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  • Writer's pictureNick Lansley

The web is a visual medium, so what are blind people doing on it?

“I mean, all that text and pictures and stuff. Not much cop if you can’t see it, I really don’t know why blind people bother, really I don’t!”, I thought.

It was 1999, and I had just come off the phone to a very pleasant woman called Julie Howell from the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB). She had called me because a few vision-impared potential Tesco online customers had complained to the RNIB that they couldn’t use our web site.

I was equally pleasant back but really didn’t get all that effort being undertaken on behalf of blind people to get them on the web.

Julie invited me to go along to RNIB HQ in central London, which I did one early December afternoon in 1999. Two hours later I staggered from RNIB HQ visibly shaken and nearly in tears.

During that two hours I had sat quietly and watched one of Julie’s colleagues try and navigate the grocery site. This man had suffered cancer of both optic nerves at the age of three and had endured his eyes being surgically removed to avoid any spread of the growths. Patiently, he listened to the words of our web pages being read out to him by a computer voice, typing the arrow keys on his keyboard to navigate.

Valiantly, he tried to listen to the names of grocery products being read out to him and to add them to his basket. Every time he tried to do what he thought was ‘add to basket’, our web page did something different – normally by confusing him as to where he was on the pages so he was actually adding a different product, or clicking a link that took him somewhere else completely.

After half an hour he gave up. “It’s a shame,” he concluded; “if only I could order my groceries and get them delivered to my home, I would be fully independent – something I look forward to”.

In telling me this concluding thought there was a kindness in his voice, but it was clear to me that I had performed the equivalent of inviting him in to a brand new Tesco store and – as he arrived at the entrance – slammed the entrance door in his face.

I don’t make promises in public unless I can be sure that I can keep them. However at that moment I promised that we would create a grocery web service that the RNIB would hold up as a virtuous example of best practice (despite being far more junior that I am today!).

When I returned to the office the next day I had been emboldened by my promise and met with the leadership team. Fortunately I found myself pushing at an open door, and so in 2000 ‘project BOB’ – Best Of Breed – grocery service was implemented with accessibility built right in.

BOB was unique in that it was one of the first examples of ‘one site- two skins’. Customers could choose from our ‘standard’ site packed with graphics and more, or ‘Access’ which was specifically designed so that it would (quote from my design brief) “sound like a conversation with a vision-impaired customer through the use of their screen-reader”. That is, a simple, disciplined page structure that would be read from top left to bottom right and easily navigable through the screen-reader’s keyboard controls.

Soon after, ‘BOB’ won us accessibility awards, and I have even made a couple of appearances on the BBC Radio 4’s “In Touch” show for (and about) vision-impaired people in Britain.

It’s now an early December afternoon exactly ten years later. BOB is soon to be retired and our new ‘project martini’ grocery service is taking over. One thing is for sure: accessibility is at the heart of our work because grocery home shopping continues to help blind customers achieve independence, and my colleagues in the user interface teamwork hard to retain their trust, and their loyalty.

In that 10 years I have been a co-author (with Julie Howell and several others) of a new British standard – PAS 78 – which helps web designers understand accessibility for the web.

The web is not just a visual medium, it is in a format that can reach many people whatever their senses allow thanks to computer technology. For example, this blog is read by a vision-impaired person who sits back and listen as their computer’s voice reads it out. I know because they wrote to me recently to tell me they enjoy using a female voice to listen to me! Ha! They reminded me of the last ten years, and their message had prompted this entry. I thank them for their prompt.

Further reading:

…and for balance, when a blind person found they couldn’t use a BOB update in 2006:

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