Hearing the web: my experience with inaccessibility

A 5 minute read written by Matt May 15, 2014

GAAD image sketch design with an ear drawing added

May 15th is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, or GAAD for those that love acronyms. But it’s more than just an acronym – accessibility has a real impact on real people’s lives. So it’s our responsibility, as the people that build the web, to make sure that everything we do can be accessed and enjoyed by everybody. My own experience with hearing impairment taught me a lot about how hard it is to live in a mostly inaccessible world.

Hearing is believing

I’ve never been a visual person, because my vision degenerated very quickly when I was a kid. By the time I was in junior high, I couldn’t do much of anything without strong prescription lenses. Even walking was a challenge – I couldn’t see my own toes! My life was manageable with glasses, but I learned not to rely much on my sight.

So my vision was bad, but that was fine because my hearing was all that mattered to me. I’ve been a musician for as long as I can remember. From pots-and-pans drum sets to concert hall performances, my world has always revolved around music.

And I had pretty damn good hearing, extending well past 22KHz (most people in their early 20s struggle to hear past 20KHz). I also had amazing localization skills: if you put me in a theatre with an orchestra, I could pick out each individual instrument, the breathing patterns of each performer, and who was out of tune. As I got more formal education in music, my skills got better and better. Even though I couldn’t see much, I could paint a vivid picture of the world around me with my ears. Music was my life.

The day the music died

But then one morning, I woke up completely deaf, with blood coming out of both my ears. I couldn’t get my balance, and all I could hear was a mind-wrenching, high-pitched screeching inside my head.

So what happened? Apparently a severe strep throat infection had travelled up my Eustachian tubes. The swelling from the infection grew until my ear drums burst and my inner ear filled with fluid. I thought I would be deaf for life and that everything I valued would be lost.

My doctor gave me about a 60% chance of full recovery. Most of my hearing could be restored, as long as the infection didn’t get into the inner ear. Best case scenario: a few months of auditory darkness. Worst case: permanent deafness.

Living with inaccessibility

I never felt helpless with my poor eyesight. But I felt alone when I lost my hearing.

People would talk to me but I couldn't understand them. Asking them to write out everything they said was a burden, and eventually pity turned into scorn and derision. I withdrew from friends, family, and school. I couldn't hear in class, and missed important things when professors didn’t write them down.

There wasn’t much I could do for entertainment, because the thing I loved most – music – was gone. I found no joy from movies or television. Closed-captioned TV was nightmarish (just try it). Movies had subtitles, but I would miss everything else on the screen while I was reading them.

The (in)accessible web

One of the only places I had to turn to was the Internet. The early-2000s web was still largely text-focused, but new audio and video content was turning up all the time. I quickly discovered that there were surprisingly few accessibility options for deaf people like me. If I wanted to watch a video, I had to find a transcript. Usually they didn’t exist. So unless I could find a friend to describe it for me, I was out of luck.

And as the web evolved and dynamic content started popping up everywhere, I realized I was missing out on even more. The in-browser accessibility options I had come to depend on (like changing the contrast or increasing text size) no longer worked. It seemed like the entire world was enjoying something that I would never experience. I avoided splashier dynamic websites because invariably I would encounter something that I couldn't use or understand.

It led to many an embarrassing situation. In the early 2000s, people still thought it was a good idea to auto-play music on their websites. The average person could just be appropriately annoyed and turn off the volume. But those of us who were deaf had no idea it was happening – sometimes on multiple browser tabs. Sometimes in the university library.

Light at the end of the eardrum

After a few months, some of my hearing started to return. It took me a long time to make sense of the information my brain was receiving and teach myself how to hear again. It was a chaotic process – I was often left disoriented in loud or busy spaces.

It took over a year and a half before listening to music was enjoyable again. It took over two years to regain 95% of my hearing. Even though I’m all recovered now, it left an indelible mark on me and how I think about communicating.

How to make a more accessible web

As a System Administrator here at Yellow Pencil, I don’t have much say in how websites get designed. But I hope my story, and countless other stories like it, will help people that make the web think about accessibility first.

Here are some things you can do to make the web a more accessible place to be:

Give your users options. They need multiple ways to access your content, since they might not be able to use the method you like best.

Create visual cues for audio. So a deaf person will know it’s there and can mute it.

Transcribe all audio and video on the same page. I spent hours searching for transcripts – make sure they’re easily accessible on the same page as the video/audio itself.

Walk a mile in your users’ shoes. Empathy is important – not all people experience content the same way. Many people have limits on how they can experience content because of a disability. Thinking about how your designs might be inaccessible should be an important part of the design process

Deafness is noisy. Keep accessible designs free of clutter (visual or auditory). People who have lost a sense have to filter out much more information from a single sense to gain context or meaning from your content.

Knowing what a button does is important. Make sure you set the right expectations. Clicking a button that doesn’t look like a play button but starts a recording can be embarrassing for everyone, deaf or not.

Auditory cues mean nothing to the deaf. When I regained my hearing, I found that many websites, applications, and devices dedicated to the deaf often used sounds to indicate that an action had been taken. Beeps in an application that reads transcribed video to the deaf made very little sense to me.

For more ideas on web accessibility, check out these resources:

The web should be a place of experience and inclusion. If you help make the web, you need to put accessibility first, from the very beginning – it isn’t something that can get tacked on at the end. It can’t be an add-on. It has to be the default.

The more people we include, the better for everyone as a whole. The internet is the great equalizer, and we should all work to keep it that way.