This blog is a personal account, and the perspective of an individual. It does not reflect guidance, policies or procedures of the University.
Keira Cozens, a PhD student from the Life Sciences Department and member of the aFLAME Disability Network: Staff and PGR in the University, summarises what herself and some of the members have to say about digital accessibility, including how it can be helpful but also what could be better.
Accessibility is the practice of making services, products, buildings, etc., that can be used by as many people as possible, particularly those with disabilities. An example of accessibility may be installing a lift in a building with only steps, so people with mobility issues can access every floor. In a similar way, the digital world can have barriers that need to be addressed so more people can access it. For example, screen readers may be used by people who have visual impairments and therefore cannot read text. As there are many different types of disabilities, and even those who share similar disabilities will have different experiences, accessibility will also look different for everyone. Here, I summarise thoughts that myself and other members of the University’s aFLAME Disability Network, have about digital accessibility, discussing information that has helped us, but also how it could be improved.
Screen readers are a type of software that were originally designed for visually impaired people to be able to receive information about their computer through sound. For example, the software may be used to read documents and help navigate the computer. One of the members of aFLAME Disability Network uses a screen reader, not because they are visually impaired, but because they have a physical disability that means they need to sit in unconventional positions at times that can make reading from a screen awkward. I also use a screen reader as I can be sensitive to light and find it difficult to focus on large blocks of text.
Indeed, screen readers are now widely used by people with a range of different disabilities. A big advantage with screen readers is you can speed up how fast they read words. For example, 300-400 words per minute is an average reading speed, but with a screen reader you can speed this up to 800 words per minute and your brain can still understand it and process the information. You can also follow the text along on the screen as you listen, as screen readers often highlight the individual words and sentences as they are being read, which can help people focus. It is notable that even Microsoft Word now has an immersive reader in the “View” section which can read text aloud and can display one line at a time to improve focus. Evidently, aspects of this technology can be beneficial for everybody.
However, there are some disadvantages and difficulties to using a screen reader. Like many new things, it may take time to get used to, as it is not the same cognitively as sitting and reading the words independently. It can also be difficult to use with PDFs too; I personally find it difficult to read research articles with a screen reader as they all have different structures and do not interpret graphs and tables well. One of our members recounts that reading documents with links can be frustrating, as their screen reader just reads the link and does not offer an option to “click” on it. They also note that skimming and scanning is not possible as the screen reader starts at the beginning of the document and reads through to the end unless it is stopped earlier. This means they are unable to use the reading skills that they teach such as reading headings first and reading topic sentences to get an overall idea of the text. This leads to them resorting to a combination of ‘manual’ reading techniques and use of the screen reader.
Speech recognition software
Whilst we have just discussed screen readers that convert text into sound, there are also speech recognition softwares that can do the opposite, using your voice as an input to dictate, for example, a Word Document. This software is especially useful for people who are unable to use a mouse or keyboard but can also be useful for people who find it easier to talk rather than type. One of the members of our group uses the dictate and read aloud functions in Microsoft, which they find extremely helpful. Dictate can be faster than typing for those that did not learn to touch type, and it can be easier on the arms. Indeed, many smart phones now have an option on their keyboards to enable voice to text, meaning many people can benefit from this technology.
However, speech recognition software does have its limitations. Whilst these features built into Microsoft Word, for example, can be easy to use, there are more complex softwares such as Dragon that can be used to navigate your computer, and these can take longer to learn the commands. Moreover, whilst some of these softwares can be quite accurate, they all often require you to proof-read and correct the text, which can be time-consuming. However, it can be a great way to get down lots of ideas into a document and to get the ball rolling.
The brightness and colour of screens can affect many people in different ways. For example, many people are aware to limit screen time before bed as it can interfere with your sleep. For me, bright screens can cause pain and make me feel nauseous, so I benefit from anything that reduces the brightness of a screen, and/or the time I need to spend looking at a screen. Thankfully, many web browsers, computer systems and apps allow for a “Dark mode”, which often makes most of the screen grey or black, and/or “Night mode”, which gives the screen a warmer, less harsh light and can be manually set to a schedule. When I first adjusted all of my devices and applications to dark mode, it felt strange, however it did not take too long to get used to, and now I perceive “Bright mode” as strange! I also occasionally use screen overlays, which are available in a range of different softwares, that allow you to change the colour of your screen and essentially change the contrast, which can be easier on the eyes. However, at first, I did find it overwhelming to figure out how to change the settings across devices, and when I log on to university computers, I have to adjust them onto night mode each time, which can be frustrating. Nevertheless, these settings are very useful and are built into many devices without the need to install anything new.
Another way to limit the impact of screen brightness is to listen to text rather than read it, as discussed above. I was informed of online web converters that could take PDF documents and convert them into an audio file that could be used in a similar way to an audio book- I feel that this is a great idea, however I am yet to find one that does not sound like a weird robot! Additionally, it is difficult to do this for research articles as they also contain diagrams and tables. Another simple way to limit screen time is to print off articles to read them; however, it can be frustrating to have piles of papers, and is often easier to organise them via a computer and using a citation manager. Ideally it would be great for me to have access to a tablet that I could use to read papers that does not emit light (such as a Kindle), however, they can be expensive and may not be covered by my Disabled Student’s Allowance.
Hybrid access to events and meetings
Whilst video calls and online events have been around for a while, they were massively popularised during the pandemic due to social distancing rules. This has been beneficial for many disabled people as it can be difficult to regularly attend in person, due to reasons including physical disabilities or immune status. Therefore, the ability to work from home and attend virtual meetings and events has made the workplace more accessible to many. However, one of the members of aFLAME Disability Network feels they have detected an unwelcome trend in hybrid access to meetings, especially those involving external speakers giving in-person talks. They express that, understandably, organisers want as many people as possible in the audience to make the speaker feel their trip was worthwhile, but they have either stopped enabling online participation or discouraged it. Unfortunately, this excludes this member from attending due to health reasons and their need to continue self-isolating, and whilst this member points it out, this then often leads the organisers to agree to provide online access, but not advertise it. This is disappointing as it leaves them feeling singled-out and marginalised.
Due to my disability, I am unable to commit to attending campus on particular days as it depends on my condition and pain levels, and may be unsafe or impossible for me to travel in. This means it is difficult for me to conduct laboratory work, which is often very time sensitive and can be quite physically demanding. So in my case, the ability to do computer-based work, to analyse data from home and replace in-person meetings with virtual ones makes doing a PhD possible. However, whilst the pandemic helped normalise online meetings, it also left people feeling very isolated and almost fed up with their computers, so it is understandable why people may prefer to meet in person post-lockdown. However, it is important to remember that our disabilities and health conditions are still present after the height of the pandemic, and that we should carry forward online access to events to ensure they are more inclusive.
My computer My way
My computer My way by Ability Net is a collection of fact sheets about how to change settings so that your computer is optimised for personal use. Their vision is a digital world accessible to all and they provide free and paid for training and resources. One of the members of aFLAME Disability Network recommends this as they have found it extremely useful and made changes that they had not thought of or did not know how to. Their computer is now set up so that the font is larger and easier to read across the board from emails, Microsoft Word, and webpages. They have also found they prefer to read white text on a dark grey background as it is better to read and is easier on the eyes. They also use the Nightlight too, so blue light from the computer screen is less disruptive to their sleep. My computer My way also allows for you to change the mouse cursor size, shape and speed, and can even be used to automatically move the cursor to the expected response when a pop-up box appears. This means people are able to use their computer with less physical input, which can help conserve energy and avoid straining of the arm. Overall, it appears to be a useful resource that allows for personalisation, which can therefore make computers more accessible for people with a range of different disabilities.
In summary, there are many ways that the digital world can be made more accessible for disabled people. Moreover, software and technology that was previously designed for one disability, may actually be useful for people with different disabilities. Excitingly, you can probably find aspects of the technology we have discussed on your phone and computer right now, as it even benefits many non-disabled people. Overall, it is a great example of how increasing digital accessibility can help everyone.
This article was first published as part of Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2023 at the University of Bath.