For all the multimedia wonders of the Internet, the vast store of information, knowledge, and connections it contains is largely based on graphics and text—visual input that is inaccessible to the visually impaired. Now, an information-studies scholar who is blind aims to make the Internet more universally available.
Blind and sighted users organize their online tasks and process information differently. Thus, text-based search tools such as tags are not particularly useful to the visually impaired, says Rakesh Babu, an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s School of Information Studies. (Babu himself lost his vision to a degenerative eye disease.)
Screen readers provide digitized voice translations of text, but they produce a linear online experience that cannot keep pace with a nonlinear visual experience comprising color cues, animations, and text that can be quickly scanned.
Babu’s research is focusing on understanding the differences in how blind users conceptualize online tasks compared with sighted users; this includes not just information gathering, but also communicating and engaging in activities that are already available to sighted users—and are vital to career prospects and to independent living.
“Web accessibility is not a legal issue; it’s an equal opportunity issue,” says Babu. “When you sit down to design a Web site, you have to think, how would a screen reader read my Web site? You need to be user-centered from the beginning.”
Watch a demo by Rakesh Babu on YouTube