Image: Stefan Malmesjö/Flickr
Several times a day, I search for coronavirus updates online, an increasingly grim and unconscious habit I’ve adopted over the last few weeks from the confines of my New York City apartment. I’m met with a barrage of charts, infographics, and transcripts of news conferences. I’m able to grasp the harrowing reality we're in with just a few clicks. But for the blind and visually impaired communities, information from the government and news sources remains largely inaccessible, and in the midst of a global pandemic, this isn’t merely an inconvenience, it’s a fatal negligence.
There’s no shortage of news on the crisis, but it’s these charts and other data visualizations that we’ve all gravitated toward to easily absorb the state of the virus, our healthcare system, and our communities. But these graphs and spatial data we’re all obsessed with aren’t designed and published in a way that is accessible to blind people—and creating a tactile version of these charts, as stands, requires an accessible media specialist and access to expensive machinery.“I wish everyone had the ability to have the Flatten the Curve graphic under their fingers, because the moment I touched the one I was able to create I understood the situation in a way that scrolling couldn’t have conveyed,” Chancey Fleet, a tech educator at a public library and an affiliate at Data and Society, told me. “It is so stark, it is such a contrast. I’m sure there are other things in our life everyday where we would understand them better if we had access to the original infographics and charts.”In the more immediate moment, this carelessness also excludes blind and visually impaired folks from key services like drive-through testing. Fleet said that she’s heard from people in her community that they aren’t sure whether they can walk or take a wheelchair to these testing sites. CVS drive-thru sites, for instance, currently only let people drive through. A drive-thru site in Arlington County, Virginia only allows private vehicles, meaning if someone is unable to drive themselves, they couldn’t walk through or take a cab. When I called the number for a testing site in Riverside, California, the representative who answered the phone wasn’t sure what their accommodations were for people who are blind and with disabilities, or if patients were restricted to private vehicles only.
“When messaging goes out about drive-thru clinics, there should be a clear alternative for non-drivers and it should be messaged out,” Fleet said.“The moment that I heard everything was going drive-thru I kind of had a cringe moment because, other than in the hospital, there’s really no other way to access that testing, and for many in our community, including myself, who are immunocompromised, that puts us at a much higher risk,” Sassy Outwater-Wright, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said. “We don’t get the benefit of staying in our car, we don’t get the benefit of trying to continue to social distance. We have to go in.”Tyler Littlefield, a software developer, is one of those people who is contributing to more impromptu resources for blind and visually impaired people online looking for accessible coronavirus information. Littlefield, who is blind with only light perception, created a fully accessible COVID-19 statistics tracker, which converts available data around the crisis to a text format, which makes it easy for people using screen reading software to navigate and understand.“For many people with various types of disabilities, graphics and the information conveyed in them is hard to read and understand,” Littlefield said. "I believe in the idea of open data, data that everyone can access to help make informed decisions. Finding this lack, I created CVStats to present the data to users in a straightforward way, free of ads, click-through news articles and graphics.”
Outwater-Wright said that it’s not just federal government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Public Health that share information in a way that largely excludes her community, but various universities, and state and county departments of health are also putting out models that aren’t accessible to people with visual impairments. Tables, graphs, and charts would require access to a braille embosser machine, which operates like a printer, using braille translation software to embed raised braille characters onto paper.Naomi Rosenberg, Senior Designer at the Media and Accessible Design Laboratory, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco said that while braille embossers can create most graphs and charts, because they are read by fingertips rather than eyes, the resolution is lower, and too much information can render it nearly impossible to read. “Clutter is the enemy of tactile legibility,” she said.Most people don’t have these machines in their home—they cost thousands of dollars—and to find a publicly available one would be risking exposure both by going outside and also touching a public utility.Fleet asked Rosenberg to consider making her a tactile version of the Flattening the Curve graph. Rosenberg said that she designed files that are compatible with a braille printer before 9am while monitoring her preschooler’s cough to figure out whether they should go to school that day—this was before schools were closed.
“For a sighted audience, this kind of graphic is very effective because it quickly conveys a message, in this case, how staying at home can reduce the strain on hospitals,” Rosenberg said. “There are a few options for blind people to access data visualizations, either in digital or physical formats.”She cited sonified graphs, very well-formatted data tables, and alt text—descriptive language added to images with HTML to be read aloud to those using assistive technology—examples of digital accessible media. She listed tactile graphics produced by a designer or educator—a costly and timely process—as an example of tactile accessible media.“For each of these, a blind reader is at the mercy of the designer, writer, or educator to produce quality graphics, concise image descriptions, or properly-formatted tables,” Rosenberg said. “While accessible media is certainly on the rise, I still see my fair share of completely unformatted text documents and images with no alt text to be found.”Rosenberg also said that most tactile production still revolves around educational uses, and that for those separate from these institutions, it’s difficult to come across these tactile media. Because of the expensive machinery needed and the scarcity of these types of graphics, she said that tactile graphic literacy is low.Older adults who are blind, don’t have a connection to the larger blind community, and aren’t as well-versed technology are instead turning to resources like radio news, television, and a lot of hearsay, Outwater-Wright said.
“You can check four different news sources and get four different answers, you can check hearsay, and you’re going to get a million different answers, versus everyone saying to go to the official source,” she said. “Well, the official source is not accessible. What are you supposed to do?”For news outlets that do share visuals, Fleet said that the infographics and charts are often absent of any meaningful detailed descriptions, leaving people who are blind and visually impaired with “a feeling of uncertainty.”Outwater-Wright said that she would like to see at the very least text information detailing what is visualized in the charts. “Or I’m always going to say, give me the same access to information that everyone else has,” citing a way to emboss it or convert it onto refreshable braille displays. She also said that she’d like information on how researchers came to their conclusions—showing their work—such as a text table of the numbers that someone can follow with a screen reader—software programs that transmits text content through speech or braille—or braille display, rather than simply an image with no caption.“One small ray of progress and hope in all of this is that I think it’s becoming really clear why people with disabilities and blind people in particular need access to numerical data,” Fleet said. “We haven’t had a moment in this country before talking about stats and curves. As bleak as it is, I’ve been waiting all my life for people to take notice that we don’t live in a text-only world.”Fleet said that accessibility isn’t simply converting text into speech or braille. “Data matters. Spatial info matters. And we all have an equal need for it. It’s taken this crisis, but I’ve never seen as many accessible ways of rendering data.”Littlefield said that the response to his tracker has been “overwhelmingly positive,” which is great, but that he “can't help but think how simple this idea was, and how even the most basic solutions make a world of difference for those with disabilities unable to access data.”