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Providing User-Friendly Technology for Your Blind and Low-Vision Community: Voice Assistants & Screen Readers, Plus

Voice Assistants & Screen Readers

While screen readers are by no means new (I spoke with my fellow advocate Gian Pedulla who said screen readers changed his college experience in the 90s!), there have been meaningful advancements in voice assistants and screen readers as of late, and even some innovative merging of the two in recent years. And with new WCAG standards and ADA Title II updates, along with recent DEI initiatives, the topic of best serving your blind and low-vision communities through technological advancements remains ever-relevant for web managers and marketers.

First, a simple overview of voice assistants and screen readers:

What is the difference between Voice Assistants & Screen Readers?

Voice assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or even Google Assistant Home, empower you to use your voice to set reminders, play music, make phone calls, check the weather, and perform basic internet searches to access information. Atop their convenience, they are functional for all and provide access to those with physical disabilities (i.e. hands-free), visual impairments (i.e. they read aloud), and hearing impairments (i.e. spoken content can be converted to text). Nonetheless, voice assistants can have drawbacks due to their surface engagement, errors and limitations in translating and transcribing, and security risks.

On the other hand, screen readers turn visual content like text and images into audio. Some which are built into operating systems include Voiceover, TalkBack, and Narrator. Other examples include third-party offerings like JAWS (and Sharky!) and ChromeVox. Screen readers offer deep engagement with accessible content, providing access to those with visual impairments or difficulties reading, and benefit auditory learners, as well. Screen readers, however, depend on content creators to ensure accessibility in their work (for instance, by providing alt text for images)

With that, some foundational things to check when developing or taking stock of your site, so that overlays are unnecessary and screen readers work quickly and easily to give users the most accurate information:

  1. Optimize your Heading Structure & Text Hierarchy: Organize your headings for easy navigation with a keyboard.
  2. Provide CTAs with Descriptive Information: For example, if someone commands a voice assistant to, “List links,” and one of the listed links is simply “Read More,” then blind users won’t know what the link directs them toward. Try “Read more about our financial aid packages” instead.
  3. Add a ‘Skip to Content’ link on your website header so that screen reader users can quickly bypass the navigation on every page.
  4. Use Clear Language: No abbreviations, acronyms, or jargon.
  5. Be Consistent with Each Component: Create alt text for images, and captions, transcripts, and audio descriptions for videos and non-text content.
  6. Keep it Short and sweet: Screen readers can be difficult if they don’t deliver the information a user needs immediately. As my colleague Abigail Shaw said, “I only have so much time, and I’m not going to spend it finding the About Us section.”

It’s then important to take it a step further and evaluate usability. Get user input to create or update the site, engage in authentic user testing to evaluate and improve accessibility, and take a critical look at your metrics. You can work with the Disability Services Office and/or expert testers throughout this process.

…Plus

The more I thought about serving blind or low-vision individuals on campus, the more I thought about how digital accessibility (including screen readers and VAs) intersects with physical spaces and experiences as well. I know from my time with the MTA’s Advisory Committee for Transit Accessibility that digital advances have brought some of the greatest leaps in access to our physical spaces, even when the infrastructure itself hasn’t been updated.

A group photo of Christine Serdjenian Yearwood (in the center) with members of MTA’s Advisory Committee for Transit Accessibility.

A group photo of Christine Serdjenian Yearwood (in the center) with members of MTA’s Advisory Committee for Transit Accessibility.

Technology and apps can help users with orientation, travel, and daily tasks in order to have a connective, safe, and independent experience on your campus. Examples include:

  • Providing Braille, tactile markers, and digital signage and codes for wayfinding apps like NaviLens around campus
  • Embedding access technology in touchscreen digital ordering in dining halls that use iPads instead of human interactions, or set it up so that people can use their own technology and devices to complete orders
  • Make audio description services available for anything live on campus (provide descriptive narration for performances, shows, campus tours, athletic events, etc.)
  • Purchase larger monitors and screens, and technological advances such as talking scales.

Institutions have the ability to coordinate between IT and various offices, like Events, Reunions, Athletics, Admissions, Disability Services, Library Services, and more to incorporate accessibility into website software and across campus. Doing so has the potential to increase applications, retention, and provide the best experiences for blind and low-vision visitors, students and faculty. We just need humility, collaboration, and the will from institutional leadership to do it.

Digital advances have brought some of the greatest leaps in access to our physical spaces, even when the infrastructure itself hasn’t been updated

Thank you to my fellow advocates Abigail Shaw and Gian Pedulla for allowing me to interview them for this article, and for sharing their insights, experiences, and expertise.

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