“There’s no point if an app is 75 percent barrier-free” – digital


If Louis Braille was 15 years old these days, he might never have invented Braille. He didn’t need her at all. At the age of 15, the blind Frenchman developed a braille system with which he could write and read so quickly that others believed at first that he had learned the texts by heart. Only after his death was Braille officially taught in schools for the blind. His invention was a revolution – and yet it seems very limited compared to the possibilities that are open today.

Today’s 15-year-old Louis would have a smartphone in his pocket, always close at hand. He could simply have texts read aloud on it, he could use the dictation function and use navigation apps to get to the places he has to reach in everyday life. One of these apps that many blind and visually impaired people use today is, for example, “Seeing AI”. It was developed by technology giant Microsoft. With the help of the mobile phone camera, Seeing AI reads out texts and documents, recognizes people, products, light, colors, money and describes the surroundings, even if there is still room for improvement.

Apps help to recognize traffic lights and find supermarkets

The app is a “Swiss Army Knife for the Blind,” says Erdin Ciplak. Ciplak knows his community on Youtube, Instagram or Tiktok better under the name “Mr. BlindLife”. The 35-year-old from Hamburg, with his two percent eyesight, is legally blind and posts short films about his everyday life on the internet: It’s about shopping and traveling and about educating people about prejudices. More than 130,000 people follow him on Tiktok.

In his videos, the trained social worker repeatedly presents aids for blind and visually impaired people. He recently tested a navigation app for the blind that a German start-up team from Ettlingen developed. Routago, as the app is called, gives users precise instructions on how to find their way around: “Two meters straight ahead. Now on the footpath” or “Now on the right on the stairs”, the phone sounds when Ciplak is looking for the way to the supermarket. He recommends the app to others, despite the potential for improvement. Another app that he talks about in an interview with the SZ is called “Ampelpilot”. With it, users can recognize when a traffic light is green – practical, as many traffic lights are not equipped with built-in signaling devices for the blind. In addition to these examples, there are numerous other apps that have come onto the market in recent years to make life easier for blind and visually impaired people.

However, none of these apps would be of any use to their target group without built-in screen reader software. As early as 2009, Apple, a pioneer in the field, introduced its “VoiceOver” user aid. If you switch on “VoiceOver”, a voice output reads out all icons, labels and texts – so you can navigate on the touchscreen, even if you can’t see the screen. Although Android cell phones now have the same function, here it is called “TalkBack”, Apple products have always had a monopoly among blind and visually impaired people due to their ease of use. But: “Android is now catching up quite a bit,” says Ciplak.

“Only making calls is boring in the long run”

However, neither websites nor most apps are anything but accessible. “All apps that are not specifically for the blind, developers have to build in such a way that they can be operated with voice over,” explains Ciplak. Often icons are not labeled, text is not saved as such, but as an image. A screen reader can therefore not see anything. To a blind person, it’s like the screen is just black. “There’s no point if an app is only 75 percent barrier-free. It must always be 100 percent barrier-free,” says Erdin Ciplak – otherwise it cannot be used. The Corona warning app does well for him, here you would have made an effort with the accessibility.

While young people grew up with smartphones and quickly get used to the new technology, older people often need support. It is often about very specific requests: “One of my participants absolutely wanted to see” Dahoam is Dahoam “in the BR media library,” reports Friedhelm Turinsky, who offers iPhone learning courses for blind and visually impaired people at the education center in Nuremberg. “So we decided together that she always gets a notification when a new episode comes out.”

Turinsky wrote a wish list to Tim Cook by email at Christmas 2017, in which he asked for the “Accessible” section to be introduced in the App Store. He has not yet received an answer. Last year he noticed that digital communication has also become increasingly important for blind people since the beginning of the pandemic. “If I can do normal lessons again, I should offer even more courses. More and more people want to deal with them, only making phone calls becomes boring in the long run,” says the course director. You can save yourself the purchase of an expensive PC with the smartphone.

The private sector is lagging behind when it comes to accessibility

Not only blind people, also deaf people, people with intellectual disabilities and many more benefit from barrier-free offers. “Digital accessibility is important for all people with disabilities,” says Simone Miesner, deputy head of the Federal Accessibility Center. She refers to the demographic change: “Older people with visual impairments can also use accessible websites and apps digitally.” She regards it as a success that websites and apps of public bodies have had to be barrier-free since last year due to the barrier-free information technology regulation. Even if the private sector is unfortunately still lagging behind, said Miesner.

The reason for this problem: When apps or websites are tested on users, the test subjects hardly ever include people with disabilities. “Only a few people with disabilities end up as test subjects in the databases of the agencies for test person recruitment. Many want to focus on ‘normal users’ in usability tests,” says Detlev Fischer, who has been developing test procedures for accessibility for years. So it’s no wonder that most developers don’t even know that many people can’t use their app.

Fischer is one of those who want to change that. He heads the Usability team, in which people with disabilities test digital offers. On the one hand, they check compliance with international standards for accessibility and, on the other hand, whether people with different disabilities can perform very practical tasks. For example, can you use the search function in an app or register on a website? Erdin Ciplak is also part of the team.

Fischer’s verdict so far has been rather sobering: “We often find serious problems in the apps we test.” Nonetheless, he believes that standards that were previously only voluntary could become mandatory in a few years. Apple products already have their own programming interfaces for labeling elements of an app. Developers would also have to insert the description, just like you know it from alternative texts to images.

The fact that visually impaired people have extremely different usage behavior makes testing more complicated. They usually have very high requirements for accessibility and are therefore well suited as test subjects, says Fischer. Nevertheless: “It is difficult to draw a cross-section because everyone learns and understands differently.” The most important thing is that you can customize an app to your own needs, says Friedhelm Turinsky.

While Erdin Ciplak works a lot with his residual eyesight via extreme magnification, others with the same eyesight only use speech output. And there are also Braille keyboards for computers that you can use to read – the keyboards just don’t fit in your trouser pocket so well, so a smartphone is more practical. The Louis Braille of today might have become a programmer with the aim of developing accessible apps.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *