Computing in the dark

Perception /Noun / The representation of what is perceived; basic component in the formation of a concept

Perception is the key to a great many things and nothing will alter your perception quite like losing your sight. The World exists in vivid, glorious technicolour, a tumult of a thousand subtle shades and nowhere is this better exemplified that on the Internet. How harsh, then, to lose that perception, to be suddenly cloaked in darkness. The World, with no sight, exists in monochrome, swirling shades of black and grey and nowhere is this harder to contend with than on the Internet.

Perception /Noun / The process of perceiving

My perception of using a computer, in the days when I could see it, is so fundamentally removed from the way I perceive it now I'm blind, that it often feels as though I recall those times with rose tinted nostalgia.

This isn't true of course, at worst it is a pang of loss for the way things used to be, but at best it is a realisation that given the right perception from other people, computing and more importantly, the Internet need give me no cause to lament easier days past. Let me see if I can shed a little light on the matter:

This Web page that you're looking at contains something in the region of 1500 words. How long do you think it would take you to locate the next instance of the word: synapses? It's an unusual word, so if you scan down the page, it shouldn't take long. Try it now, if you like. If I were to attempt the same task it would mean either reading the entire piece, using my Screen Reader (an application that allows the content of the screen to be read aloud) or as I'm more experienced at using the software, I could use one of the functions for quickly scanning a word at a time. Either way, I have to actually read the whole document until I reach the given word and believe me, that can take a tiresome amount of time.

Of course, either of us could have used the ‘Find' function on our Browsers and done it that way, but setting that aside for a moment, I hope you begin to see how different things can be. Eyesight is multi-dimensional, meaning that you can take in several things at a glance. It is easy to see the correct order of buttons in a program or to move directly to a specific point on the screen. Using a Screen Reader means that everything becomes one-dimensional. It's only possible to hear one thing at a time, at least with the degree of concentration required for using a computer. Take a quick look at the Toolbar or Menu bar at the top of your Browser. All things being equal you should be able to see the whole collection of icons simultaneously and, should you wish to, move directly to any one of them and click it, without undue hassle.

If I do the same thing it takes a keystroke to focus my Screen Reader on the Toolbar, I can then use the arrow keys to move through the icons one at a time, the Screen Reader announcing each one as I go. Everything, one at a time, no concept of layout or design, just a linear recitation of what's there. It must be said that the more familiar you are with the program, the easier it is to move around by memory rather than sound, but let me assure you of something - there is nothing more disheartening than arriving on a Web page for the first time, knowing it contains a link you need, only to discover that there are two hundred different, imaginatively titled links to go through (one at a time) and the best plan you can come up with is to start at the top.

It's almost enough to make you give up. Almost, but not quite. The one thing that will defeat me, time and again is a Web page so inaccessible that, despite having been a Web Designer for several years, leaves me completely incapable of using it. It's frustrating. To be that close to something that everyone else can see and enjoy, only to discover that you've been excluded is not an experience I care to repeat too often.

If I could trouble you to try a little exercise, it will help to elucidate. Read the following sentence and see what you make of it: Tgsn lzndugn jh, ksoen hei hahh neonee, onnns. Gibberish? I thought that's what you'd say! Luckily you're able to tell at once that it was utter rubbish and the best thing to do was ignore it entirely. Now try imagining what it would be like to find a Web page that, as a Screen Reader reads it, sounds exactly like that. The whole page. You're aware that there are graphics present, but instead of being usefully (and correctly) tagged with a description ‘Thin blue line' for example, it was announced as ‘tbl11.gif'. Unfortunately it gets worse, links, particularly graphical ones will often read as ‘bthp.gif' instead of the more practical ‘Back To Home Page'. A page like this (and they are legion), is impossible to use and the most hurtful thing of all is that it's only a matter of bad HTML code and thoughtlessness that causes them to be published this way. Perception /Noun / Becoming aware of something via the senses.

The most remarkable thing I've perceived on my journey, is how much more important my computer is to me now. I've always been at home on the ‘Net, but increasingly I find that much of my life is conducted through its many different facets. Email is a wonderful way of corresponding - more or less everyone I know has an email address, family and friends. Chat clients allow for conversations on the fly, but now they also provide me with a means of making real-time contact with people I'm not able to get out and visit that day. Web sites provide a wealth of information; wonderful if you don't want to visit the library and absolutely breathtaking if you can't make use of the library anyway. Newsgroups allow me to find communities of like minded people to swap ideas and even support with and the occasional full blown intellectual argument helps keep the mental synapses from failing! But the most unlikely benefit I've found on the Web is something I didn't even think of when I could see: Shopping.

Despite the valiant efforts of friends to tell me every last item in a given store, it's hard work to shop in the conventional manner - at the last count the average supermarket carries several thousand different product lines! The freedom to browse online stores in my own time, returning to and comparing products as often as I choose is amazing. I managed 95% of last year's Christmas shopping without being farther than 5 Metres from my kettle - surely it doesn't get much better than that? Well, far be it from me to disagree with myself, but it could be better, if only more E-Vendors realised the potential customer base they were excluding by not implementing useable Web sites.

The 95% of shopping I did took much, much longer than it would have done on foot because so much time was spent trying to negotiate inaccessible sites, eventually giving up and looking for another suitable online store. Perception /Noun / Knowledge gained by perceiving. There is one last point I'd like to convey and it is perhaps the hardest aspect to put across:- I don't want allowances to be made, any more than I do excuses.

I would simply like to be able to use the Internet with the consummate ease I once possessed. It took the loss of my sight for me to understand this paradigm shift and it's taken my knowledge of Web Design to understand that it needn't be difficult to change. The technology is already in place and the capability already in existence. All that's required is the inclination of people like you and I, to look at things a little differently. I close my eyes in order to see. - Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903

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