App Accessibility Checklist for Low Vision


About a month ago, my friend recommended an application to download on my phone. I wasn’t sure if they had thought about this, but there are many apps, even popular ones, that are inaccessible to people with low vision or photosensitivity. Right as I was about to ask, my friend said “don’t worry, the text can be enlarged to your size and there’s no strobes.” I was happy that not only my friend had checked for these things, but that the app developers had thought ahead of time and made their app accessible to people with low vision and photosensitivity.

Too many times, accessibility is considered a last minute thing to add to an application. With so many people identified as having a disability, app developers should be more aware of how important it is to consider diverse users when developing an application. Here are seven accessibility settings I check for when downloading an application, either on my Android phone or iPad. While this is targeted towards users with a disability, this also helps seniors and adults who simply forgot their reading glasses.

Can text be enlarged?

While some applications support the operating system’s default text settings, there are other apps that use their own fonts. Check that these fonts can be enlarged to a legible size- typically, I use a size 24 font, though bigger is almost always better. If there are different font style options, that is awesome too- people with certain print disabilities benefit immensely from weighted fonts like Comic Sans.

Can screen readers be used?

Many users use a tool like VoiceOver (Apple) or TalkBack (Android) in order to access text. Adding alt text image descriptions is also important so the user isn’t left guessing what was in the picture. If the image is purely decorative, write “null” or “decoration.” And please, have a skip navigation option, so the screen reader isn’t reading through unnecessary information.

Is everything displayed?

When the font is enlarged, make sure that all text, as well as buttons, are displayed on the screen in a logical manner. Some apps have text run off the screen, or do not enlarge buttons, which makes it impossible to use the app.

Is there sufficient contrast?

Is it easy to read the text on the screen? Having options to change the colors of the background or other buttons can be helpful in ensuring that users are able to see an app clearly. Having a night mode with a dark color scheme also can help reduce glare.

Are there strobe or flashing effects?

I have used a couple of applications that had random strobe or flashing light effects, or that used strobe notifications that could not be disabled. I even had a phone for about an hour that was a giant strobing mess. These apps were uninstalled immediately, and the strobing phone was returned as well. While a light at the frequency of a car blinker is fine, do not use strobe or flashing light effects, especially in red/blue colors, and give the user no way to disable them. For more information on who can be harmed by these effects, read this.

Can I use my own keyboard?

Some applications prevent the user from accessing a third party keyboard, or even the speech-to-text option. Allow users to be able to use any keyboard for maximum compatibility.

Do I have to think about using this?

If the user has to remember a complex series of steps to take because of accessibility settings being enabled, then the app isn’t worth using. One of the main design principles is that if the user has to think while using a product, then the designer has failed. Make sure users don’t have to jump through too many hoops.

Accessibility is very important to me, and I am always grateful when developers keep users like me in mind. While there are so many other disability areas to remember, I hope developers will continue to remember those of us with low vision and photosensitivity when creating apps.

Collecting Documentation

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For every two fantastic teachers I have had, there has always been one teacher that wanted to make sure that I knew that the teacher considered my disability to be an inconvenience and would refuse to follow my 504/IEP.  Yes, this is illegal, but that didn’t stop it from happening.  Over the course of the school year, my family would collect documentation of teachers not following my 504/IEP, and have it on record to show to the school board or other agency.  Here are six of the types of data we would download and keep for our records.

Class progress reports/grades

Most school systems have a database that parents and students can access so that students can review their grades, as well as view grades for individual assignments.  Some examples of these databases are Edline, SchoolVue, Aspen, and others.  Print off every page of data available for each course, and check to see that grades match assignments.  Also check to make sure that the student was exempt from assignments with inaccessible materials, and not given a 0.

Hall passes

At my first high school, I was frequently sent out of class to go enlarge my assignments when the teacher forgot to do so.  We saved these hall passes that contained teacher signatures and times that I was gone, and used them as evidence to show that my work frequently was not enlarged for certain classes.

IEP/504 meeting notes

My mom took notes on everything that was said during my meetings, and who it was said by.  She didn’t rely on my case manager or other people present to prepare a transcript.  In some school districts, parents can record an audio transcript during the meeting, but that option was never available to us.

Emails/letters

If the school district sends it, save it.  This is extremely helpful for filling out a timeline of events, and is less stressful than trying to remember who said what, and when.  In addition to an online backup, print out emails and save the files in a backup location as well.

Graded assignments, or assignments in an inaccessible format

I saved copies of every assignment I received, as well as keeping copies of the assignments that were not in an accessible format.  We would check these grades against the grades in our school database, and save the inaccessible materials as evidence that my 504/IEP was not followed in the classroom.  For a couple of assignments, I had attached my hall pass at the top so there was a signed time/date stamp.

IEP evaluations

At the end of the year, each teacher writes in an IEP evaluation, so that the special education staff and parents can see if accommodations were appropriate.  One teacher, who had not followed my IEP, wrote an evaluation painting me as the worst student to ever exist, and filled it with inaccurate information about my behavior, and the behavior of the teacher themselves.  It was unlike any of the other evaluations I had received from my other teachers, who wrote positive things about me, though noted that I had trouble remembering to hand in assignments.  All of the claims that the other teacher had made were disproven using the types of data in this post- for example, they claimed I would refuse to do my assignments and read on my eReader instead, but the grade reports showed that I was exempt from those assignments, and there was no evidence that I had been disciplined for my actions (something that would certainly happen if another student in my class did the same thing).  We also had copies of the assignments that were not enlarged.  It took months for that teacher’s comments to be removed, and it helped for us to have a copy of the original evaluation and every other piece of data as well.

In addition to these documents, save copies of SAPs, 504s, and IEPs, as knowing these accommodations will be very helpful when transitioning into post-secondary education.  In the event that the school district is investigated, all of these documents will prove to be invaluable to investigators as they learn more about the school district.

Colored Paper and the Readability of Text

On my seventeenth birthday, I presented at a science fair affiliated with my school district about my research on how the color of paper can affect the readability of the text on the paper.  This was the first time I really investigated how important contrast is when creating accessible documents, and I was able to determine the colors of paper I preferred for my assignments.  When I presented this research to the science fair judges, I received an unexpected surprise- three out of the five judges were colorblind!  Globally, one in twelve men and one in two hundred women are colorblind, and the odds of encountering two men and one women who are colorblind in a room seemed to be one in a million.  My friends and family found this experience absolutely hilarious, and told me that it would be a great story to tell if I ever presented my research again, though I wasn’t very amused.

My interest in this topic began in 2013, when I visited a neuro-opthalmologist at a large medical center who showed me an eye chart with different colored backgrounds.  They explained that people tend to see better on the eye chart with colored backgrounds because the colors helped reduce eye fatigue (from the white glare of the normal eye chart) and it was easier for the eyes to focus.  I was fascinated by this, and chose to do more research on it for my science fair project.  Over the years, I have learned even more about creating accessible materials and how important contrast is, and will be sharing some of the practical applications of my research below.

What colors work best

Light yellow and light blue were found to be the paper colors that were the easiest to read off of.  It could easily be read in all lighting conditions, and the effectiveness of the colors weren’t diminished if someone wore tinted glasses (like I do).  I have found it is easy to read on these colors for long periods of time, and all colors of my pens and markers show up sharp even on the colored paper.  Blue is best for large amounts of information or reading, while yellow works great for worksheets.

What colors work less well

Neon bright colors, while they do stand out, often contribute to eye fatigue and the eyes may have trouble focusing on the page.  Darker colors, such as those found on conventional construction paper, may also be difficult to read.  The darker backgrounds obscure text and make information difficult to process.

Using colored films

While this wasn’t part of my project, one of my teachers found that I processed information much better when they added a colored film on top of the paper that they were projecting, or when I layered a colored film on top of what I was reading.  Because of the way fluorescent lighting was set up in some classrooms, I found these films difficult to use when the lights above me would reflect on top of the plastic, so I very rarely used them while sitting at my desk.  Now that I am in college though, and most of my classrooms don’t use fluorescent lighting, I have found myself reaching for these films more often when I have to read papers for long periods of time.

Changing white intensity

Since sharp white can be bad for eye fatigue, I have blue light filters on all of my main electronic devices, including my desktop computer, laptop computer, Android phone, and iPad.  I also have a post dedicated to reducing eyestrain with technology.

If I put it on a colored background, does this mean I don’t need large print?

NO!!  If you have low vision, please continue to use your preferred font sizes and image sizes, even if you use a colored paper.  The page color is supposed to make text easier to see, not to add any other difficulties.

Bottom line, the page color can influence the readability of font, and by using light colors, the reader may find it easier to read for long periods of time and not have as much eye fatigue from glare.  Experiment with different papers and figure out which one works best.

All About Bookshare

Welcome to Print Disability Week, where I will be posting once a day about ways to receive services for a print disability, with a webinar on Thursday in collaboration with AIM-VA, an accessible educational materials provider for students with print disabilities in grades K-12 in Virginia. Today, I will be talking about an organization that was the catalyst for my interest in assistive technology called Bookshare.

In 2011, my family took me to an assistive technology event at what would be my future university. We didn’t know much about assistive technology, and went there to find resources and answers to many questions we had. It was there that someone asked us if we had heard of Bookshare, and we shook our heads no, since we weren’t very familiar with assistive technology resources at the time. Little did I know, this service would revolutionize how I read. Here are some of the questions I had when I first started using Bookshare, and my personal experiences with it.

What is Bookshare?

Bookshare is an accessible digital library for people with print disabilities. There are over half a million titles available, from New York Times bestsellers to cookbooks and even textbooks, though there may be issues with displaying images. Materials are downloaded from their website instantly in the DAISY file format, which can be converted to audio, Braille, or large print.

How do I qualify for Bookshare?

If you have a diagnosed print disability from low vision, a physical disability, or a learning disability, you can qualify for Bookshare instantly. My mom faxed in a letter from my ophthalmologist certifying that I have low vision and require large text, however the process is now done online through a personalized link where users can upload documents.

Should my school create my account?

While a school can set up an account for multiple student users, I actually recommend that a student set up their own account. It is much easier to download content, since the user doesn’t have to worry about requesting downloads from their sponsor, and it also gives them an opportunity to learn how to access materials for themselves. Plus, you can continue to use the account even after you graduate, as the service is free for students in grades K-12 and college in the United States, and $50 a year after that.

How many books can I download?

A user can download fifty (50) books per month.

How do I read the materials on an iPad?

Bookshare has their own online web reader that works beautifully, and they also have other member recommended reading apps. While it is the most expensive, I prefer the app Read2Go and have been using it for years with no issues.

How do I read the materials on an eReader?

I purchased a Daisy to ePub converter from Don Johnson in order to convert books to an ePub format so that I could have them on my eReader. This works great for books with no images. The page numbers tend to be a bit off, so if I’m reading a book for school and have to cite page numbers, I have an agreement with my teachers that I can cite the first sentence of the page rather than the page number, and if the teacher told the class to turn to a certain page, they would give me the first sentence so I could search for it.

What titles can I find on Bookshare?

Almost any book you can think of is on there. It’s very rare that I can’t find what I am looking for, though it has happened. Typically I enjoy reading fiction and popular bestsellers.

Is this even legal?

Yes, through the Chafee amendment, which allows organizations to create materials for students with print disabilities without publisher permission and without violating copyright.

My testimony

I have been a proud member since December 2011 and have enjoyed being able to read the same books as my peers. At my local library, before they partnered with an ebook service, the only large print books available to me were romance novels, which I had zero interest in. Thanks to Bookshare, I have been able to read whatever I want and join in on conversations. I wasn’t limited by what the library had to offer, and could read age appropriate books alongside my peers.

Right now, Bookshare is in danger of losing a large amount of federal funding, and I can’t imagine going without this service now that I have used it for so long. My best advice for users is to write to their representatives and encourage them to preserve these services. I will be posting a sample letter here on my blog.

I have been incredibly grateful to qualify to receive these services, and the benefits I have received have helped me to read more than I ever thought I would, even though I have low vision. Bookshare also inspired me to pursue an interest in assistive technology, as I was amazed to see that I could combine my love of technology and helping others. I hope that this posts helps more people learn about this incredible service that I recommend to every person I meet who has a print disability.