MIT makes data display more accessible to visually impaired users

MIT makes data display more accessible to visually impaired users

Researchers from MIT worked with the visually impaired London academic Daniel Hajas on prototypes that enable people to access complex data using screen reading technology.

Researchers have come up with a way to make data visualizations more accessible to people with visual impairments.

Currently, online data visualization tools are very limiting for visually impaired people. The screen reader assist technology they use to read elements on the screen only covers text-to-speech. This means that the visually impaired are excluded from gaining insights from data presented through diagrams and other visualizations.

Future man

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) worked with Daniel Hajas, a researcher at University College London who works with the Global Disability Innovation Hub. Hajas lost his sight at the age of 16.

Together, the researchers developed new prototypes that enable users of screen readers to quickly and easily navigate through several levels of information in an online chart.

They ran a detailed user study with blind and visually impaired individuals to gather feedback on the prototypes. They created prototypes for several visualization structures that provide text descriptions at different levels of detail.

They tested these prototypes and an accessible data table – the existing best practice for available visualizations – with 13 blind and visually impaired screen readers. Users were asked to rate each prototype tool based on several criteria, including how easy it was to learn and how easy it was to find data or answer questions.

According to Hajas, “Insights from people who have lived experience of a particular specific, measurable problem are really important for many disability-related solutions.”

A prototype made it possible for individuals to use the up and down arrows on their keyboard to navigate between different levels of information, and the right and left arrow keys to scroll through information at the same level.

Another prototype included the same arrow key navigation but also a drop-down menu with key card slots so that the user could quickly jump to an area of ‚Äč‚Äčinterest.

Familiarity matters

The testers found that the prototypes were effective, but rated the data table the highest. “I expected people to be disappointed with the everyday tools compared to the new prototypes, but they still clung to the data table a bit, probably because of their familiarity with it,” Hajas said.

“It shows that principles such as familiarity, teachability and usability still play a role. No matter how ‘good’ our new invention is, if it’s not easy enough to learn, people can stick to an older version.”

The research group published their results in a paper ahead of presenting it in Rome ahead of EuroVis 2022 later this month.

The academics plan to use their prototypes and design frameworks to build a user-friendly tool that can convert visualizations to available formats.

At the same time, to coincide with the latest Global Accessibility Awareness Day, which falls on May 19, Google said it was introducing updates to make it easier for point readers to use Android.

Google’s screen reader with Android is called Talkback. The company in May that it started building ready support for Braille screens for Android 13 Beta.

The new updates will allow users to use Braille display navigation and editing shortcuts without additional downloads.

Google’s announcement preceded a report was issued on 26 May which had some damning results about the EU in relation to digital accessibility.

A study conducted by the Dutch research agency Accessibility Desk looked at accessibility monitors from 26 EU countries and revealed that almost no government websites or apps fully met the accessibility requirements. These requirements include ability to adjust font sizes for the visually impaired, or use of captions or transcripts in videos.

The report found that there is no uniform policy for making government websites and apps accessible, which disappoints the more than 135 million Europeans with disabilities.

Separately, a study by Inclusion and Accessibility Labs in Ireland found it 72 Irish companies do not have websites that are considered accessible to people with disabilities.

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