How do blind people browse the internet? 🕶

I entered the classroom and looked at the teacher's desk. The professor who usually gave the classes wasn't there, but a student who looked a bit lost had taken his place. He wasn't even looking at his computer when he was typing. Was he trying to show off, I wondered.

"Today we are not having an ordinary class", the lost looking teacher announced when the lecture started, "but I am gonna show you how I hear the Internet". So he was blind. I felt a bit embarrassed of my earlier thought of him being a show-off. 😳 I closed my eyes, I wanted to hear the Internet too without what my eyes could reveal me.

The teacher fired up the web browser and navigated to BBC news. We were about to hear some news apparently. At this point he told us the two key strategies he and some other blind people he knows use to navigate online: instead of letting the screen reader read everything on the web page, they will navigate either by hyperlinks or titles. We tried to navigate by hyperlinks first.

"Skip to content, Home, News, About us, Skip to content, Terms of service, Privacy policy, Skip to content…", the screen reader started to utter when the teacher went from one link to another. He said that it's utterly useless to navigate by links on this site. And I agreed, the list of non-menanigful links just continued on and on. When were going to hear the first news headline? Probably after 15 minutes of non-sense links… 😒

But wait! The screen reader did say "skip to content" many times! 😃 Could this be a way of accessing the news faster? The teacher told us that he usually doesn't bother to use such links because the fact that they are there shows little BBC cares about really making their site accessible to all, and that such links don't even work most of the time. So much for that idea. 😅

We abandoned the links and moved to navigating by titles. And whoa! The screen reader started to read titles of actual news articles! This strategy worked, so we proceeded into an article the teacher wanted to read more about. Finally we were going to hear something we came there for. 😊 The title navigation strategy found the title of the news article on the article's own page as well. Now let's make the screen reader read what's underneath the title.

"Share on facebook, share on twitter, share on google plus… other similar stories…", the screen reader spoke. Not again! 😱 Another never ending list of things we don't want to hear about. And whatever had happened to "skip to content" this time around anyways? The list went on and on and by the time we hit the actual text of the news article, the teacher told he had already forgotten what the news was supposed to be about… And frankly, so had I. 😧

Well, we didn't stop there, the teacher wanted to give the title navigation another try. But in vain, from the title of the current news article, the screen reader just jumped into the titles of the similar news. It was hopeless… There was no fast way of reading a news article. Every time one would have to go through a long list of boilerplate links.

The end result: If you are blind, you had better get your news from somewhere else than BBC. 😔

Take home message

So, blind people navigate the web by titles and links. This also means that those should be descriptive enough. The teacher told us that way too often the case of the links is that they don't describe their target at all. They might be too generic, such as "click here", "here", ">" or "this page". And those make it extra difficult for the blind to know what the page is about. I left the lecture having learned way more than on an average usability lecture. Sometimes you have to close your eyes in order to open them even wider. ☺️