The emotional effects of poor online accessibility

I thought I’d share something I wrote for one of my business blogs. I think it’s something that some of my readers here will relate to as well.

I don’t talk about emotions a lot. I talk about tips or facts or things I’ve learned. I enjoy educating people and helping them to make their sites more accessible to me as a screenreader user, but I’ve never really shared about how it feels when I have to abandon my virtual trolley or ask my partner to help me complete a simple purchase. It’s not fun!

I saw an article about some research into the emotions experienced when disabled people encounter inaccessible websites, and that prompted me to add my thoughts. If this is something that interests you, you can read /the F word in online accessibility – frustration

Blind bride to be – choosing our venue

This is the next part in my blind bride-to-be series following on from my we got engaged and wedding fairs posts.

I’m not going to talk about my venue here. There will be posts about our actual big day after the day. Most of my guests don’t know where it’s going to be yet, and I don’t want my blog readers to know more than the guests! These first posts in the series are more about the planning process in general, and the extra things that you may want to think about or do differently if you have a visual impairment.

Every wedding is different. Every couple is different. I don’t want my visual impairment to be centre stage on the big day because I don’t find it particularly interesting or relevant in terms of defining me as a person or our relationship as a couple. So really it’s more about the planning process for me – getting help when I can’t see pictures of things – getting help to visualise the things that I can’t see, and deciding a colour scheme when I have never seen colours and can’t express my preferences in that respect.

So this post is going to focus on choosing the venue.

Some people have it all sorted – they know exactly where they want to get married. Others have to do a bit of research.

At first we considered various options, but the early ones all had some element of movement in common, and it is a lot easier when everything happens in the same place. You have a base. Your guests don’t need to worry about how they’re going to get from A to B – especially good if they don’t drive. I nearly got stranded once because the people I knew at the wedding had got stuck in traffic and missed the service. Fortunately I found a colleague whom I hadn’t seen for ages, but it could have been interesting working out how I get with my guide dog from a little church in the middle of nowhere to the actual ceremony!

Also, if you want some kind of evening event and are going to hire a venue, that venue probably offers whole-day packages that may end up cheaper or more convenient than other things that you’d been planning.

Making a shortlist

There are loads of wedding venues, so you have to start the narrowing down process somewhere. There were a couple of places that we’d already visited – either as wedding guests at other weddings, at business events, or even wedding fairs.

Going to the wedding fair, particularly the regional one that wasn’t hosted by a particular venue, also gave us some ideas about places that offered what we were after, but that we hadn’t heard of before.

The wedding fair generated a lot of shiny leaflets that I couldn’t read, so I needed someone to work with me on sifting through all the information. I know some brides like stacks of glossy magazines, but I did find myself wishing for something a bit more sustainable like an online exhibitors’ list with website links. I was heartened by some of the exhibitors who took my details and then emailed me information afterwards – meaning I could access details of the venue myself. This didn’t get round the issue of pictures though and many venues let their images speak for themselves, rather than giving any kind of useful descriptions of their function rooms.

Fortunately S is very much involved in the planning and we talked about the pictures and venues before putting our shortlist together. We ended up with 5 on the list – some places we’d been before, others new ones. The length of your shortlist will depend on how long you have to go round looking at venues. I think if we hadn’t found anything we liked, we would have looked at some more, but five was a manageable number to start with.

Setting up initial meetings

We’d both booked a week off and the plan was to set up the meetings during that week. I called the wedding co-ordinators to set them up. We had a couple on one day, but I didn’t put them too close together so that we had time to drive to the venues without feeling rushed, and it also meant we could have lunch at one of them if we felt like checking out the restaurant.

One of the venues deselected itself by being particularly inflexible. Some venues will give you a minimum spend budget and let you allocate it as you want to. Others will try to be really prescriptive about numbers for each part of the day, and this didn’t work for us. Then there were four!

I know some couples tell the venue if someone is visually impaired. This can be useful if you want them to describe the venue, but I chose not to mention it. They’d find out soon enough when I got there and I didn’t want to make a big deal of it. All they really needed to know was that they were meeting with a potential customer, and the other information that most of them took about desired dates, party numbers etc.

What’s important to you?

Before we went to any of the meetings, we came up with a list of criteria to think about for each venue. This could be things like:

  • Cost – because only the super-rich don’t factor this in! It matters – both in terms of getting value for money and making sure you’re not going to be spending the next 20 years paying off the wedding!
  • Distance – how far do you want to travel? Is public transport important? (I’ve trekked all over the country for weddings before, so this wasn’t high on the agenda, and we’d fixed the basic area before doing the shortlist. But if one potential venue is a lot closer than one of the others, it might play a role.
  • Venue – what rooms are available and do you like them?
  • Wedding co-ordinator – how interested are they in you as a couple? How willing are they to work in things that are important to you? You can’t base your choice purely on the wedding co-ordinator because people move on and don’t always stay in the same role, but you’re naturally going to click with some people more than others. Can you imagine yourself working with this person?
  • How important is the date to you? Even over a year in advance, not all of the venues could offer our first choice as it had already been snapped up.
  • Do you have any special requests? Due to my sensory needs, a breakout room in the evening was important to us and we needed to find out if the venues could accommodate that. Can alternative arrangements be made for the toast if one of you can’t drink alcohol? Do you have preferences about the roomsreserved for the wedding party or the wedding suite? Are there things that you want to customise to make them reflect you as a couple?
  • Are there any restrictions on suppliers? Do you care?
  • If there are wedding packages, how well do they fit with how you imagine the day?
  • What options are there for food and how well will any dietary requirements be accommodated?

We didn’t fill out the table in the end, but having it helped us to focus on what things were important to us – where there was room for negotiation, and which criteria were deal breakers if they could not be met.

Going to the meetings

All of the meetings followed the same general format – we had a chat over coffee about what we were looking for and what the venue could offer. After that, we walked around the venue, looking at the areas where the wedding ceremony, wedding breakfast, and evening event could take place, and also having a look at the bridal suite.

I tended to do more of the talking – mainly because although I’ve never organised a wedding before, I have organised conferences and other large events at work. I know my way of doing things surprised a couple of people – I was focussing on facts, figures, details – and less carried away with the emotional side of it all. That’s just how my brain is wired! I guess some of those meetings go a bit differently. For me it just felt like being prepared.

I built a better rapport with people who answered me directly when I asked questions. I don’t care if you don’t do eye contact – I don’t either – but looking at my partner the whole time when it was my question is really quite rude and it doesn’t usually result in people getting our business.

I think the main difference was that people described the rooms more – both S and the wedding co-ordinators. I think it’s important to take someone with you if you can’t see the rooms yourself, because people are likely to portray their own venue in the best possible way whereas someone you take can be more objective and make comparisons with the other venues that you have visited. It was also good for me to walk around the spaces and get a feel for how big they were, where the chairs would go, how the rooms could be set up in the evening etc. Walking around a space – well being guided around a space – helps me to visualise it better and think whether this might be the place where I wanted to have our ceremony.

Many of the wedding venues that also do fairs suggest that you come back to see the rooms when they’re decorated, but for me, not having the rooms cluttered up with people made it easier for me to imagine what they looked like and how we would move around between the different areas throughout the day.

Making our choice

This was not as easy as I thought it would be. I had my heart set on one venue most of the way through the week, but we changed our mind at the end. It felt pretty easy to discount two of the four, but the decision between the final two venues was harder. Both would have been great – but it came down to looking at what each venue had going for it and then making the choice. Fortunately we both felt the same!

I do think it really helped that we went to the venues, talked to someone there, and physically walked around them. I get a lot of information online, but it’s good to get a better idea of how the venue is when you get there – because even if you can see them, pictures don’t always tell the full story!

The whole wedding planning process is something that we are doing together. Ok, I’m doing a lot of the spreadsheets and there will be things that S won’t be as involved in – bride-related things – but whether it’s the groom or someone else you trust, I think it’s really important to have people who will give you honest feedback about how things look, because you don’t always get this in the sales materials, and the sales materials aren’t always accessible.

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Brushing up on my Turkish with Duolingo

A long time ago, back when I began learning Turkish, I downloaded and tested a couple of language learning apps. Duolingo wasn’t one of them, but I was generally unimpressed with the accessibility of language apps when being used by people who need access technology. Just to be clear – this is usually something that could be fixed by inclusive design, rather than a problem with the access technology.

I didn’t think any more about it until one of my friends started talking about Duolingo and how he was going to test it out to help him learn German.

I used to have Turkish lessons every week, and I was quite proficient at one point –at least reading and listening to it –speaking was always my least favourite activity. But life happened and I hadn’t done anything with it for about 5 years. I thought if the app were accessible, it might be a nice thing to try. So I downloaded it as well and have been using it for just over a week. This is what I think of it so far.

Mixture of tasks

I was a language teacher who didn’t take her own good advice. I worked extra hard on the things that I was already good at, and neglected those that I wasn’t. This meant that I got even better at reading, and neglected speaking. It’s a bad idea!

This isn’t the app for you if you only want to work on one or two skills – one of my students told me today that he didn’t like it because there was too much emphasis on writing – but I like the way that you get a mixture of tasks. The subjects are broken down into topic areas and you are asked to do things like:

  • Matching pairs of words in your native language with words in the target language.
  • Listening to a phrase and selecting those words in the target language.
  • Reading a phrase and selecting those words in the new language.
  • Translating a phrase from the target language to your native language.
  • Translating a phrase from your native language to the target language.
  • Speaking a phrase in the target language.
  • You don’t know what order the tasks will come in and you can’t influence it, which means you get a good mixture. Actually, you can ensure that you don’t get either speaking or listening tasks for one hour if you’re unable to speak or listen at that time. I don’t know if you are penalised for repeatedly doing this.

    So, this way of doing things keeps the lesson interesting, and it also prevents people from focussing too much on the things that they find easiest.

    Learning or revising

    I do think there is a big difference between learning and revising. This kind of app is great for me because I’ve had a good foundation in my Turkish classes and what I’m doing with the app is revising existing knowledge. Ok, I’ve learned some new words – I don’t think I ever knew the words for turtle or crab before, but I understand the grammar and the mechanics behind how the words fit together, or which circumstances mean that a word gets extra or different letters. There are explanations and it’s possible to ask questions in the forums, but for me this is more of a supplementary method to practice and develop something I already know, rather than a way of learning a whole new language. I like the flexibility of being able to ask specific questions, look for relevant vocabulary to me, experiment with different ways of saying things, and knowing exactly why a mistake was a mistake. I don’t feel that an app like this ticks all of these boxes, so I would be less likely to use it for a completely new language.

    Having said that, I’ll exhaust the Turkish materials sooner or later and I’ve paid for a year’s membership. So who knows – maybe I’ll try the Dutch course afterwards. Still, I think I’d want something else to go alongside the app if I decide I’m serious about learning Dutch.

    Points and motivation

    I won’t go through the whole system about how you gain points, but you gain more points the more lessons you complete and the less mistakes you make. There is a system of hearts, which are like lives that you lose each time you make a mistake. I have a subscription, which means I can have unlimited hearts. This means I still lose points for mistakes, but I don’t have to stop learning until a new heart appears in my account.

    You can see how you are doing in relation to a group of 50 learners. Last week I didn’t know anyone on my board, but I wanted to move up into the next league. Another learner and I were both after 5th place at one point and seeing that she’d overtaken me on the score board was a motivation to do a couple more lessons. I ended up in fourth place and the top 15 moved up into the next league. The gamification can definitely help with the learning, but the learning needs to come first. I can’t be stressing out about what other people are doing on the board, or letting it take over my life when I should be doing other things! I have that kind of personality that really focuses on the numbers, so whilst it’s definitely a motivator, I need to make sure I’ve really learned things and not just be in the pursuit of more points!

    You can also use your points to buy new hearts if you don’t have unlimited ones, and some languages allow you to unlock more content with the rewards that you gain for completing levels. Unfortunately there isn’t any bonus content for Turkish yet, but there are some stories that you can buy if you’re learning German. I think it depends on how popular the language is and whether any additional content has been written yet.

    Accessibility for blind users

    Overall I have been very impressed with the level of accessibility for this app. Turkish is supported by VoiceOver, the screenreader used for iPhones, and all of the Turkish content is used in the Turkish voice. There are a lot of languages and I can’t comment on how well they are supported with VoiceOver.

    Blind users can do all of the activities. Sighted users have a bit more help in the matching exercises because of the use of pictures, but blind users can take advantage of the information in the tips.

    Having witnessed a sighted user using the app, I think that someone using VoiceOver is likely to be slower. This is not a fault of the app – it’s just that working with a screenreader means you need to read everything as we can’t scan the screen as sighted users can. If I want to compete with sighted users, it may take me longer to get my points, but ultimately it’s not about that – learning is my real goal!

    Another small thing is that I need to memorise the sentence I have to say because I can’t review it once the record button has been pressed. This is also not something that the designer needs to fix – it’s just one of those things. If it becomes too much for me to remember, I’ll just quickly write the sentence down on my laptop and read from there.

    The only thing I struggle with, and which caused much cursing when I lost points, was that occasionally there is a delay when it comes to recording the spoken tasks. If you press and hold the button and there is no delay, you get the usual press and hold sound. If there is a delay, a sighted person can see that the app has not started recording yet, but a blind person can’t. This means that I sometimes started speaking too soon, had finished speaking by the time the recording started, and as a result lost the point – even though what I said was right. I have suggested to Duolingo that a sound could be played once the recording had started, and a representative replied very quickly to say that my comments had been passed on and they were looking into it.

    The only other minor thing is that if you are learning a language that has short stories (Turkish doesn’t) the buttons are not labelled correctly for screenreader users – they are all just called “button”. This could easily be fixed in the coding of the app and would bring the stories up to the same standard as the exercises. To be fair, I’ve only looked at the German stories, so can’t comment on others. This doesn’t make the stories inaccessible though – you have to click the button to the left of whichever option you want to choose.

    But overall I’m impressed and think that they did a really good job at designing an accessible app.

    Final thoughts

    Using the app has definitely helped me to get back into the swing of doing some Turkish every day, and this is what you really need if you want to get better at using a language. Little and often is good, and that’s exactly what you can do with this app – whether you put in 5 minutes at a time or half an hour. You’ve got it on your phone, so it’s always with you if you find you have a bit of spare time for language practice.

    There’s a lot of repetition, which helps when it comes to memorising new words.

    I like the variety, and I like the fact that you’re given tips about alternative answers or small typing errors that didn’t cost you a point, but that you should look out for next time.

    I am slower at typing on my phone than my laptop. That’s a fact. As long as I’m not writing long texts, I can live with that. I think I’ve shied away from using apps for language learning because I don’t enjoy chatting on my phone, but this is just individual sentences, so I don’t mind.

    The speaking tasks are good for pronunciation, but not for spontaneous speaking practice. This isn’t something that can be measured like the other activities, and I don’t think this is a need that an app like this can meet – which comes back to my original point about using this app as part of a language learning strategy, rather than relying on it entirely. I’m not just saying that so as not to put language teachers out of a job! I think there is value to be gained from spontaneous communication with others in the target language, and I also benefited a lot from working with a Turkish teacher so that you really understand how the language works.

    But when it comes to practicing – absolutely – I am definitely learning new vocabulary and getting back into the swing of thinking in Turkish.

    Finally, Duo is an owl, so it has to be good! Right?

    Have you tried Duolingo?

    If so, what did you think? If you’re using it now and want to be friends, let me know and I’ll share my ID.

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Thank you Pip box – beauty subscription box emails product leaflets to blind customers

Before Christmas I emailed a couple of beauty boxes with an idea. The Pip Box responded to me and has now made a change to their process that makes my life much easier as a visually impaired customer who can’t read their printed leaflets.

The Pip Box is a cruelty-free and vegan monthly subscription box. I’m not vegan, but the cruelty-free aspect is important to me, which is why I started getting this box last autumn. 10% of the profits from the box go to the charity Animal Free Research UK, and the box is named after Pip, the owner’s dog.

Anyone who has been following this blog for a while will know that I love trying out new products and discovering new brands, which is why I subscribe to beauty boxes. A lot of the time, you don’t know what will be in the box until it arrives. I have several ways of getting round the problem:

  • If S is around, I’ll just ask him what I’ve got – but he isn’t always around right at the time I want to know, and I don’t expect him to drop everything.
  • I can try scanning the card or leaflet and using an app on my phone to identify the text. This sometimes works, but is less successful if there is shiny paper or if the text is in columns.
  • I can use the same app to scan the products – sometimes this works, but it doesn’t read all of the writing. It might be enough to identify what kind of product it is, the brand, or some random information like what to do if you get it in your eyes. I use this method all the time if I can’t remember what something is, but it’s not so good for finding out about new things. It also depends on the colour and type of writing – the more unusual the packaging is, the harder it is for the scanner to read.
  • Sometimes people talk about their boxes on social media. Sometimes YouTubers and bloggers are fast to get their content up, so I can find out what is in my box too.

But all of these methods are a bit hit and miss for one reason or another.

Leaflet by email

This is why I asked if my Pip Box leaflet could be emailed to me. I can then read the email with the screenreader on my phone or laptop and know exactly what’s in the box. The company websites are also on the leaflet, so I know where to go if I want to blog about one of the products or find out a bit more about it.

This month, Sofi emailed the leaflet to me so I could identify the products when my box arrived. As far as I am aware, the Pip Box is the first beauty box to do this.

As a customer, it makes me happy because it helps me to enjoy the subscription independently without having to rely on others, wait, or use solutions that may or may not work.

As a company, it is one more step to build into the process, but it didn’t cost a lot to add this improved accessibility – only the time to build the new step into the process and the time to send off the email with the information.

Sofi from the Pip Box said “Here at The Pip Box we’re always looking for ways to improve our customer service and subscribers’ experience. When Kirsty got in touch to ask for a digital box leaflet we thought it was a great idea for visually impaired customers. We’ve since added this option to our website, under our FAQ’s section so future customers are aware.”

What was in this month’s box?

In the January, “refresh edit” we had:

  1. A tinted lip balm from Love Byrd (extra points for stating that it’s pink in the description because the name pucker doesn’t really give this away)
  2. 6 shades of nude eye shadow palette from cougar
  3. Black tea body scrub from Delhicious
  4. Face mask and mask brush from May Beauty
  5. Wild rose body lotion from Weleda

I’ve only heard of one of these brands before, so this month’s box was a great way for me to discover some new ones.

Weleda is most often talked about because of its skinfood, but I actually prefer their range of body lotions, so I was pleased to get a mini of one of them in this month’s box.

I’m most interested to try out the mask – I haven’t used it yet, but plan to tonight. I usually apply masks with my fingers, but I can see how a brush would help to get it all even, and this brush is super soft!

A lip balm is a good handbag staple, especially for this time of year when it’s cold and the lips need some extra protection. I like the ones in stick form too because you can easily apply them on the go.

I usually use sugar-based scrubs, but I like to see companies repurposing things such as tea leaves and coffee grounds so that they don’t go to waste.

The palette is something I won’t use because I only use cream and liquid eye shadows, but I’ve passed it on to someone who was really pleased with it, so it didn’t go to waste!

Once I had got my box, I could identify the lip gloss, brush, palette and scrub by touch. I’ve had Weleda lotions before, so was pretty confident that the tube was the lotion and the sachet was the mask, but I scanned them with my app to be sure. It generally won’t read all the information, but generally one or two words are enough to tell things apart, and it helps when you know what you’re looking for.

Final thoughts

I often highlight things that don’t work for me or that make my user experience more difficult, because I want to help educate companies about the often small changes that they can make to improve the accessibility of their websites, products, or user journey. I also like it if I can make people think about things they otherwise wouldn’t have considered.

But I also like to highlight good practice when I come across it because there are good news stories too. Sometimes you just need to ask and the change will be made for you.
So, if you’re looking for a cruelty-free and vegan-friendly subscription box from a company that listens to customers, I can recommend the Pip Box. If you’re visually impaired, now you can ask for a digital copy of the leaflet so you can know what’s in your box.

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Braile signs can be useful – but it’s still possible to get it wrong!

I don’t usually cross post from my other blogs, but I know some of my readers here are interested in accessibility too.

A recent visit to a hotel got me thinking about Braille signs, and how they don’t always make their point. This is especially true when they’re so high up on the wall that you have no chance of reaching them!

When we started looking around, we noticed a few other problems.

Here’s my post why these Braille signs didn’t help me find my way around”.

Life of a mature student – TM111 – my first module

I wrote some thoughts about my first module in this post about the first four months of my degree, but my idea is to write a summary post about each module once I’ve finished it. So here are some thoughts about TM111.

As the title says, it’s an introduction to computing and IT. I had some prior knowledge in a few of the areas that we covered. This definitely helped me, but I don’t think it was necessary as all of the information should be in the materials. This didn’t mean that I didn’t go elsewhere on occasion, but that was more about my learning style than a lack of information. Sometimes when you’re stuck, you just need to find someone who can explain it in a different way.

The content

The module is split up into three very distinct blocks. This is great in terms of helping you to focus on one thing at a time. A bit less great if you really don’t enjoy one of the blocks, but if this is the case, you do feel a sense of achievement when you get it finished and know you’ll never have to see it again!

Block 1 – the digital world. This was probably the most varied block because as well as a basic history of how computers have evolved, you get an introduction to some quite different activities from creating and manipulating sound, to designing a simple web page. There’s also an introduction to databases and some content on what you need to think about when designing new products. Each of these sections is fairly short and you get an introduction rather than a deep-dive, but I like the way that the material is varied, giving people the chance to try new things and start thinking about what they may want to focus on in later modules.

Block 2 – creating solutions. Normally I would find something like this really interesting – it was all about solving problems through designing simple programs. I’m a linguist, so learning how new languages work is right up my street. The only thing was that these concepts are introduced within a graphical programming environment that is inaccessible to blind people. So, learning the concepts was a valuable experience for me because I’ll be able to apply them in other programming contexts, but as I couldn’t do any of the practical work independently, it was less enjoyable.

I understand why things are done this way – people can get up and running and start producing programmes quickly without having to bother much about understanding how a text-based language works and the grammar rules that will break your programme, but for me, it really wasn’t fun.

Block 3 – connecting people, places, and things. This was an introduction to networking, wireless communication, and the internet of things. It also looked at some of the social aspects of the way in which we use technology, as well as data security, biometrics, and the advantages and disadvantages of increased connectivity in our everyday lives. As someone whose business is carried out entirely online, I was interested to look at how people interact online.

I think some of the networking concepts could have been explained in a more straightforward way – I just looked up the information elsewhere because it felt that a lot of space was given to drawing analogies with things that we already know, whereas I just wanted to know about the thing we were supposed to be learning about and how it worked. That’s a learning style thing though. I’m sure some people would have been happy that someone took the time to try and make the concepts more relatable.

Things are changing all the time and I imagine it will be difficult to keep this really up-to-date, but I think the module raised some questions that are relevant to us today and the case studies helped us to think about people whose experience of using technology is different from our own.

Some concepts, such as maths, run through all of the blocks. Others are dealt with individually in one of the three blocks.

Assessment

The marks come from three tutor-marked assignments, which include activities to demonstrate what you’ve learned throughout the course, and three electronically marked assignments, which you complete online by answering multiple choice questions or typing specific values in the box.

I had a really helpful tutor who responded quickly to questions, made sure I had everything I needed if I was going to attend a tutorial run by someone else, and chased up some accessible materials when they went astray.

I worked hard – extra hard in some ways – but in the end I was happy with my mark and it was all worth it!

Learning as a blind student

I want to be positive because I did really enjoy doing this module, but for me it wasn’t an easy introduction into studying with the Open University as I believe the initial courses are intended to be. For me, even though the content will get harder, this was probably one of the most difficult and frustrating modules I’ll take due to the inaccessibility of a large chunk of it. Only my helpful sighted assistant and the knowledge that we’d soon be going onto other programming languages and never have to see OU Build or Scratch again kept me going – along with all the positive vibes around Christmas (because this was block 2)!

On the plus side, I could access all of the material, either as downloadable documents or as web pages on the site. Descriptions were provided for the diagrams in the material. There was an active community on the forum, which is run by the Open University, as well as a student-led Facebook group where students can socialise or ask questions.

But, even if you’re doing an open degree as I am, if you want it to be an IT-based one, there’s no getting past TM111. In many ways you wouldn’t want to either, because a lot of basic concepts are introduced that you will be building on in later modules. If you can’t use the visual programming environment because you are blind, you need to be prepared to work with a sighted assistant as there is really no other way round it if you want to complete that part of the course in its current form. The work will need to be your own, but you will have to have someone carrying out tasks for you with a mouse, and also giving you feedback about what the programmes actually do when you run them, so you can check that this is what you wanted or expected.

Most IT modules do have a degree of inaccessibility, but when comparing percentages, this is one of the highest I found, so in this respect, things will only get easier.

All information is correct at the time of writing, though of course things may change when the module is run again. If you are interested in studying it, it’s best to get the most up-to-date information directly from the Open University.

The next post I wrote in this series was about TM112. I have also written some more general ones about getting TMAs written and sent off” and getting study work done when you don’t have a fixed timetable.

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Why I have a problem with the AbledsAreWeird hashtag

Ok so maybe talking about this Hashtag is just giving it more publicity, which is actually the opposite of what I want to do, but still I think it’s a conversation worth having. You know, that old saying that if you sit there and say nothing when something’s going on that you don’t agree with, it’s actually like agreeing with it because nobody knows that you didn’t!

What is the hashtag>

The first time I became aware of it was at the weekend and it was actually a tweet in which someone wasn’t supporting it, to which I agreed. I hadn’t heard of it before though.

It’s basically a hashtag that people with disabilities are using to highlight some of the odd experiences they’ve had, where members of the public have been offensive, clueless, or said inappropriate things. They are real-life stories. Some just bizarre, but many show the ongoing barriers, misunderstandings, inappropriate comments or strange behaviour that many people face regularly. That’s not cool. These things shouldn’t happen. Discrimination is real and should be stopped.

I’ve had my share too – and continue to do so – but still, I don’t like the hashtag.

Why do I have a problem with it?

If it were just about highlighting some of the bad, maddening, or otherwise crazy experiences, either to bring a bit of humour or raise awareness, I think that’s fine. I’ve had comments that made me angry, sad, or roll my eyes in the past – I’m not exempt from them. How something affects you often depends on the kind of day you’re having. Great day – you think “what an odd thing to say” and move on. Terrible day –then sometimes it all feels too much.

But in the same way that I wouldn’t want someone to call me a “disabled” or “a blind”, I have an issue with the term “ableds”. Isn’t this reinforcing the stereotypes that everyone in a massive group of the population is the same? Isn’t that something that disabled people complain about?

Also, I don’t live in a sub-community that consists of only people with disabilities. Most of my best friends are non-disabled, and I hate the thought of “us and them”. It widens the gap between us. It’s about blame.

Ultimately, if someone behaves badly, or fails to be inclusive, then yes it is down to them. But it’s way too general for my liking to start calling everyone in that demographic weird.

And for the love of all that is good – the first time I was in a group of mainly visually impaired people, I thought a lot of them were pretty weird as well! I attended a short IT course after my A-levels at a centre that catered specifically for people with visual impairments. The way I was hit on there and the bizarre questions I was asked were far worse than anything that happened while I was at mainstream school. So let’s not get too smug in the weirdness comparison stakes!

There are times when only someone who has had a shared experience will know exactly how something feels. You could argue that only someone who has worked with an assistance animal for a number of years can really know how hard it is when your dog isn’t there any more – not just because you were friends, but you were a team too. People who don’t have to deal with accessibility issues every day can empathise, but it’s probably really only people who live that struggle who know just how much it can piss you off.

Yet, having said that, there are many times when I relate more to the “them” than to the “us”, precisely because I don’t live in a world where most people share my experience and disability. I’m more than just my visual impairment. I share other life experiences, interests, challenges and accomplishments with my partner and friends that have absolutely nothing to do with my inability to see.

It would be the same for me with any other type of hashtag that makes a statement about a huge group of People. Something about “men are” or “people over 50 are” or “people with children are” – it’s just not cool. I don’t belong to that demographic, but neither do I have the right to lump them all together and insult them! Especially not if the whole point is to try and get better treatment for a minority group to which I belong.

So what should we do instead?

I strongly believe that as human beings, we have more that unites us than sets us apart.

I believe we need to work together more. To share experiences, including problems, and try to find solutions.

I’m not saying that because I have an unrealistically optimistic view of the world and underestimate the problems. I spent a large chunk of today researching something that would have taken a sighted person far less time because they could have used any of the information, whereas I had to sift through twice as much as I needed in order to find accessible resources. I wish people would design more accessible websites and not think we all learn from inaccessible videos and diagrams.

But I can’t fix that by just insulting those people!

There is a way to share experiences in an objective and not accusatory  way that still gets a message across. One day I’ll write a post about all the crazy things people have said to or about my guide dog. I can also think of some inappropriate things that people have said, things that I don’t necessarily want to give a place on the blog. There’s a way of calling out that behaviour too, and I certainly don’t think we should avoid those uncomfortable discussions.

But I’d be a hypocrite if I used a hashtag that I myself thought was offensive – which is why I won’t be promoting it.

Many people with disabilities have joined in – and that’s their choice. Many more are blissfully unaware of the hashtag as I was, or maybe some are afraid of the backlash for swimming against the tide of popular opinion. Who knows.

The comments I’ve seen have talked about non-disabled people getting offended by the hashtag, but I’m willing to guess that like me, some disabled people are offended by it too!

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My amazing new coffee machine and my challenges buying coffee for it

My friends have been hearing about this all week, so it’s time to share it with you, my blog readers!

I have been drinking coffee in some form since I was about 7 or 8. Sometimes with permission. Sometimes because I figured out how to make it when I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, or when people who were supposed to be supervising weren’t about. But for as long as I can remember, it’s been the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, and the only thing that kept me going when I was doing two jobs or working crazy hours.

It’s the thing that kickstarts my brain, and anyone who’s smart knows not to talk to me until I’ve had a couple of cups of it See this post for example That would probably have never happened if coffee had been involved!

Anyway a couple of weeks ago we were visiting a friend and he told me about the new coffee machine that he’d got for Christmas.

I enjoyed the coffee that he made me, but I was also interested in the machine itself, as I had wrongly assumed that a lot of the newer machines were touch-screen only, like the ones you can get in large offices. They are not at all user-friendly if you can’t see the touch screen. Some can be controlled by apps, but any update to the app that messes with the accessibility will then render your machine inaccessible, and I wasn’t keen to go down this route.

My friend’s machine only has two buttons though – proper buttons – and I decided that would be fine for me. The pods would be more of a challenge to read as something like the Seeing AI app would struggle to read the shiny packaging. But if kept in their box, Seeing AI could either read the box, or I could manually print some Braille labels.

So I was sold on the idea and went home to investigate!

Buying my machine

In the end I went for a similar coffee machine to the one we’d been talking about, but with no milk frother. It came within 2 days and I could get going straight away because there was a free box with 14 coffees to try.

You pour water into the compartment at the end, put your chosen pod in its compartment, put your cup under the nozzle, then press whichever button you want. In the morning I tend to go for a triple Espresso topped up with two lots of water, but you don’t have to be that extreme!

It’s simple, no fuss, really quick, and there are over 30 types of really good coffee to choose from!

Buying my coffee and accessibility problems

I had also seen that there was an app for buying your coffee pods, and was keen to try it out.

At first there were some quirks to get used to. There’s a button labelled as UIButtonBarNewSmall next to every type of coffee. I figured out that if you click that, a slider appears which allows you to select how many of those capsules you want, in multiples of 10. Not great, but doable, and when I tweeted Nespresso to tell them about it, they responded quickly and positively to say that my message would be passed on to the web team.

So I put an assortment of pods into my basket, complete with my free recycling bag which will be collected with the next order once the bag is full, but the basket screen was as far as I got.

I could find where and how to add a promotion code, how to amend my order, but not how to do the one thing I wanted to do – check out! Apparently, there was a continue button, which takes you to the login screen, but you can’t get to it using VoiceOver. It’s as if the button just isn’t there. I can’t navigate to it, never mind click on it.

I could have just gone the easy way and got S to click the button for me, but I shouldn’t have to do that. I’m old enough to buy my own coffee and I don’t always have someone nearby waiting to click buttons when I can’t.

So I logged in to the website and finished off my order there. The website is actually very accessible and I had no problems completing my order. But I still felt a bit short changed because my account hadn’t updated to include the things I put in my basket today, which meant I had to do it again.

As I was finishing writing the post, I tweeted Nespreso again and they replied before I had even hit publish on the blog article. That is pretty speedy customer service! They apologised for the inconvenience and promised to pass on my comments. It would be really good if these issues could be fixed in the next update of the app.

There are times when 90% accessible just isn’t good enough, if the missing 10% is the thing that prevents someone from buying from you!

Ok, I love my coffee and I would have either used the site or got someone to help, but any type of business needs to make it as easy as possible for customers to buy their products and services.

So, my pods are on their way and should be with me in the next couple of days!

Overall thoughts

I don’t want this to be a ranting post though. I did get my order in and I am very happy with the machine. The coffees are really good, and I am grateful to my friend (another S) for giving me the idea.

I think I need a coffee now!

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5 ways to make your YouTube videos more accessible to people with a visual impairment

I decided to do this post because a couple of the YouTubers that I follow have asked me if there’s anything they can do to make their channels more accessible to people with a visual impairment.

I don’t expect people to completely rethink what they’re doing or particularly to accommodate me, and in many ways, I enjoy “watching” YouTube videos in the same way as everyone else – just without the pictures! I don’t want or expect special treatment. But it makes me happy when people ask this question because they want to be inclusive and make watching their channel a good experience for people who may not be able to see what they’re doing.

YouTube is a visual platform, but I use it as a source of information and entertainment and I know a lot of other visually impaired people do too.

So if you’re interested, here are some things that you could do to make your YouTube channel more accessible.

1. Don’t rely on putting information on screen

If you just display information on the screen, I can’t read it. I know it’s handy for putting up prices or where you can get products, but if you could put that same information in the information box as well, it means that blind people can read it. Information posted onscreen during a video is not read out by screenreading software, but I can use my software to read information on a web page.

If there are key points that you want people to remember – don’t just post them on screen with some music in the background. Either read them out, or put the information in the description box. Some of your sighted viewers have your videos on while they’re doing other things, and you can’t expect people to be glued to the screen at all times!

Having the information in a static place can also help sighted viewers if they want to view a particular link that you mentioned earlier in the video, or to refer back to something.

2. Try to describe colours

If you’re talking about a product, where possible, it’s good if you can mention the colour, rather than saying “it’s this colour” or not mentioning it at all because most people can see it. It’s like scents – your viewers can’t smell something, so often you try to say what it’s like or what it reminds you of. For people who can’t see the colours, it’s great if you can mention what they are, particularly if the product has a name that’s not connected with the colour. If a piece of make-up is named after an emotion, for example, I have no idea what colour that is!

The same goes for clothes too. Is it a long or short dress? Straight or floaty skirt? Long-strap or clutch bag? Chunky or delicate necklace?

Reading out some product information will make the video a bit longer, but I really appreciate it when people do!

If it’s a Vlog, can you say something about what you’re doing? I don’t mean you have to describe everything you see and do, but I enjoy Vlogs more when people give their viewers some clue as to what they’re talking about, rather than just capturing footage with the camera. I get the impression that they would do this anyway, and it’s nothing to do with making the content more accessible, but the fact that we have a bit more verbal information does make the Vlog more enjoyable for someone who can’t see what’s going on.

3. Not all of your YouTube viewers are on Instagram

I know many of them will be. There are also blind people on Instagram, but my time there lasted about 3 days. If you can’t see the pictures, it can be quite a boring experience. So whilst I can understand that many YouTubers want to get people following them on all platforms, there are still people in the world who have no plans to sign up to Instagram. So if you say things like “find out what I thought about the product on my Instagram stories” Or “enter by following me on Instagram”, you’re potentially excluding some people. If someone has chosen to follow you on YouTube, they shouldn’t have to jump through extra hoops to find out what you thought of a product. Even if you decide to do a story on it somewhere else, you could mention your thoughts in your next video as well.

4. Lookbooks aren’t accessible to people who can’t see them

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them because I’m sure some people enjoy them, but signposting is good. I’m happy to just not click on something if I know there will only be music and content I can’t access, but it saves my time if it’s clear from the title or description that that’s what it is!

5.Be willing to answer questions

I don’t mean you should prepare to be bombarded by loads of detailed questions, but I certainly appreciate it when people whom I follow take the time to reply back about things like the shade or consistency of a product. It’s generally a good thing to do if you interact with viewers anyway, because it’s a way to carry on the conversation and build up a relationship with them, but if someone didn’t get a piece of information that they wanted because they couldn’t see what you were showing, it’s helpful if you can take a couple of minutes to answer a question. You can’t be expected to know everything that people might want to know!

I hope the tips were useful.

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Life of a student – the first 4 months of my Open University course

Back in October I wrote my first post about my studies, before the first module had started. It was exciting, and in some ways I didn’t know what to expect. My previous experience with the same university, but a different subject area, had not been great in terms of accessibility for visually impaired students, so I guess I was a bit apprehensive, even though it seemed a lot of progress had been made in terms of accessibility.

Now it’s four months later and I’ve nearly finished two out of three blocks in my first module. So how’s it been?

The topics

The first module that I chose is called Introduction to computing and information technology, which, as the name suggests, gives you a basic foundation in a number of topics, that you can then go on to develop, depending on which path through the degree you choose.

Block 1 was really varied and interesting. Some things were more familiar to me, such as writing basic HTML and recording and manipulating sound. These are both things I do all the time at work, even if the sound production for the podcast is done using different software. It felt nice to know that I wasn’t completely starting from scratch in these areas!

Other things included a basic introduction to how computers have developed over time – not at all technical, but I didn’t know much about the history, so that was good.

Some of the maths gave me a headache, but I discovered quickly that it was more the way some concepts were being explained and not that I was just too stupid to be able to do it. More about the maths in my do I really hate maths? post.

We also looked at considerations for product design and then usability testing for websites, which is something I offer with a specific focus on accessibility. Some of the design concepts were a bit harder for me to visualise as someone who doesn’t know things that most others take for granted such as what certain icons look like (I just care about what they do and that they have been labelled properly) But this didn’t prevent me from understanding the concepts or answering the questions.

We also had an introduction to databases – the ideas for which weren’t new, but the writing of basic queries was.

Block 2 was less enjoyable for me because it focussed on programming, in itself not a problem, but it was taught using a horrid visual programming language, which involves dragging blocks of code around with your mous and assembling them to create programmes. I can’t use a mouse and neither can I see animated characters moving around on my screen.

I really wish we could have started with something less visual and more applicable to real life, but you have to wait for the next module before you start learning textual programming languages. This made me sad, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that at least the theory and concepts would be useful, even if the practical stuff required me to rely more heavily on a sighted assistant than I would normally want to.

I told my assistant what I wanted them to do and they gave me feedback about what happened visually, because the resulting programmes only run in the inaccessible software where you create them.

I went into the module knowing what I was getting in to, but all of the routes through the IT degree begin with these first two modules, so there was really no way round it. On the plus side, the most inaccessible part of the whole degree is done, because if there’s another module with such a high content of inaccessible material, I’ll just choose another – the advantages of choosing an open degree where you pick all of your own modules!

This module has three distinct blocks and block 3 is about networking. It looks a lot more interesting than block 2, although the main reason I didn’t enjoy block 2 was the programming language itself, not the concept of programming, which if written in a textual language, should be very accessible. And after all, I’m a linguist. I like languages and the rules that govern how you can use them. These rules are adhered to even more strictly in programming, than in languages such as English with its many exceptions to grammar rules, so there’s even less room for error.

Keeping on track

You get an online planner on your student home page and you can see what content you’re supposed to cover each week. It seems some people like getting weeks ahead and then showing off about it in the forums. I’ve no problem with getting ahead, but do you really need to keep going on about it?

Anyway, for most of the weeks, I set aside some time each day in my calendar and did part of that week’s work. I treated it like any other task I have to get done throughout the day and built it into my weekly planner. This worked well, although it took more effort to get my act together and stay motivated during block 2 because I wasn’t enjoying it as much.

Over Christmas I just really wanted to be done with it, so I got ahead of myself, finished the block and submitted the assignment relating to it.The end of the block wasn’t as bad because it looked at some of the concepts we’d been learning in the horrid visual language, and compared it with the same code in Python and Java – only simple things, but they made much more sense to me and gave me hope for the future!

The materials

I get printed books like everyone else, but I can’t use these, so I have been using the online versions of the books. They’re great! You can have the whole block appear on one page, which makes it really long, but then it’s easier to navigate the book using Jaws and jump around the document via the headings.

There are also downloadable or audio versions for people who want to learn that way, and it’s definitely good that more options are available now than there were when I was first looking at studying

a different module many years ago.

At first the image descriptions were missing, but afterI flagged this, my tutor was quick to help me track them down.

Working online

For me, working online is the best part. You don’t have to go anywhere. You don’t have to shift a load of access technology somewhere. You don’t have to rely on inaccessible printed books, or stacks of Braille books like I had at school. Braille books are great, but they take up a lot of room!

As someone who is self-employed, I’m lucky that I can set aside some time for study, but not having to go to physical lectures means that I can fit the work in when I have time for it, andI don’t have to work around a preset schedule. I love that!

This kind of course means that you spend a lot of time working on your own. Some people might miss the company, but I don’t. I can work collaboratively, but I don’t need other people to be around for me to stay motivated. In fact, working on my own in my quiet office is my favourite thing!

There are a couple of tutorials in each block. There’s a range of dates and you book in for the ones that you want to attend. I only want to attend online ones and whilst it’s easy to book them, the system used for accessing them is not very accessible for screenreader users.

In fact it’s the worst kind of inaccessible – the flaky kind. Sometimes it works and other times the screenreader loses focus and then you’re done for unless you leave the meeting and come back. The app didn’t seem that good either, although I haven’t tested it with an active meeting room link.

Basically I can attend and hear everything that’s going on, but due to issues with my screenreader losing focus, I can’t access the chat window reliably. To be honest I don’t care much – I can email any questions in at the end. It would be nice to participate more, but the tutorials aren’t really used much for discussion or working on projects – it’s more about the tutor explaining things. At school I was often that kid who knew the answer, but never put her hand up, so although I’d be happier if they switched to something more accessible, I don’t feel it affects my overall experience too much.

Also, my tutor has a list of all the tutorials I booked in for, and he contacted the other tutors to ask that they send me their slides in advance so that I can read them outside of the conference software. Usually the slides are made available afterwards.

In more general terms, my tutor has been quick to respond to emails, answering questions or chasing things up when I haven’t had what I needed.

Contact with others

Most of the time, you work on your own. That’s not to say that there is no contact with others, but you have to be a bit proactive and hunt it out. Still, there are plenty of opportunities to find others on your course.

There is a list of forums on the main website, with a specific one for each module. I’ve also found some Facebook groups (one for each module, and also some more general interest ones). There’s a Slack channel, which isn’t used heavily, but it’s there. There’s a Discord channel, which I honestly haven’t bothered with much because the app was a bit annoying, and I don’t think much is happening there. At the other end of the scale, there’s a WhatsApp group that I had to leave because it crashed my phone and I didn’t want to download 250 messages each time I wanted to look at it.But yes, anyone who’s looking for more contact with other students can join the Whatsapp group and their phone won’t stop buzzing with social interactions!

I attended a face-to-face meet-up too, which was nice enough, but there was no one there from any of the IT courses. So whilst it was nice to have a chat, it wasn’t that beneficial in terms of the course.

If there’s a problem, you have to be more direct about addressing it than you perhaps would in a face-to-face setting where people can see you.

These past few weeks have been tough, not so much because of the inaccessibility, but because of how being more dependent made me feel. I tend to withdraw if I’m not ok, find a solution, maybe hunt out one person that I trust to talk about it with, and then come back and be more sociable. That’s fine for me, but if someone really needed help or support, they would need to be upfront about it, because otherwise people wouldn’t know. So you need to be able to communicate somewhere, either to your tutor or in one of the groups, if something isn’t ok and you need help with it.

Assessments

I’ve completed two online assessments, received 1 assignment back, and submitted the second one. I’m not going to go into my marks here, but I’m happy with them – apart from some points I needlessly dropped by not double-checking something – grr!

Overall thoughts

Overall I’m enjoying both the online study experience and the introduction to computing and IT module. I didn’t enjoy the last block, and if any blind person who uses a screenreader is planning to do this module, they will need to bear in mind that they’ll need sighted assistance for the practical tasks in block two. All of the actual work needs to be your own, but you’ll need someone to move your mouse to drag the code blocks around and describe what they see.

If I hadn’t had such a good assistant with whom I can work well, my experience would have been much worse!

But I want to focus on the positives, because the theory and concepts I picked up in block 2 will help me when it comes to the introduction to Python in the next module. Also, block 3 looks a lot more accessible, so in accessibility terms, I think the worst is over.

In more general terms, I think it’s natural that for whatever reason, whether it’s to do with accessibility or just what you like and are good at, you’re going to like some parts of a course more than others. That’s life. Yes, it would have been better if a text-based alternative had been available to the visual coding language, but it wasn’t and I kept plodding on through. Sometimes you just need to get things done so you can move on to something else.

I’ve basically got a week off now because next week people are supposed to be working on their assignments and I’ve already finished mine. So I’ll enjoy that and then I’m looking forward to starting the networking topic.

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