Navigating the internet without a screen

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It didn’t sound too difficult. All I had to do was navigate my way through the FT.com pages until I reached the FT Digital Business home page. The catch was that I had to do it with the computer screen turned away from me.

This is equivalent to the task blind people face every day when using the internet. And had it not been for a vital tool and some welcome encouragement from Léonie Watson, head of accessibility for Nomensa, a web usability agency, it would have been impossible.

The tool was a screen reader, a software application that translates on-screen information into speech. It works with the computer’s operating system to provide information about icons, menus, dialogue boxes, files and folders, allowing blind users to navigate web pages using the keyboard.

What I was hearing was not exactly what was displayed on screen but what was written into the underlying code. A blind person’s experience of a website is therefore dependent on how well that code is written – and the quality varies considerably.

Ms Watson, who is blind, knows this only too well: “On the best websites, I can find the information I want but others I can’t read at all. On some, I can’t access share information. I might want to invest but not if I can’t read that information.”

Meanwhile, I was making slow progress towards the web page I was after. Listening to the PC’s spoken instructions required an unfamiliar level of concentration and relying on only a few basic keyboard commands meant I had to reverse out of one or two cul-de-sacs in which the screen reader kept alternating between two lists.

But we got there, showing along the way what can be achieved if accessibility is taken into account at all stages of website development.

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