Internet brings major advantages for the blind and visually impaired

Photo: European Commission

Internet banking, online shopping, google searches – the internet has made our life much more convenient. And despite the fact that it is a highly visual medium, blind people, too, are increasingly taking advantage of the internet. But how do they perceive it and what are some of the difficulties of mastering the World Wide Web for those without eyesight?

Photo: European Commission
Michal Jelínek writes an email at Prague’s Tyflokabinet, the internet lab of Czech Blind United, an organization that assists blind and visually impaired citizens. Mr. Jelínek, who himself is blind, has been working as an internet instructor for the organization for many years. For anyone with eyesight, it’s difficult to imagine how exactly blind people perceive the internet. Like most blind internet users, Michal Jelínek uses a screen reader program that allows him to read the screen via text-to-speech output.

The program Mr. Jelínek uses is called JAWS – the most widely used software for the blind and visually impaired. It can also transform text on the screen into Braille text on a special display – however, not all blind internet users own a computer with an expensive refreshable Braille display. What is the hardest aspect of using the internet via a screen reader program?

“The most difficult aspect is the fact that internet pages are so overwhelmingly busy and that there are so many different and sometimes superfluous elements on them. For those who can see, it is easy to skip over the aspects that are not interesting, ads and so on, but for us blind internet users, it takes us a while to sort through all the content and get an understanding of how the page is structured.”

Once they have learned how a page is organized, blind internet users can navigate the text portions of it, read articles or do searches. Only the purely visual parts like photos cannot be rendered through screen reader programs.

Mr. Jelínek teaches between five and ten courses a week. Despite its challenges, the internet opens up a huge realm of advantages for blind people, he says. They can read online versions of newspapers that they otherwise would not be able to read, and even do online shopping.

“I mostly buy CDs and books, but sometimes even gifts, clothing, and electronics. It is a big advantage for me because I don’t like going to regular shops and have the salespeople impose themselves on me. I prefer to shop online at my own leisure, to read the customer reviews and so for me, online shopping is definitely a big draw.”

Still, compared to the mainstream population, only a small part of the blind population has access to the internet. Will this change in the future? I put the question to Mr. Jelínek.

“I think the situation will improve. The younger generation of blind people, just like with those who are not visually impaired, start using the internet at an early age and much more intensely. Of course, it will always be more difficult and demanding for them to use the internet than for those who have eyesight, but it is just a question of practicing often and being patient.”