Navigating the Digital World: The Challenges of Accessibility
As the internet becomes a vital tool for communication and access to information, the issue of accessibility for individuals with disabilities becomes increasingly important. From navigating online government services to browsing social media, the internet can be a complex and overwhelming place for those with disabilities. In this article, we delve into the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities and the importance of universal accessibility in creating an inclusive society.
My name is Romain, I am a sports journalist. I graduated from the Institute of Practical Journalism in 2012. After that, I wrote a few articles for blogs about disability, before creating a media called Ladies Sports, specializing in women's sports.
Until my teenage years, I had normal vision. In 2002, I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa with loss of central vision: I lose all relief and details. Although I have excellent peripheral vision, I lose my sight in stages since it is a degenerative disease. You have to accept becoming blind, and it is not easy when you have seen for 18 years.
How do you use your computer on a daily basis?
Everything is Apple at my place. It's not because I'm a fan of the brand: at the time, when my disability appeared, Apple was a little more advanced than Microsoft in accessibility. That's why I chose Apple. Today, Microsoft has caught up... but I got used to Macs.
When you open the system preferences on a Mac, there is a "Accessibility" tab. You can choose all the options you want, whether for people who are deaf, blind, or any other type of disability.
I press the "Invert colors" button. It allows me to work like everyone else, except that my screen is purple. For us, visually impaired people, the most important thing is contrast. It is more complicated when you want to work on videos or photos, since you have to remove the contrast to be able to see them.
I also use a keyboard shortcut that allows me to zoom. It's very disruptive for the sighted: as there is magnification, the sentences are displayed in a truncated way.
I also have Voice Over on my Mac, a speech synthesis tool. If you want to search for an email, keyboard shortcuts take you to the email interface and the computer vocalizes all the steps you take. But for now I don't activate it yet, because you have to practice it: it's a bit technical on the computer, there are a lot of nuances.
On Macs, there is also voice command with Siri. The user can have voice control, like when you say "OK Siri..." on the iPhone. But it's a slightly less effective tool, it still needs to be worked on. Perhaps it has been improved on new devices, but I have a 2015 Mac and it's a bit of a struggle.
What about your smartphone?
I have a lot of apps on my iPhone: it's the tool I use most on a daily basis. I use it a lot for personal use: WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, RATP (Paris public transport), GPS...
All these apps are accessible because it's the speech synthesis Voice Over that reads the content. I chose to use the female voice, which is called Audrey. It's much simpler to grasp and master on a smartphone: you double or triple-click on the screen. On the computer, Voice Over is ultra complicated: there are a lot of nuances and keyboard shortcuts to know.
Have you noticed any notable developments in these assistive technologies since you started using them?
I learned to use all these tools in 2018, when I did my rehabilitation at the Sainte Marie Hospital in Paris. In the past 4 years, I haven't seen anything revolutionary. Apple, with its new iPhones, has improved accessibility: I believe there is a braille option.
Did you receive any financial support?
If you want to buy equipment, it can be partly financed. For example, my new Mac is financed 100% by Agefiph (Association for the management of the fund for the integration of people with disabilities). I contacted them to finance my computer as part of my media project.
I also went through the association Valentin Haüy. You pay your membership fee per year, and after that, either the courses are included or they are to be paid extra. I think the computer package is included in it. There is a course every Tuesday on different themes, to help you become more autonomous.
What are your online habits? What are the problems you encounter when browsing the web?
Most of the time, I work on my media project: Wordpress is open continuously. I also do research on social networks, on sports and news websites. 90% of the time I spend online is dedicated to work.
In terms of procedures, I go to Pôle Emploi, the MDPH (Departmental Home for People with Disabilities) and the websites of the Ministry. The rest is personal: social networks and online shopping.
When my eyes are tired, I use a keyboard shortcut ("Cmd" + "l") that reads to me. It's a basic Mac command that doesn't rely on Voice Over. When I use it, it works 9 times out of 10.
However, this command does not work with images. When someone puts text on an image without making it accessible, i.e. providing alternative text, the speech synthesis does not work. In this case, I leave the site.
Same problem with the PDF format. You have to think to make these documents accessible before putting them online, otherwise the speech synthesis tools can't read the texts. When it's like that, I close it: it has no interest.
Are there particular websites or applications that are difficult for you to access?
I still have some vision, so I use speech synthesis when I am tired. But sometimes I need someone who can see, and it is someone from my entourage who makes the procedures for me.
The difficulty I encountered was when I created an association: Les Reines du Vélo. I had to do all the procedures online on the website of the Prefecture of Police in Paris. The site was not accessible, and it was difficult to find information.
There is also the tax website: the problem is that its infrastructure is starting to date. Even if the command reads the menus to me, the site is a maze: to find the submenus, I really need someone who can see, otherwise I lose a lot of time. If I use Voice Over, it works... but it's slow. It lacks intuition, the user experience is not good.
Apart from these, I haven't encountered many difficulties. The accessibility standards of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) have made a real advancement: most websites are accessible today.
What would you need for your internet experience to be more fluid?
The ideal would be for everything to be accessible. But we have to highlight the positive things: Google, for example, does a lot for accessibility. So there are things that are progressing. If I want to write an article, I can practically dictate it on my computer.
Going back 3 years, there were things that the speech synthesis did not read. Now, I think 99% of online content is accessible.
Technically, the alternative text tags make it possible to make certain elements accessible, such as images. It would be great if that became intuitive as soon as a developer or agency is asked to work on a website. After, it's true that making a website accessible has a cost: it's necessary to go through an agency that carries out a diagnosis.
Of course, everyone should be made aware of these issues, and it should become automatic. When I have a developer in front of me, I would like to not have to say: "So, have you thought about accessibility?"
Ultimately, it involves taking disability into account on a societal level in order to establish universal accessibility. 80% of disabilities appear during life: those present from birth are in the minority. A person affected by a disability, if sensitized from a young age, will be less overwhelmed by the situation and will have more ease in living with it.
[Cover photo: Ramiro Mendes]