July 15, 2024
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By Shanghai Observer

A team of partially sighted software programmers in Shenzhen is improving information accessibility by helping developers eliminate the many obstacles facing disabled users.

For Ma Yinqing, using a smartphone can sometimes feel like being stranded in the ocean. As a user with impaired vision, she relies on her phone’s built-in screen reader to access everyday apps, but often all it emits are random words like “button” or “underscore,” or it simply beeps at her.

According to the China Disabled Persons’ Federation, the country is home to more than 17 million blind or partially sighted people. However, despite rapid advancements in phone accessibility functions, not all software developers take disabled users into consideration when designing new apps.

Although overwhelming at times, Ma says her struggles have been unavoidable. As an entrepreneur, she regularly needs to communicate with customers using various apps. At an event last year, she had a chance to share her frustrations with Ren Hai, responsible for user experience design at the Chinese social media app Xiaohongshu. During their conversation, Ren turned on his phone’s accessibility functions for the first time ever to test several apps he checks every day. He found them virtually unusable.

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The Accessibility Research Association (ARA), an NGO based in the southern tech hub Shenzhen, has been working with major internet and software companies nationwide to bridge the technological gap. In 2013, the group helped establish the China Information Accessibility Products Alliance — later renamed the Accessibility Joint Conference — to unite enterprises, social organizations, and academic institutions in promoting accessibility.

In the past decade, the group has helped remove many obstacles facing disabled users. However, there is still a long way to go toward its ultimate aim to create “online tactile paving,” emulating the pattern of raised surfaces found on sidewalks and in municipal buildings that help guide people with sight issues.

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Shen Guangrong at work. Zhang Lingyun-Shanghai Observer

Stumbling blocks

Software engineer Shen Guangrong, who is blind, has worked with the ARA for the past few years. To use his phone, he holds it close to one ear while tapping and swiping the screen so he can hear the screen reader’s automated female voice. Although he has it turned to the maximum speed, he still complains the reader is too slow.

Most smartphones today come with built-in screen reading software that enables users to tap the screen and swipe with two- or three-finger gestures to access content or make selections. The software provides audio prompts throughout.

However, the functions only work if an app is compatible. To demonstrate, Shen opens a travel app and begins tapping on the buttons for “hotels” and “plane tickets,” but all his screen reader reads out is “underscore … space.” He explains that his software is unable to read the information on screen because the app designers didn’t consider accessibility during research and development.

For people with impaired vision, coming across an app like this can feel like hitting a brick wall. One of the most frustrating things for Shen is that his screen reader doesn’t work with one popular Chinese food take-out app, meaning he never knows how far away his delivery is. “I don’t dare go anywhere when I’m waiting for takeout, even if something important comes up,” he says.

In March 2020, China introduced its first national standard for online accessibility, providing 58 indicators for the construction of “online tactile paving” as well as technical requirements aimed at standardizing internet products and services.

Some major bugs have already been resolved by advances in technology. For instance, product descriptions on e-commerce websites and apps are often uploaded as images rather than standard text, which previously made it difficult for blind and partially sighted users to shop with confidence. However, the advent of optical character recognition, or OCR, technology means screen readers can now scan images for any recognizable text to be read aloud.

Yet, using many apps still requires guesswork, Shen says, especially those that require entering a password using a secure keyboard, which displays numbers randomly without any prompts or feedback. In this situation, many disabled users will fall at the first hurdle, he adds.

The model blind road at ARA’s office. Zhang Lingyun-Shanghai Observer

No one left behind

Shen has made a name for himself for his efforts over the years to improve information accessibility. He runs a website for visually impaired people and has developed various software products, including a mini program to support the management of blind massage businesses and an online translation tool.

In elementary school, Shen used domestically made screen-reading software to surf the web via Internet Explorer and send emails with Outlook. Eager to delve deeper into the online world, he began to study programming. At first, he would memorize the source code read aloud by the screen reader, type it into his PC, and then copy and paste it to see if it ran successfully. After becoming confident in programming, he started writing software and plug-ins for people with poor vision, and shared them on his website.

Later, after graduating from high school, Shen joined the ARA. When it was founded in 2005, the ARA began offering courses to people with disabilities on how to use computers and mobile phones. Gradually, however, it discovered that the real issue facing disabled people is that most internet products simply don’t meet their needs, and some even create obstacles. So, in 2013, the group decided to establish China’s first team of partially sighted engineers to work on improving information accessibility. Shen is one of more than a dozen such engineers now involved in evaluating different software, identifying accessibility problems, and providing solutions for product developers.

When Fan Jiancai needs to use a computer screen, he has to enlarge it six to eight times and sit almost with his nose pressed against the screen. At 13 years old, Fan lost the sight in his right eye after suffering a detached retina in a traumatic injury. A delay in treatment also left him with severely restricted vision in his left eye. Although he can still see a little, he mostly relies on his hearing to gain information.

In 2014, when Fan got his first smartphone, Android handsets did not yet have a pinch-to-zoom function, so he spent a couple of hundred yuan on domestic screen-reading software. However, over time, more developers started paying attention to the user interface, with the internal layout design becoming more refined and complex. This made things increasingly difficult for people with accessibility issues.

Like most of the partially sighted engineers in his office, Fan studied acupuncture and massage at school and worked in a blind massage parlor after graduation, although he didn’t like the job and didn’t want to spend his life confined to a cramped room. One day after work, he experienced 10 minutes of complete blindness. The uncertainty of not knowing when he’d lose the little vision he had left scared him into action, and he decided to learn programming while he could still see.

This sense of crisis led to Fan teaching himself C, Java, and other programming languages before mastering technologies such as Harmony OS, the operating system developed by tech giant Huawei, as well as front-end web development. He also created a website and forum for people in his situation.

About a year later, Fan came across a job posting for the ARA while browsing a recruitment forum. However, when he tried to register an account to submit his resumé, he once again encountered software that had been poorly designed for visually impaired users. He was unable to input his date of graduation using the interface and couldn’t read the verification code. He had to turn on his phone’s magnification function and start all over again. After passing the interview, Fan and Shen became colleagues at ARA.

Fan Jiancai reads a book with the help of a magnification app. Zhang Lingyun/Shanghai Observer

Equal footing

The forum that Fan created has fewer than 100 active users, but it’s a space that allows partially sighted people to chat freely about music, games, and their experiences using different software. On the main page, there’s a post reminding users not to upgrade to the newest version of a certain piece of software due to its accessibility problems.

When an app releases an update, it often actually provides a worse experience for people with vision issues. Shen explains that because developers and designers often fail to take accessibility into consideration, domestic internet products are usually optimized only after their release.

Zheng Rui joined the ARA a decade ago, and one of his responsibilities is advocating for greater accessibility and science communication. However, he’s found that society still has relatively little understanding of people living with disability, and information accessibility remains a fringe concept.

Zheng regularly teaches courses in accessibility to mid- and senior-level managers at enterprises. He offers an in-depth definition of information accessibility, stressing that anyone, no matter their situation, should have equal, convenient, and barrier-free access to information and its use. He also demonstrates how partially sighted people use mobile phones. He estimates that for 99% of the people who attend his classes, it probably marks the first time they have activated the accessibility mode on their phone. He often finds it difficult to wrap up this section, as this is when these managers discover what it’s actually like for someone who is partially sighted to use their company’s software and experience the numerous obstacles involved.

In his dealings with many enterprises, Zheng has found himself being asked the same questions time and again: “If we add accessibility features, will someone actually use them?” and “How many more users will this help us add?” He explains that many businesses can’t see quantifiable benefits in increasing accessibility. During their early discussions, Ren and his colleagues also considered these factors, but felt that the goal of increasing accessibility was not financial. Plus, as they were effectively starting from scratch, the lack of resources and experience served as far more pressing issues.

A screenshot shows Zheng Rui teaching visually-impaired people to read images

Long road ahead

In online group chats for ARA personnel, the partially sighted engineers often use emojis to communicate with their colleagues. Shen doesn’t like to use them, as he thinks that “smiley face” and “facepalm” sound strange when they are read aloud, but he remembers how happy many disabled users were when they could finally send emojis.

In recent years, while working with engineers at partner enterprises, Shen has often encountered problems brought about by good intentions. Once, an employee at an enterprise asked, “When a user taps a button, do you want the reader to say, ‘Tapping a button will allow you to learn more’?” Although thoughtful, Shen says such thinking can lead to information redundancy and reduce efficiency. “We’re blind; we’re not stupid,” he says, adding that he sometimes doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

When Xiaohongshu rolled out its first phase of accessibility features for Apple devices, Ren found that partially sighted users, who had been invisible on the app before, gradually began making their voices heard. This led to a positive chain reaction, such as when entrepreneur Ma Yinqing posted about accessibility problems she had faced at an exhibition, prompting a group of netizens to respond by posting suggestions that eventually helped solve the issues.

In September 2020, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the China Disabled Persons’ Federation issued official guidance on the promotion of information accessibility in the country. Many developers have since launched projects to improve accessibility, with 375 websites and apps having been adjusted and approved as of May 2022, and more work is in progress. China also introduced the Law on the Creation of Barrier-free Environment late last year.

Around the same time, tactile paving was installed in the ARA offices. The property management company also placed braille stickers on the elevator buttons for the first and seventh floors, where the workstations of the partially sighted engineers are located.

The ARA engineers serve as an important bridge between the internet industry and disabled users, and they’re just as busy outside of work, too. Shen has invested three years and his own money into creating a battle royale video game for visually impaired gamers, building an immersive world using various sound effects. Fan is also putting the finishing touches on a digital business card he has developed for people with disabilities to make it easier for them to access information on job vacancies and to submit their resumés.

For both Shen and Fan, their mission is to prevent people with visual impairments from being left behind and to help make them more visible. They hope that their contributions can create a more inclusive world.

Reported by Zhang Lingyun.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Shanghai Observer. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

Translator: David Ball; contributions: Chen Yue; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

(Header image: Visuals from VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)

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