to not seeing sides, individuals with peripheral vision may not be able to see above and/or below their direct eye level.
  • Other field loss conditions can result in an individual having vision loss in spots or patches throughout the visual field.
  • Blurred vision is when both near and far vision is out of focus. Everything that individual sees is blurry, and even the strongest prescription glasses don’t help.
  • Generalized haze is when a film or glare extends over the entire viewing field.
  • Extreme light sensitivity is a condition where everyday levels of light irritate and overwhelm a person’s visual system. As a result, they see a washed-out image or glare.
  • Night blindness includes individuals who cannot see outside at night, or inside in low light situations (e.g., restaurants, movie theaters).
  • Color blindness or decreased color deficiency is the decreased ability to distinguish between colors.

Assistive Technology Used by People with Low Vision

Assistive technology (AT) is a broad term that refers to hardware and software that enable people with disabilities to access technology. Those with low vision may use screen readers, braille keyboards, and dictation software, but they may also use programs that provide magnification, contrast adjustments, and other ways to personalizing their screen display.

Screenshot of iOS showing window zoom.Screen magnification

If you’ve ever pinched to zoom on a touchscreen device, you have used a small bit of assistive technology! For those with low vision, it can be helpful to magnify a portion of the screen to a size they can read easily.

Screen magnification can happen in a variety of ways:

  • System setup:   A person can set their device to always display text at a certain size in every application.
  • Browser level zoom:   When using their favorite browser, everything is set to zoom to a specific size by default.
  • Accessible level zoom:   Certain assistive technologies create a digital magnifying glass to zoom in on parts of the screen.
  • In-page controls:   If you’ve ever clicked a magnifying glass on a retail website and used it to view a pattern on a shirt, you’ve used in-page magnification controls.

Customizing contrast, page styles, and more

Contrast and page styles are usability features for all internet users. No one wants to read gray on gray or decipher fancy script fonts. For those who have visual disabilities, these design faux pas can be much more difficult to overcome.

Being able to customize the user experience is crucial for some low vision users. Beyond colors and fonts, some people with low vision prefer to browse with a different window width or in low resolution. These customizations can be accomplished through platform and browser extensions, as long as the website or app does not forcibly override them.

Accessible Design for Low Vision Users

Challenges like these don’t need to happen. Here are five rookie mistakes that designers make.

Color

Color should never be the sole way to communicate information since some users cannot distinguish between colors. Take a look at any popular match-3 mobile game. The items you match have both a color and either a shape or a symbol. That way, a colorblind user can know that the flames are red and the leaves are green, even if they see both as brown.

Contrast

Monochrome color schemes can look classy, but to someone with low vision, it could look like a single color and render text invisible. Use a color contrast checker to determine if your color scheme meets WCAG standards.

Fonts

Some narrow fonts do not offer enough legibility for individuals with low vision. Unusual fonts can become unreadable when magnified.

Horizontal scrolling

Horizontal scrolling can be handy on mobile responsive websites, but for a low vision user, it requires much more effort to read the content, since they might have to scroll, then magnify, then find their place, then read.

Indication of focus

It’s essential to have the cursor clearly indicated on the screen for users who navigate using a keyboard instead of a mouse. It’s easily accomplished through highlighting or underlining the focus point as a user navigates.

Alternative text

Alternative text for images—that is, text descriptions written for images that convey meaning—is just as important for those with low vision as those who are blind.

The Good Life: What an Accessible Site Looks Like

Level Access’s chief accessibility officer, Jonathan Avila, explains it best. Here’s what he says:

An accessible site for me has these qualities:

Jonathan Avila, Chief Accessibility Officer
  • Text, images, control borders, icons are easy to distinguish from the background color.
  • If I’m using a keyboard to navigate, there’s a clear indication of focus so I can see where I am on the page.
  • The site uses a font that works well with my display settings.
  • All form fields have clear labels that are close to the field they label without ambiguity of which field they are related to.
  • When pop-up content appears, it can be dismissed without me losing my place.
  • Zooming in reflows the content without requiring me to scroll horizontally.
  • Sticky headers and footers don’t restrict the reading area to a narrow band making reading almost impossible.
  • Pages are structured with correct markup so I can choose to use a screen reader if I want.
  • When I perform an action that causes something to happen elsewhere on the screen, there is feedback to let me know.
  • Controls have affordances to make them look actionable.
  • Alternatives to images are not hidden as alt text but available as text to me.

Using Mobile Devices

Because mobile devices have much smaller screens, accessibility features are incredibly important. Some people with low vision use the native screen reader (VoiceOver on iOS or TalkBack on Android) to be able to read text more quickly on their mobile device.

It is also important that app developers do not overwrite a user’s platform settings. If someone needs large text or high contrast to be able to use your app, they understand that it won’t look quite as nice as the designer intended. Their main goal is to be able to use the app, and if they can’t do that, they will have to delete it and seek out a more accessible app.

The Bottom Line: Design to Include People with Low Vision

You can design your websites, software, and hardware with these people in mind and you can retrofit existing technology to be accessible. It’s a win-win situation for your organization (more clients, more revenue, more contracts) and for people with disabilities (less confusion, less frustration, less isolation). Some fixes, like checking your color contrast and allowing visitors to customize font size and colors, are quick to do and make a big impact on the user experience.

For More Information

Want to get even deeper into understanding users with low vision? We highly recommend the W3C’s report, Accessibility Requirements for People with Low Vision.

Special thanks to Jon Avila, Kara Van Roekel, Derek Featherstone, and Jaclyn Petrow for their contributions to this blog series.