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accessibility Additional Needs and Disabilities Blind IT SEND

Subtitles for the Blind: Unexpected Outcomes of Accessibility

Did you know that Blind people sometimes need subtitles on videos?

Strange and nonsensical as it may seem, like a ‘how to speak French’ book being translated into French, this is a very real and very necessary accessibility requirement. This is because Blind users who watch online videos need any written words on screen, such as title cards or diagrams, to be transcribed so that their screen readers can read them as a transcript. Once explained this seems pretty clear, but why would a sighted person ever guess that this was a requirement? Not knowing this, someone writing subtitles might assume that just because the text was already on screen there is no need to write it out again in the subtitles. This is one of the many challenges to overcome when making online spaces accessible: not all accessibility requirements make sense to an able-bodied reader on first blush.

Another example is tables. If a table is laid out with labelled columns and labelled rows, the top corner of a table is often left blank. However, this is also a problem because often a screenreader reads across the rows one at a time, and the Blind person is creating a mental picture of where the different pieces go. If there is a section left blank, it can cause the columns to become out of step with the rows making the entire table impossible for the Blind person to properly parse. The solution to this is to mark the blank space with some alt text that the sighted user never needs to see but which allows a screen reader user to understand how the columns and rows fit together. Once again, a relatively simple fix that nevertheless may not have seemed necessary to many sighted people.

There are many other such examples, of things that may be vitally important for some Disabled users but are unfortunately often completely mystifying for able bodied content producers to understand. To face this problem, the key weapons in our arsenal have to be curiosity and open mindedness. Being curious about the reasons behind accessibility guidelines can help us gain a greater understanding of them. Meanwhile, being open minded to new information, even if it may seem strange or nonsensical to us at first, can allow us to avoid the pitfalls that can keep our online spaces from being accessible to all.

About Theo!

“Hi! My name’s Theo Greiner and I work in the Web and Digital Services Team at Surrey County Council. I’m also on the Autism spectrum and use that experience to write articles on accessibility on behalf of the Council to get people thinking about Accessibility and Disability. I write in hopes of shifting people’s ideas about Disability towards ones that treat Disabled people with the respect and agency they deserve. I hope you enjoy them.”