If a website is designed haphazardly, it doesn’t just look messy; it can be messy for someone who can’t see, too.
"News apps are just completely frustrating," said Christopher Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. "Blind people, the way we deal with this, is we share information about what apps tend to work, so I don't tend to download something unless I have a pretty good sense that I'm going to be able to deal with it."
The problem with much of the web—and, in particular, its newsier corners—is that it's designed without consideration for people who aren't navigating by sight. In many cases, the busier a website looks, the harder it is for people who use tools like audio screen-readers to get where they want to go, or even figure out where to go in the first place.
But Danielsen says design for accessibility is getting much better, albeit largely by accident. "The mobile world is taking over where the web used to be dominant," he told me. "For blind people as well as for sighted people in many cases, that's a good thing."
A World Without Flash
It makes sense that the shift to mobile—and the stripped down, sparse aesthetic that in many cases comes with it—makes web navigation easier for someone using screen readers and other tools designed to help people with varying levels of sightedness. Mobile sites often mean a more pleasant experience for sighted users, too.
Retailers like Amazon and grocery-delivery service Peapod have great mobile sites, Danielsen says, where most news organizations are still lagging. He’ll often log onto a website's mobile iteration as a way to cut through the clutter. (Check out m.theatlantic.com/technology, for instance.)
Things have also improved as designers move away from Adobe Flash and toward HTML5, which allows for more labeling coded into the designs that screen readers can identify for someone who can't clearly see what's on the screen.
"If you're using a screen reader, you can often tell there are buttons there, but you can't necessarily tell what they do," said Danielsen. "With Flash, the screen reader will say something like 'unlabeled button zero,' and I'm like, 'Great. I have no idea what that does.' I could hit that button and blow up the world."
There are still plenty of obstacles. Danielsen says he "routinely" visits a news site where a video is posted but there's no way to tell how to control the player. And the web has inherited an ambiguity problem from television, where people on screen are identified with text on the screen but not verbally. For someone who can't read printed text, that kind of labeling can be "very frustrating," Danielsen says.
At the same time, the Internet has provided everyone a content smorgasbord. If someone's annoyed by one site's functionality, there are plenty of other places they can go to get their information fix. This should be a cautionary reminder to news organizations who aren't thinking proactively about accessibility, but there are all kinds of realities about journalism that journalists are more reluctant to acknowledge than anyone else. (See also: futility of paywalls, death of print, the newspapers not worth saving, etc.)