How Information Retrieval Systems are Failing the Visually Impaired

A smartphone placed against a marble backdrop, with the google search engine open.

As an information professional, accessibility should be at the forefront of all our conversations. With the work being done by disability activists, including the popularity of viral hashtags like #DisabilityTooWhite and #AbleismExists, the conversation is more relevant than ever. Then why is it that the biggest information retrieval systems can’t take the fingers out of their ears and listen?

Visual Impairment and Information Retrieval

When I write about accessibility today, it will be about how much information is available, who it’s available to and the speed and ease of it’s retrievability. Specifically, how does one remove the barriers that make information harder to access for those with visual impairments?

In Ontario, one in seven people have a disability. When accessibility is left out of the conversation of information retrieval, it leaves a huge percentage of people without the ability to retrieve information. The key to accessibility is to focus on problems in the environment that creates barriers. The issue is not a lack of sufficiently advanced technology, the issue is bad design. Accessibility features are often just features of good design.

Users with visual impairment related disabilities often make use of a large range of assistive technologies including screen magnification software, speech synthesisers, screen readers, large screen monitors, braille embossers, character recognition software and speech imputters.

Screen readers are a commonly used assistive technology. Screen readers translate text into an audio format, allowing the user to hear what it is on the screen. Most information retrieval (IR) systems are only doing the bare minimum to support these assistive technologies.

How can Information Retrieval Systems be Accessible?

For IR systems to be accessible they should be perceivable. This means that the IR system must be able to be read by a variety of users and assistive technologies. IR systems can do this by:

  • Having a simple and clear layout
  • Being consistent, having skip navigation (due to reading software being forced to go through repetitive content), and using keyboard shortcuts
  • High contrast and legible fonts
  • Customizable font sizes
  • Descriptive text for graphic elements
  • Alt formats

Having descriptive and alt text is important for visually impaired users. Alt text allows users to adequately identify elements with a screen reader. Since screen readers can only read text and not interpret graphical elements, there should be underlying code with titles, heading and text captions. Screen readers process information sequentially, from top to bottom. This can cause issues when users are looking for specific information, since there can be a lot of wasted time hearing irrelevant information, creating a lack of context and information overload.

When creating queries for searches, those with visual impairments often do detailed queries in order to bring more relevant search results on top. This prevents the user from having to take more time listening through potential irrelevant information.

Documents should include HTML, since that is oftentimes the most accessible format for documents on the web. PDFs are often a gamble. PDFs can just be an image with no accessibility features. Tagged PDFs are a more accessible option. They have ordered text and structural tags to help screen readers define headers, tables and lists. Tagged PDFs are created through post-processing a PDF document.

IR systems should stop using:

  • Pop-up windows. This is due to difficulties navigating window to window, flash or multimedia content.
  • JavaScript. JavaScript often is one of the least accessible formats. Those who use assistive technologies often turn off scripts to access websites.
  • Page timeouts or time limits. It may take longer to listen to web content and navigate websites through screen readers then what the website deems is acceptable.

What is the Ideal Information Retrieval System?

While researching the information seeking behaviour of the visually impaired, Sahib, Tombros and Stockman in their article “Evaluating a search interface for visually impaired searchers” imagined what features an accessible IR system would have. The retrieval system would include both Search Trails and Search Notes. Search Trails record users search queries and search results, creating a trail with visited web pages. Search trails allow the user to go back and forth to explore their search sessions without losing information or it becoming redundant with repetitive links. Search Notes allow users to create notes directly on the search, without having to navigate a word pad while searching.

What This Means for Libraries

Hire librarians with disabilities! Librarians and patrons with visual impairments need to be actively involved in reviewing IR systems. The library needs to support vendors who are making their products accessible.

Libraries can help users with visual impairments by learning about access standards. Librarians can take an active role and learn how to use a variety of assistive technology, and then test their own websites to see how they hold up.

In order to have IR systems be accessible, that accessibility must be built into the design. This must be done by soliciting input from those with disabilities, or, even better, having it be designed by them. Accessibility is about removing barriers to make information accessible to all, abled users included. For those who are visually impaired, more focus should be given to how IR systems will react to assistive technologies like screen readers, and they should be designed to fully support these technologies to allow users with visual impairment the independence and dignity they deserve.