Visualizing data allows us to consume information in the easiest way possible. We can spot trends and comparisons, problem areas, and outliers more easily when in a graph or chart, than we can in a table or raw format. But how do you make the power of visualizations accessible to the blind?
Scalable Vector Graphics standard (SVG) is one option. The SVG standard is 508 compliant, which means that each graphic element (such as a bar on a chart) can have a name and description attached to it. This allows screen readers to describe the visual elements of an SVG dashboard, allowing blind viewers to listen to a description of the visual layout and even the values being displayed inside a chart or graph. A number of data visualization providers provide export functionality to SVG, and other 508-complaint formats (such as HTML).
But they certainly don’t make it easy; most apps we’ve worked with make it very difficult to add descriptive text to each element on a dashboard, and graphic elements are usually described in an order that makes little sense to a blind viewer with a screen reader. In addition, writing these tags requires quite a bit of technical acumen and a lot of time investment; ‘508 compliance’ only seems to mean that the providers do an absolute minimum to support the standard.
This raises an important question: Is there a market for dashboard and data visualization tools that make it easy to build screen-readable dashboards? There are many public-service organizations (including government websites) that strictly enforce 508-compliant web standards. A data visualization platform that incorporates auto-generated descriptions and provides the ability to customize the descriptions as well as change the reading order, would go a long way towards making dashboards and visualizations truly accessible to the blind.
So far we haven’t found any tools that make it easy to build dashboards for the blind. If you have experience developing 508-compliant dashboards, or know of a visualization platform that makes the process easy, please share your experiences in the comment section below, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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