A different gravity

Last night, I received an email message from a gentleman named Mark. The subject was: appreciate your blog and designs. I’ve received quite a few messages like this recently. But there was something about Mark’s message that had a different gravity to it. The last words of his message read: By the way, I am blind

Wow. This was a different kind of message. Many thoughts and questions raced through my head. How was this possible? How did he come across my site? What was his experience like? I live in a world of color and light, where designers deliberate over tiny differences in typefaces and spend hours trying to get the appearance of a layout pixel-perfect. I’m incapable of completely knowing what it’s like to be blind. When I’m done imagining what it’s like, I can always open my eyes and reload the visual data of my surroundings.

Everything in my career thus far has been based on sight: the arrangement of type, color, and objects within a space to create a visual design. I experiment with color, typography, margins, rules, alignment, and white space in attempt to organize and shape information into a pleasing design. But as I learn how others access the Web, my perspective and approach to design for the Web is dramatically changing.

The National Federation for the Blind (NFB) reports an estimated 1.1 million people in the U.S. are blind. Each year, 50,000 more will become blind. Like many sight-disabled Web users, Mark uses screen reader software on his computer to verbalize the text on any webpage he visits. Having a page read aloud, navigating “reader” software with keyboard shortcuts or verbal commands to move around a page and throughout a site seems like an entirely foreign browsing experience. These users won’t notice the color of my logo, nor will they care about the subtle lines and shapes which grace the page and create nice pockets of parseable information. The software they use is reliant on well-structured semantic markup of text and elements on the page.

In his message, Mark noted that the Wired News site worked well with his screen reader. I wonder what else we can do to make sites like Wired News more fluid and friendly to these assisting applications. We anticipated the changes made to the site would improve performance in these types of browsing applications. Without a resident expert in screen reader technology, we couldn’t measure the impact of the changes. Positive feedback coming from a blind user is excellent validation of the theoritical accessibility improvements we tried to make.

Our experience with the Web continues to evolve. Devices are popping up everywhere which change the way we access and communicate with the Web. Mobile phones and PDAs allow us to check the final score of a recent game, or order a best-selling book — all within a device that fits in the palm of our hand. Screen readers and specialized browsing environments allow access by users with specific disabilities to the same information visited by non-disabled users. The Web is getting pushed toward a truly universally accessible medium.

With these new technologies and the increased range of potential visitors to our pages they bring, I’m becoming keenly aware of a new level of responsibility and considerations within my profession. I still have much to learn and discover. Messages like the one I got from Mark help pull back my focus, providing pieces of a larger picture that I want to better understand and be able to impact.