The biggest challenge for most IT system buyers is picking the right one, at the right price.

The choice is far more limited, however, if they or their employees have sight problems and rely on “screen reader” technology to scan the text of a web page or application interface and present it in audio format.

Roger Wilson-Hinds, co-founder of Screenreader.net, a social enterprise that distributes the software that does this free of charge to blind and visually impaired people around the world, is blind himself. He relies on Thunder, the product his company distributes, in order to run his business.

He says of his search for a customer relationship management system: “It was performed slowly, clumsily but with all good intentions – it’s how I do everything online.” With some CRM packages, he found fields on forms that were not labelled in a way that could be read out by Thunder; with others, pop-up screens such as the calendar could not be accessed.

Eventually, Mr Wilson-Hinds got in touch with Salesforce.com, the software-as-a-service application provider, and discovered that its CRM software worked well with Thunder, which has been downloaded by more than 100,000 users worldwide to date.

Unfortunately, the problems encountered by Mr Wilson-Hinds are not unusual, says Chris Rourke, managing director of User Vision, a company that helps organisations such as the BBC, the Student Loans Company, Tesco Finance and Scottish Widows to ensure their websites and applications are usable and accessible. “It’s all in the way code mark-up is handled, because screen readers depend on code being labelled in a way they can understand,” he explains.

“Systems developed in-house, in particular, tend to present problems, because the code isn’t written with the need of all users in mind. If they’re based on widely available Microsoft or Oracle technologies, there’s a better chance that a screen-reader can scan them effectively, but there’s no guarantee because accessibility demands extra talent and ‘duty of care’ from a programmer,” he says.

Common obstacles for screen readers include drop-down boxes, image boxes that don’t contain “alt text” describing what they contain and applications that open new browser windows.

The problems are not confined to people with sight problems, says Mark Wilson, director of interactive design consultancy Wilson Fletcher. His company is working with the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) to put together best-practice examples of how organisations might design applications to cater to the needs of people with dyslexia.

“Mind mapping” software from companies such as Mindjet can be a valuable work tool, says Peter Abrahams, a practice leader in usability and accessibility at Bloor Research, the analyst company.

“People with dyslexia find mind-maps easier to understand and create than linear text, especially when they include colours and images. People with limited vision who can see the overall structure of the map, find the electronic mind-map easier to navigate than linear text, as they can pick up on the visual clues of colour, image and structure,” he explains.

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