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Vision – Chris

line drawing of person

Age: 63    Height: 6ft 2ins

Lives in: London

Registered blind

Assistive aids:
Spectacles (for eye protection) Speaking watch, magnifiers, screen reading software, synthetic speech software for mobile phone

Links: Case studies | Related statistics

What I can do

  • Use an ordinary telephone
  • Understand a theatrical performance if audio described
  • Use a mobile phone if buttons sufficiently tactile
  • Read and send texts using synthetic speech
  • Send and receive emails using screen reading software
  • Read Braille at 50-60 wpm

What I cannot do

  • Cannot see well enough to read a newspaper headline unless using powerful magnification
  • Cannot see well enough to recognise a friend who is at arm’s length away
  • Cannot read a short newspaper article unless using powerful magnification.
  • Cannot watch a foreign language TV programme with sub-titles unless audio-described.
  • Cannot fill in an online form unless readable by a screen reader.


I have worked as an IT Systems Developer, IT Tutor and Transcription Service Manager.

My condition

I am registered blind and have no vision in my right eye. I can see light, dark and movement from my left eye and, depending on lighting conditions, sometimes slightly more. With magnifiers containing appropriate illumination, I can also read a certain amount of print but not for long periods.

A typical day

I do many different things. Apart from household chores like cleaning, cooking, washing, paperwork and so on, I am also a volunteer IT Tutor and provide technical support to members of The Accessible Friends Network (http://www.tafn.org,uk) on a voluntary basis. I go to a fitness studio at least twice a week and have such hobbies as listening to music, reading and recording wildlife sounds.

Good designs and how they improve my life

Interfaces: These should make tasks easier, simpler, quicker and the end result more reliable. For example, my washing machine has tactile push buttons with a click response and rotary controls that click when you turn them. I think I can operate these as quickly as a sighted person, once I have learnt which control does what. However, I realise that these controls may not be suitable for people with limited finger or hand movement. Therefore, although inclusive design is a fine goal, I think it can be difficult to satisfy everyone.  So a variety of products is good rather than all products following an interface trend such as ones that are exclusively touch-operated .

Inclusive improvements: My professional portable sound recorder is an interesting example. The record function is the easiest I have ever used, although playback and setting the options is a bit of a challenge for someone without sight. Sighted recordists often have to concentrate more on the subject being recorded than the recorder’s display. They asked if the equipment could have tones audible in the headphones for various functions that would tell you when you start and stop recording and when the battery is getting low. They also asked that these should be optional and that their volume be variable. The manufacturer included these options in a firmware upgrade within weeks of the request and it made the device even more accessible to vision impaired users as well.

Computers and Screen Readers: For vision-impaired computer users, using a screen reader and browsing a web page can be one of the biggest challenges, especially for novice users. Each site is different and, even if you become very familiar with a site that you visit often, its layout can suddenly change completely due to a redesign. Therefore, proper design that offers a consistency, which helps sighted users can also help screen-reader users navigate more efficiently. Just because a site can be navigated using the powerful features now offered by the main screen readers does not mean that it is a good accessible site. Unfortunately most screen reader users are quite inexperienced and have received little or no training. Therefore, they only use a sub set of the commands. If the site can be navigated with just this sub set (even if it takes a bit longer) it makes it more accessible by these users and advanced users can use the more advanced features to speed up their browsing.

Lessons for designers

Talk to a wide cross section of potential users including those with disabilities and, if possible, allow these users to try prototypes of the product. Think of the situations in which people will be using the product. For example, even if the user has two fully functional hands, will both be available when the product has to be used or will one hand be needed for something else? How many times have you heard people say ‘You need three hands to do this’.

Even if a user has two good eyes, will there be circumstances when they cannot use them? For example, will they have to use the product in the dark or, in the case of distinguishing between identical shampoo and conditioner bottles, might they have their eyes closed?

Less can often be better. Think of the number of people who have difficulty using their video recorders and mobile phones. I am always surprised that such products do not have a ‘normal’ and ‘advanced’ interface as can be found in many computer programs.

Poor designs and how they impact my life

At worst, they mean that I cannot use the product or a service such as a web site. At best, it makes using the product difficult or using the service takes much longer than it would for other people. Here are some examples:

Telephone systems with long and deep menus that do not let you go back up the menu tree if you make a mistake such as those that require you to enter an account number. In this case, the system often times me out while I am trying to read information in Braille and then enter it into the phone. I am also frustrated by similar systems that use speech recognition and leave you in limbo if they cannot recognise your input. These systems may be usable in the end but can lead to wasted time and frustration, not to mention additional phone calls.

Information distributed in PDF files that contain a graphic but no text. These files are completely unreadable by someone using a screen reader. I have also experienced the same problem when a PDF file does contain text but has not been marked up properly. This can mean that a screen reader can find text but speaks it in what appears to be a completely random order. In both cases this prevents me accessing information that is available to everyone else.

The misconceived idea that providing information in large print simply means photocopying it on to an A3 sheet. This provides very little additional magnification and large pages that are very inconvenient to handle, especially if you still need magnification.

Web sites with pop-ups, inaccessible Flash and embedded players, and critical information displayed in a graphic. Embedded players are usually completely inaccessible to a screen reader user.

Products labelled with very low contrast or very small print. This can include all sorts of items from food to medicines. Also, although there are now standards that say medicines should have Braille labelling this helps only a very small proportion of blind people. However, for those of us who do use Braille the packaging is so small that pharmacies’ labels often completely cover the Braille.

Packages and containers that do not have obvious tactile indications of how they should be opened. The way containers are sealed should also be considered. Sometimes it is not at all obvious from touch, or even without very good vision, how the container should be opened.

The lack of accessible instruction manuals for equipment. It is possible to have such materials transcribed by organisations such as the RNIB (http://www.rnib.org.uk) and other transcription services but this is time consuming.  It is ironic that the information and instruction materials that come with some medicines are usually written in very small and low contrast print. On occasions I have got someone to read these for me and discovered that I was taking the product incorrectly and was not warned about the issue when I was issued with the drugs.

Five most important ‘things’ in my life

  • Two very special friends who have given me much practical and emotional support. They have also encouraged me to widen my horizons and take the risk of  sometimes stepping outside my comfort zone. As a result I have met new people and learnt new things.
  • I cannot imagine a world without birds and trees. Listening to natural sounds in places where man-made sounds are minimal, if not non-existent, is one of the best restoratives I know.
  • Keeping myself as fit and healthy as I can so that I can remain active and independent as long as possible.
  • The technology that gives me access to more information, learning materials, books, magazines, etc. than I had only a few years ago and also makes writing and communication much easier and allows me to remain more independent. This includes the screen reading software on my computer, similar software that allows me to use a standard mobile phone, plus special devices such as a Braille note taker and video magnifiers. Not to mention the products from Apple, which have speech and Braille output built in as standard.
  • Listening to a wide variety of music, especially going to live performances.

Message for designers

More thought about how items or services will be used by real people in real conditions could improve many designs and there should be more evaluation of prototypes and in realistic conditions.

For example I handle a badly designed object almost every day – the 20 pence coin, which is badly designed as far as I am concerned. Its size is similar to a one penny coin and although it’s seven-sided, the two coins can easily be confused when identifying them by touch alone. We were told that the RNIB had participated in the design of the coins and that vision- impaired people had given their approval. But how was this evaluation carried out?

I suspect it was done in a warm room with people sitting at tables and no restriction on the time it took to identify the coins. Were the evaluators people who were blind from childhood and had a very well developed sense of touch? Identifying these coins when your fingers are cold or you are at the front of a queue and speed is of the essence is a different matter. Also, what if you have impaired vision and impaired dexterity? I thought this might have been just my problem but I have spoken to a lot of vision-impaired people who have the same issue.

What I have mentioned relates specifically to touch but for partially sighted people, colour and contrast is an issue.