Visualizing Blindness: Accessibility Beyond Text

Category Technology

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In 2020, my blind husband and I enhanced our home in Brooklyn. This spurred my interest in ensuring that blind New Yorkers, including me, can create and explore images. This article talks about the importance of visuals for the blind and visually impaired, with a particular focus on how our predominantly sighted culture centers and disseminates spatial representations. Unfortunately, blind people usually find themselves relegated to a text-only experience when it comes to visuals. Thus, I dream of a day when checking out maps, tattoo designs, and seating charts will become more available for blind people.

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In 2020, in the midst of pandemic lockdown, my husband and I bought a house in Brooklyn and decided to reimagine and rebuild the interior.We began talking through our ideas about how to arrange each detail, from an open kitchen to bathroom fixtures, but before long we realized that imprecise language was slowing us down and annoying us both. So my husband taught me a few key architectural symbols (like the one that shows which way a door will swing) and started printing floor plans. Soon I was drawing my own concepts, iterating on his and working toward a shared vision of the home we eventually designed.

Our culture centers and disseminates spatial representations that are meant for, and rely upon, vision as a pathway to understanding.

It’s a commonplace story, except for one key factor: I’m blind, and I’ve made it my mission to ensure that blind New Yorkers (including me) can create and explore images. The equipment I used to make our floor plans and my subsequent drawings—a high-tech graphics embosser and a simple tactile "blackboard"—is part of the Dimensions Lab at the New York Public Library’s Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, a place where anyone (blind, sighted, or somewhere in between) can learn to make tactile graphics and 3D models that blind and low-vision people can perceive by touch. As the assistive technology coordinator at the library, I help patrons use accessible tech to pursue their goals: job hunting, reading printed mail with computer vision, using wayfinding apps to travel independently, and more.

The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library has a Dimensions Lab where anyone (blind, sighted, or somewhere in between) can learn to create tactile graphics and 3D models.

Working with images isn’t in the job description for most access technologists like me, but I believe it should be. I dream of a day when checking out a street map, perusing tattoo designs, or making a seating chart are just as convenient and commonplace for blind folks as for our sighted counterparts.

When we talk about graphics and images, the assumption that they will be experienced visually is implicit in the language we use. We refer to the visual arts, visual aids, and data visualizations; we conflate the world of images with the sense of vision as a means of perception. Our predominantly sighted culture centers and disseminates spatial representations that are meant for, and rely upon, vision as a pathway to understanding.If you think about blind people’s access to content, it’s likely that a few things come to mind: the development and evolution of braille, the availability of text-to-speech and braille output for onscreen content, and the need for accessible websites and apps that conform to guidelines for screen-reading software. While these technologies form a bedrock of access crucial to information literacy for blind and low-vision people, they primarily address one specific type of information: text.

Alt text is a popular way for authors to describe important visuals online.

In an era when lectures, business presentations, news, and entertainment are almost always delivered with rich, often interactive visuals, those of us who are blind usually find ourselves relegated to a text-only experience. Although alt text—the description of images online—allows content authors to describe important visuals, the adage that "a picture is worth a thousand words" falls flat when only words are available. It’s important to experience a stock chart, a circuit diagram, or a map as something embedded and interactive in an electronic environment.

Screen-reading software is a starting point for accessible websites and apps.

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