There are two million people in the U.S. who are blind or visually impaired. That number is sure to grow in coming years as Baby Boomers, and their eyes, age. That’s a lot of people. Ever wondered how they “see” your website? What about how they navigate and use social media channels? Unless you are visually impaired, you’ve probably not thought about it.

Last week I spent a half day with several staff members at the American Printing House for the Blind talking about how the visually impaired use social media, websites and technology in general. The sad truth is that as cool as our blogs and websites look to us, many people can not only not see them, they often can’t decipher what’s there because we forget, or don’t know how, to build our sites with accessibility in mind.

In general, good SEO practices are also good accessibility practices. Strong header tags actually serve as sub-navigation menus for screen readers (Audio devices used by many visually impaired. See video below.) This allows users to skip past lots of top level site navigation and get down the page to meat of the content.

ALT tags on images and TITLE tags on links help screen readers tell the user what the image or link is. Without them, the audio reader just tells the person that an image is a “graphic” or it reads the file name. If the file is named as most images (e.g. – IMG4576890.jpg) that’s a whole lot of useless for the user. For links, a missing title tag means the reader will announce the entire URL which is often not helpful at all, either.

But think about that for a minute. If you’re stuffing keywords into your TITLE and ALT tags and either awkwardly or not accurately describing the image or link at hand, you’re doing the visually impaired reader a disservice. If you’re also top heavy with navigation on your site — lots of sub-menus and the like — you’re forcing blind users to sit through audio announcements of each menu item before they get to the meat of the page.

And then just think about the process of having to take each element on a given web page — division, table, image, link, menu item, sub-menu item and more — and listen to a reader enumerate what each is, in order from top left to bottom right, so you can imagine what’s on a page. You can likely glance at this page on Social Media Explorer and jump right to the headline or the first line of copy in the blog post. A visually impaired person has to wait until their reader tells them about all the header and navigation information first. This user experience adds exponentially more time to consume each page for the user.

Mike McCarty, social media manager at APH, told me the tendency to pile lots of navigation at the top or even upper left side of a given web page is not just an accessibility issue, but also a usability one. Sites with lots of top level navigation, as pretty as it may appear, are sites that frustrate the visually impaired.

And keep in mind that we’re not just talking about the blind consumer. We’re also talking about individuals with aging eyes that need fonts enlarged and the like. Using fixed variable fonts in your styling of a page makes it often impossible for many to read your content. And some users need to enlarge a font 4-6 times its normal size in order to see it. Designing a site with this in mind will help you make one beautiful for those who can and perhaps cannot see.

To give you an example of what it’s like to “see” the web the way someone visually impaired does, I looked over McCarty’s shoulder as he gave us a little tour of how to navigate the web without sight.

By the way, YouTube videos, SlideShare embeds and the like … there are buttons within their players that could be accessible if they appropriately labeled the buttons. Visually impaired folks wishing to watch that video had to navigate around “Label Zero” “Label One” “Label Two” instead of “Play/Stop” “Fast Forward” or “Rewind.” How about you video and player sites get with the program, too?

McCarty and his colleagues reported that Twitter and Google sites are generally okay to navigate. As he indicated in the video, Qwitter is a third-party Twitter application with a screen reader-friendly version. It runs in the background of one’s computer and announces when you have new tweets to read, etc. But LinkedIn and Facebook are a nightmare for the visually impaired. With lots of links and images embedded in news streams there, many of which don’t have proper ALT or TITLE tags, you may as well give up and go on to another site.

Justin Romack, a content marketing consultant who also happens to be visually impaired, assured me that social media sites aren’t all frustrations for those visually challenged. Romack wasn’t always visually impaired. In 2008 he lost 95 percent of his vision and fell into depression. The blind and visually impaired communities on Facebook and Twitter were the people who helped him not just learn how to function in a less visible world, but helped him through it emotionally as well.

Romack also told me the iPhone is surprisingly accessible and he’s been delighted with several conversations with Foursquare about making their product more accessible to the visually impaired. He even reported that an engineer at Foursquare sent him some instructions on how to make maps accessible through touch screen products like the iPhone.

Dave Brodbeck, a psychology professor at Algoma University in Ontario who also has limited vision, wasn’t as thrilled with the accessibility of his phone. Perhaps he and Romack should talk? As someone who says he doesn’t use screen readers because he was never given access to them growing up so he learned to cope and deal, Brodbeck says his biggest frustrations are with page layout and styling.

“For me, the biggest challenge is font size and menu options,” he told me. “I zoom in on my screen, which is one of the many reasons I have a Mac. It is dead easy to do. But, when zoomed in, menus tend to be messed up, or be off the screen. I am not sure there is a solution for this.”

He, along with several other visually impaired I talked to, said the one thing that universally pisses users like them off is Captcha’s. I assured him they piss the visual off as well. It doesn’t matter how well you see detail, you never know if it’s an A, D, P or R. Heh.

McCarty told me most visually impaired folks will go to the mobile version of a site, if one is available, because you can at least access the main content there without images and other problematic page features. But that’s only half a solution since the mobile versions of many sites are limited in features and functionality. Facebook and LinkedIn are two culprits there – poorly accessible main site experiences with limited functionality in the mobile-optimized platform.

Watching McCarty was fascinating for me, as I’m sure it was for you. The sighted certainly take that gift for granted. We in the digital marketing and social media space probably moreso than others. I left APH thankful for my sight, but woeful for our sites. We can do better. How about we start today?

Note: Follow the American Printing House for the Blind on Twitter or subscribe to their Fred’s Head Blog, named after Fred Gissoni, a legendary employee of APH who is that guy there (and we all have them in our companies) that seems to know everything. The inspiration results in a pretty useful blog that serves a great purpose and audience. The screen reader McCarty referred to, JAWS, is available online at FreedomScientific.com.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog and signature Explore events. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • HeyMan

    Interesting perspective some never consider.  More website developers need me adopt ADA 508 compliance

  • HeyMan

    Interesting perspective some never consider.  More website developers need me adopt ADA 508 compliance

  • http://twitter.com/Flyingpiggyl Ying Peng

    Interesting topic! It is necessary to develop a version for the blind population as well as those with impaired sight. But there must be problems: to satisfy those with special needs including bigger fonts and easier navigation, we will consider less information and function on a single page. I think it’s a good idea to add a compliance on the social media sites which provides link to the bigger and easier version of this sites for those with special needs. Even though social media users are mostly young generations now, generally, this generation will become old and there will be increasing need for social media sites that are more visible. 

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