Being deaf and/or blind is no reason to be excluded from access to services – including online services – according to the law and governing principles in Sweden. This mainly applies to public institutions such as healthcare, taxation institutions, emergency services but also cultural institutions that are publicly funded as teaters and such. But what kind of solutions and aids are being implemented, and how do they work?

John, in English, in type for the blind. Part 2. Bible. N.T. John XII-XXI. English. [186-?]. First page of embossed text. 1860s Bible. Published: [186-?] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 in type for the blind.

Setting new standards

Swedish authorities have established a working group for equal accessibility (“aptly” named SIS TK536!) to advance initiatives and develop solutions to increase accessibility to online public services etc. for citizens with disabilities – hereunder the blind or visually impaired, deaf or those with hearing disabilities.

According to regulations, public institutions which do not comply with established “equal access guidelines” within given timeframes are liable to incur sanctions such as the withholding of financial support. Naturally, such initiatives compel active efforts and helps drive innovative thinking to make improvements for the deaf and blind online.

How does availability for the deaf and blind work online?

It would come as no surprise that designing websites which are more user friendly to the blind or deaf comes with a range of tough challenges – in addition to the already difficult task of website development. The topic of web-design for people with disabilities is a complex one and well beyond the scope of this post to address in depth. However, some useful general principles to consider when designing to improve user friendliness to blind or deaf users can be given. The below tips take into account the functions of various available technological aids most often used by the disabled.

When it comes to the visually impaired or blind, do keep in mind the following:

  • All graphic elements should have accompanying text labels – meaning, alternative HTML (hyper-text mark-up language).
  • Always provide text equivalents for non-text objects on your pages. This is because speech synthesizer equipment can’t recognise and read graphics, while text graphics also can’t be enlarged the way regular text can.
  • Avoid setting specific sizes, fonts or layouts for your website, but rather leave the option of setting the browser preferences to the user.
  • Always use descriptive titles – for every page.
  • As many access programs are dependent on standard HTML, make sure you use valid HTML.

For the deaf or hearing impaired, you might not have given much thought to how a predominantly visual media, such as the internet and your website can be hard to access and use for a deaf person. However, do keep the following in mind:

Many sign language users – deaf or hearing impaired – in fact have a somewhat limited reading vocabulary. This is because sign language, of course, is a very different ´language´ than the standard English others tend to take for granted. Therefore, it is important to use clear and simple language in order to help ensure deaf or hearing impaired users can better access all information on your website. Also, if you use video or audio media on your website, make sure to include text based transcripts and closed captioning as well.

Are there any better solutions?

As technologies continually develop, new opportunities with regards to technological aids for the disabled keep increasing. Similarly, as online technologies also improve, and understanding of the need to incorporate strategies for diversified users grows, our chances of efficiently catering to blind and deaf online users keep getting better.
It is important, however, that the needs are kept in mind and not overlooked.

Lets all make an effort to be better

Neither me, nor any of my colleagues have experience with blindness nor deafness, so our understanding of the problems at hand are those that we have encountered while trying to build web sites that are up to the standards set by the Swedish principle of equal accessibility. This principle is a step in the right direction but far from a solution.
If you have any ideas or perspectives to share on this topic, please leave a comment.