Visually impaired users and software development environments

What does it mean to be visually impaired?

From, The definition of vision impairment by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says a visually impaired person’s eyesight cannot be corrected to a “normal level”. It may be said that visual impairment is the functional limitation of the eye or eyes or the vision system. Blindness is defined as a visual acuity worse than 20/400 with the best possible correction, or a visual field of 10 degrees or less.

Accessibility and the web

As Lazar, Dudley-Sponaugle & Greenidge write, “an accessible web site is very similar to an accessible building. An accessible building offers curb cuts, ramps, and elevators to allow a person with disabilities to enter and navigate through the building with ease. An accessible website offers similar functionality”.

Unfortunately, as the web grows faster and faster, most of these techniques are left behind when working on projects that need to attract millions of users in the least amount of time possible. The only associations that are required to publish fully accessible content on the web are Governments and big companies who need to face entire communities, such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft as well as some of the major News Corporations.

One of the issues that might be related with a widespread development of accessibility on the web is related to the fact that, with the introduction of Web 2.0 that made everything way more visual than before, accessibility practices require a lot of additional coding in order to add descriptive content for each element of a web page. Detailed information about Web Accessibility Standards and ways of implementation are out of the scope of this research but can be found at W3C WAI for Visually Impaired users

This practice tend to get more complicated when web pages are loaded dynamically, with AJAX requests or other kind of implementation. More details can be found on the official W3C ARIA resource pages

Visually Impaired users of everyday software

A variety of solutions have been developed over the years to allow visually impaired users to interact with computers and technology in general. Most of them are software that read what happens on the screen to the users allowing them to then respond by inputting commands or text via their keyboard.

The major softwares used for this purpose are the Apple VoiceOver application, which is integrated in the operating system and JAWS and NVDA for Windows. The latter is the only one which is free and Open Source, developed by members of the visually impaired community for the visually impaired community. JAWS is one of the first screen reader softwares and also one of the most expensive solutions on the market.

Other I/O systems for Visually Impaired users are Braille Tactile Keyboards. However, according to this article only a small amount of the worldwide population can speak Braille fluently, which makes these solutions very hard to introduce in visually impaired people’s everyday lives.

Visually Impaired developers

As IDEs are becoming more and more sophisticated, it is becoming harder and harder for computer readers to identify parts of the IDEs and describe them to visually impaired developers. According to a series of interviews conducted bySean Mealin and Emerson Murphy-Hill at the North Carolina State University, visually impaired developers have developed skills that go beyond the use of a simple IDE to work on pieces of code.

In fact, many use external editors to keep track of all the variables they use in their code or to keep track of the flow and indentation of their programs. Also, most of them use “printf” debugging as major tool for understanding issues with their code as most of the existing debugging tools are not optimised for screen readers. Solutions like WAD (Wicked Audio Debugger) an auditory debugging system, have been developed by different universities. As reported by the team of researchers that developed WAD, “we found that participants comprehended the code with approximately 86% accuracy for our tasks”. Which shows how successful these solution can be and how they could facilitate developers’ life. However, they are not integrated in any of the most common IDEs and not yet available to the general public.

The following table shows a comparison of Java IDEs and how accessible they are. The information has been collected from Stackoverflow and other online resources as well as the official softwares documentation.


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