My Perspective: Help Me Pick Up What You’re Putting Down (Accessible Communication for The Blind/Low Vision Community)

Ed and his dog Hallie at sunset

By Ed Worrell:

Ed Worrell is co-founder of OverHere Consulting. Based in Great Falls, OverHere Consulting carries assistive technologies for vision impairment and provides training to individuals, schools, and government agencies. Ed is blind, diabetic, and loves helping the visually impaired utilize assistive technology. Ed is an accessibility tester for a number of apps.  He is also passionate about helping visually impaired diabetics learn how to manage their diabetes with accessible devices and techniques he’s used over the years.

‘Visually impaired’ does not mean one needs glasses, although one might. ‘Visually impaired’ can range from near-sightedness to barely detecting light. Many of us progress from one condition to another. For example, at this point I cannot read text, see a computer or device screen, or read handwriting (including my own signature). Yet I am classified as visually impaired because I was not born completely blind. Weird...

I lost my eyesight because I was aspiring to break the high score in the game of Diabetes management. My blood sugar was over 1200 when I was admitted into the hospital in 2006. I lost my eyesight a short two years later from related lapses of judgement. Now I navigate the social media network called life with a screen reader and rely on people to create accessible content.

The digital world has a surface layer and an underlying layer of code that makes it all happen. I read all or part of this underlying structure using a screen reader [1]or refreshable Braille display[2]. In other words, my screen reader “shows” me content that never makes it to the visual surface. It is how all screen readers work – I can’t help it!

Here are four simple ways to make sure text messages, emails, and other digital communications are accessible to people with visual impairments.

1- Social Banter

Social networks, messaging apps and email can become inaccessible and difficult to use when overrun with emoticons. While I like a mini picture myself once in a while (Cough!), some people need to use a little discretion.

Someone messaged me the other day: “Sup? Smiling face with tongue sticking out, smiling face with tongue sticking out, smiling face with tongue sticking out, …” This went on about twenty-five times. Then, “Call me. Arm with flexing bicep, arm with flexing bicep, arm with flexing bicep…” about 30 times. Their phone number was at the very end.

Hmm, before I dial their number, let me think. What should I call them? :-) Emoticons are easy to look past, until you have to listen to them. I love to hear a few, just not thirty in a row.  And please, put them at the end of the pertinent information, not strewn throughout. (Sigh)

2- Easy Buttons

Far too many web pages and apps have unlabeled buttons. This makes it difficult to figure out what is being communicated. Make sure all page elements such as buttons, links, images and headings have labels for assistive technology to read. And please don’t over-explain what you are labeling. A concise label will do.

3- Please Punctuate!

I hate emails or messages where the person never stops or pauses in the typed text they just keep on going without any punctuation whatsoever in one incredibly long sentence that never stops but you dare not reply because you will simply get another long uninterrupted string of words and by the time they are finished you already forgot the first part of what they said. :-)

Quick, where’s the mute button? Right? I can’t go a day without seeing a paragraph like this on social media. AHHHH!

Punctuation causes a screen reader to pause for varying amounts of time. A comma causes a slight pause, without dropping the level of intonation much. A period causes a longer pause and drops the intonation at the end of a sentence. An exclamation point pauses while emphasizing the last few words. A question mark pauses while raising the intonation at the end of the sentence. Always remember, punctuation saves lives.

4- Love Letter

Regardless of the enthusiasm you’re trying to convey, refrain from using symbols to decorate your message. Text designs are almost as annoying as a lack of punctuation. I mean, who doesn’t want to hear “asterisk, asterisk, asterisk” 87 times in a row, only to discover there is nothing else on that line? The very next line has 20 asterisks in a row, then four important words, then 20 more asterisks. Okay, that was it for that line. Whew! Now, what was I doing again?

Oh, yeah! There are many aspects to “accessibility” that are not apparent unless you experience it for yourself. The current state of technology is no one’s fault, but the need for awareness is obvious. I hope my rant provides a view from the trenches and maybe a little food for thought. If we try and keep an open mind, we can all be a bit more accessible.


[1] A screen reader is usually a software that reads a device’s screen content aloud.          

[2] In tandem with screen reading software, a refreshable Braille display turns content from a device screen into Braille characters by raising and lowering round-tipped pins.


Download Printable PDF File



The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Montana Family to Family Health Information Center, the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities, or the University of Montana.