In The Middle of A Pandemic, COVID-19 Information Remains Inaccessible to Visually Impaired People

Access to quality information, in addition to being a fundamental right, is what allows us to make consistent and informed decisions on the issues that affect us the most.

by Milagros Costabel on April 13th, 2020

In unprecedented situations such as the global COVID-19 health crisis, being able to access quality information can be the difference between life and death.

In theory, people with visual impairments should be able to access the same information as our sighted peers using assistive technology. But for the more than 285 million people with some kind of visual disability worldwide, accessibility is still a huge, unresolved problem: “Accessibility is an area that does not matter much to people today. Let’s just say it doesn’t attract attention,” says José Manuel Delicado, a tech accessibility consultant.

From official government channels to international newspapers, accessibility barriers — ranging from information embedded in images to videos with no descriptions — are present even on those sites we rely on most to inform us.

Avoidable Barriers

Close-up visualization of the coronavirus: an orb covered in viral spike peplomers.

The main function of assistive technologies used by people with visual disabilities is to allow us to access digital content in the same way as a sighted person. Screen readers, used by those with severe visual impairments, are applications that are able to transmit much of what is on the screen through a voice synthesizer.

However, not everything on the screen can be interpreted by these programs, as is the case with images that lack alternative, descriptive text: “Images are visual content, you and I have a visual disability, and obviously we miss the content within those images”, says Delicado, adding: “It goes without saying that if the entire page is made up of images and no text, then we have nothing to do”.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, much of the information comes via statistics portrayed with graphic representations, a format that also poses a problem for screen reader users. “I think one of the most complicated things is the graphic information, because most of the time that’s what’s missing”, says Manuel Cortez, a visually impaired software developer. “Suppose you get a graph that has a straight line that is divided by colors, for example, and it says from there to here, it’s blue. Maybe in the text they explain, the color blue means the number of infections, in this case, but of course you can’t figure out exactly what the percentage is”.

Images without any kind of description are present in all possible digital spaces, and in a great deal of cases, this problem also affects the information shared by governments, international organizations and traditional media. The Department of Health and Social Care of England, for example, often publishes much of its advice to the public in inaccessible formats, as evidenced in These Tweets From RNIB campaigns, a Branch of the Royal National Institute Of Blind People which advocates for the inclusion of blind people in all aspects of life.

Graphic information, although it turns out to be one of the biggest problems, is not the only impediment that visually impaired people face when it comes to accessing online information. Informative videos, which are so widespread at the moment, are meaningless to us when they only consist of images or music, or when the explanation of what is happening in them is insufficient.

“The Spanish government’s Telegram channel, the Ministry of Health, broadcasts all the advice as images,” says Juanjo Montiel, senior developer at Pasiona and winner of the Microsoft MVP Award in 2017: “The problem is not only on the web, alternative channels don’t work either”.

As in all kinds of situations, there are also quieter, and perhaps less obvious, problems. “Unlabeled forms, inadequate labels, headings without the correct hierarchy, badly made tables, unmarked lists”, explains Pedro Esquiva, Accessibility Coordinator at Ilunion Technology and Accessibility. “The contrasts on the pages must also be noticeable enough that a person with low vision can access the content properly. Strange fonts that cannot be verbalized by the screen reader are also a problem”, adds Jesús Pavón, an accessibility expert in the same company.

Complicated Problem, Simple Solution

These barriers could easily be removed with some work, awareness and understanding – not only by those in the tech industry, but also by those who create, consume and share content on the web. “The key is to pay attention,” says Delicado.

The problem with images could easily be solved if some kind of description was added to them to give us an idea of the kind of information found in them. The description of images, although it has to be implemented by the media, organizations and companies, also plays an important role in less formal spaces, such as the social networks we frequent every day.

When it comes to multimedia content, the solution has to be implemented from the beginning. “I’ve always thought that a person who makes videos must do so thinking that some person won’t be able to see them,” says Cortez. In many cases, it is enough to be a little more explanatory when making the videos, and in others, systems such as audio description – which consists of a voiceover that indicates what is happening on the screen at times when there is no dialogue – can make the difference between an accessible video and one that can only be understood by some people.

Access to quality information, in addition to being a fundamental right, is what allows us to make consistent and informed decisions on the issues that affect and matter to us. And a disability should never interfere with the exercise of these rights.

In the end, it all comes down to something as simple as understanding and awareness: “One does not normally think that a blind person is reading a web page”, says Cortez. If we consider that it is through this medium that most people with visual impairment look for information, the problem becomes more important today than ever.

We must understand that if we want these things to change and accessibility to move from concept to reality, the change must start with us. “If we are part of development teams, we must be able to raise awareness and research,” says Montiel, adding, “And if you are not part of a development team, you can always be aware of what the barriers are, and when you detect them yourself in a product, be able to pass that barrier on to the product developers so that they can fix it”.

It is actions as simple as describing images and videos, and simply putting yourself in our shoes and acting accordingly that can make the difference we want to see and achieve.

*Quotes have been translated and edited for length and clarity.