, posted: 10-May-2012 19:27
I was born blind, so as a kid when my mother would drag me around the supermarket, it bored me out of my brain. Imagine just walking, walking, walking, not being able to see all the delicious treats you were passing. It was monotonous, although I did, of course, lobby pretty hard for some treat or other. As an adult in a pre-Web world, if a blind person needed to get supermarket shopping done, we'd either ask a paid reader who we'd hire to go through the mail and run other errands, or walk into the supermarket and ask if a staff member could be spared to help us do a shop. In either case, we realised we were taking someone else's time, so we'd generally not be too fussy about what we ended up with. I believe it was around 1995 that the Woolworths Home Shopping site came online. Initially, there were one or two accessibility issues with the site, but the site's developers couldn't have been more willing to work with blind users to get the wrinkles ironed out. When they were, I was simply astounded. I honestly had no idea how much choice people were confronted with on a daily basis on such seemingly mundane matters as what type of bread of cereal to purchase. For the first time ever, I had a concept of the true depth of selection in a supermarket. We use the now rebranded Countdown Online Shopping site regularly. It's empowering, it's life changing, it's fully accessible, and it makes a huge difference. Here's a bit about how it works, why it works, and how we use it. JAWS, the software I use to verbalise and display in Braille what's going on in Windows, is known as a screenreader. However in some instances, it no longer reads the screen, since there are better ways of getting at the needed information. In Internet Explorer, Firefox, and more recently Google Chrome, JAWS loads the HTML directly into a buffer that I can navigate. This has a number of advantages. First, it allows the page to be presented in a way that makes more auditory sense. If, for example, you have a page in nice, neat columns, then it wouldn't make sense for that page to be read in a linear fashion, left to right, top to bottom. Second, because I am interacting directly with the HTML, I can use a range of hotkeys to jump around the page. I can easily navigate by heading, form field, table and much more, all with simple key presses. It's very efficient, particularly when the page is well designed. When I log into the Countdown site, all of its links have clear, sensible text labels. The site makes good use of heading tags in the HTML. This makes it easy to move between search results, and to other key parts of the site such as the aisles, and the trolley so I can be sure I haven't blown the budget. Pressing a single key places me in the edit field so I can type what I'm looking for, and pres Enter to activate the search. It's a great experience, and it sure beats wandering around the aisles with someone who'd most likely rather be doing something else. From reading newspapers independently, to doing all kinds of shopping, to banking with privacy and dignity, the Web has meant there's never been a better time in history to be blind. And the good news is, for web developers, it's not hard. Just follow practices of good web design. Use real tables, real HTML headings, give links a text label...all things that benefit mobile devices and other use cases too. Well done to Countdown for getting it right.
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