How it is to surf the Internet when you are blind


Neil Jarvis is obsessed with the Internet. He is also totally blind. For IRL, he discusses online shopping, why screen readers are a lifeline, and how bad CAPTCHA systems are.

As said to Shanti Mathias.

OOnline grocery shopping has changed my life. I had always been going to grocery stores, but it was a friction-filled experience: I relied on someone else to guide me through the store, and I always felt so conscious of taking my time. I couldn’t see the products or what was on sale, and I had a very narrow view of what was in a supermarket.

It was in the late ’90s when I first started shopping online, and the first time I searched for “milk” or “cornflakes” I was blown away by how many options there were. ‘there was. With an internet connection and a screen reader, the world just got bigger.

People think blind people have a hard time knowing where they are and who they are talking to, but we are good at being oriented. My challenge is to access information that sighted people take for granted. When I was a child, I desperately wanted to read books like my brother could; I used to bribe and swindle anyone nearby to spend half an hour reading me. I have never forgotten this frustration.

To make Internet surfing possible, I use a screen reader. These devices take information that goes to the monitor used by sighted people, intercept it, and present it by text-to-speech, electronic braille, or both. I listen to the synthetic voice and control what is read with the keyboard commands. By the way, I can’t use a mouse – you can’t click on objects if you don’t know where the cursor is.


To make using a screen reader efficient, I set it to 320 or 330 wpm; normal speech speed is about 100 words per minute. When I show this to people as part of my digital accessibility work, they are always surprised.

Screen readers can be prohibitive. We are talking about thousands of dollars, and you have to keep updating the software. There are some free, but I like to use a range on my different devices – I’m the king of the Swiss Army Knife approach.

Technology makes so much possible for me. With the Internet, I can do my own research, banking and shopping, and I get lost for hours on Wikipedia. I am sucked into old TV shows on YouTube. I can satisfy the wishes of this 10 year old who wanted to read. The internet has given me greater independence, which means the world to me.

TThese days there is a lot of entertainment with features for people who cannot see. Most Netflix movies will have an audio description option, which is useful when you can’t see the expressions on people’s faces. I also like YouTube. The screen reader asks, “Are you interested in this?” », And thanks to the algorithm, I almost always follow it.

Still, it’s hard to miss the visual aspects of the Internet. When people started putting resources online in the 90s, they were posting pictures of forms and newspaper articles because no one thought the internet would really replace paper. It is just awful to me when something is presented as a picture; I can’t work with images at all. Today’s analogue is the rise of visual data journalism. I’m sure these charts are useful and interesting, but I still hope a table or a few words go with them, so I can know what’s going on.

I’m not an Instagram user, because I’m not interested in looking at people’s dinner photos unless they describe it… well, even then I’m probably not interested! A lot of the news comes with videos that start automatically: if you go to the New Zealand Herald website, they’ll start playing a tangentially linked video and there’s no clear way to stop it, so I have to just close the tab.

It’s a thoughtless design, but it’s the CAPTCHA systems that are really bad. Imagine being told to click on a picture to prove that you are a real human and that you cannot do it. I understand their purpose, but there are better ways to achieve it. If using a digital service is negotiating a CAPTCHA, I’ll just go somewhere else. The bots will eventually get the better of them, anyway.

I probably have too many apps on my phone, but I’m still loath to delete them; maybe 15 or 20 are accessibility related. Half a dozen of my apps feature photographs, which was a total eye-opener. I was able to upload a photo of my grandfather to get an idea of ​​what he looked like in his prime. We were very close and he died when I was young.

I use technology all day, every day. I take Ubers, I check the weather forecast, I navigate to new places. The Covid Tracer app is a great example of an accessibility challenge: I try to be diligent in scanning, but I don’t know where the codes are, and if I should give my phone to someone from other to help me, that beats the goal. Paying for items is another challenge. I usually use my Apple Watch or my phone, which is so much easier than paying with cash which I can’t see, but I have to wave my hand in the air or have someone guide my arm to the Eftpos machine. I learned to navigate a lot of little complications like that.

The things that technology makes possible for me, I want them to be possible for everyone, even for those who are not as comfortable with digital devices as I am. There is so much that content creators can do to make the Internet more accessible, and it’s not much of the extra effort. Tag your links so I know what I’m clicking; don’t just say “click here”. Describe your images so that people who cannot see what is in the image. It makes such a difference.

Accessible digital content changes lives. It’s been 30 years since I started using bulletin boards on the Internet and first did my Christmas shopping online. But after all this time, I still wake up every morning and I’m like, “Isn’t the internet wonderful?

Have you been the victim of a cat fishing or an online scam? Are you making a living in the concert economy? Got a good thread on the internet? Contact us at [email protected]


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