Braille signs and accessibility – why these signs didn’t help me find my way around

Not all blind people are able to read Braille, but for those of us who are, having information in Braille can be really useful. I particularly like to find it on hotel bedrooms. This means I don’t have to meticulously count the doors (no good if there’s a group of people or a trolley of towels in the way), and it’s a sure way to stop you accidentally trying to break into someone else’s room.

However, putting up signs in Braille is not just like translating the sign into another language. There are a few more things to consider. A recent trip to a hotel really brought this home to me, so I thought I’d share my experiences here.

Problem 1 – I don’t know about the signs

Some blind people have a degree of sight and they may notice the signs. They may be travelling with someone as I was. It was my fiancé who first alerted me to the signs in the hotel, and he’s pointed out other random signs on our travels too. Signs about safety, opening times, toilets, or how to use a piece of equipment. The problem is, if he hadn’t been there, I would have walked straight past them, completely unaware that they were there, which rather defeats the object of having the sign there in the first place.

Signs don’t work for me in the same way. They don’t grab my attention. They have to be pointed out.

So, if you’re thinking about putting Braille signs up on your premises, there needs to be some training too. You or your staff have no way of knowing whether a blind person is able to read Braille, but if you think that they might, for example because they have a white cane or a guide dog, it’s worth them explaining that there are Braille signs around the venue. Otherwise your shiny new signs may just go unnoticed!

Problem 2 – I can’t reach that!

Now we come to the three problems that I found with the signs at the hotel. I’m not looking to make an example of this particular hotel, but I thought the issues illustrate my point.

After we discovered the door numbers, my fiancé started showing me other signs – but there were a few issues with them. We did point out the problems to reception so that they could get them put right, but apparently the signs had been around for a number of years and nobody had commented on them before. See problem 1!

At 1.55m, I’m not very tall. But the point of Braille signs is that you read them with your fingers. We found one that was so high above my head that I could only reach the bottom of it. This is a problem! Ok, many people are taller than me, but a building can’t just cater to tall blind people!

I understand the thinking behind it – you can get away with putting printed signs higher up – but different rules apply when your sign has to be read with fingers.

Problem 3 – the writing is upside down

I couldn’t figure out what the writing said at first, but it was in fact upside down. The rest of the sign was not – all the arrows were pointing in the right directions and the printed lettering was right, but the Braille text had been printed upside down! Maybe the person creating the sign had been watching Stranger Things and wanted to send Braille readers to the Upside Down? Or maybe they just didn’t check. Either way, nobody was aware of the error.

Problem 4 – the text is incorrect

On these particular signs, I could read the printed text too because it was in raised letters. So I could tell that the Braille letters did not say the same as the rest of the sign. The printed letters were correct – the Braille was not and might have sent someone in circles looking for the room when they were actually right outside it!

Conclusion

I’ve no doubt that the hotel wanted to do something good that made their venue more accessible to disabled people – and this is a good thing. I’ve no doubt that they also spent a lot of money on those signs because they were printed on durable plastic, which I’m sure wasn’t cheap.

The part that was missing here was quality assurance checking – making sure that people for whom the signs were intended could actually use them, and that the company had paid for a quality product. If there had been some kind of strategy that had included user testing, or someone who explained some of the things you need to think about when putting up Braille signs, all of these problems could have been avoided.

EwK Services offers consultations in a number of areas to ensure that your products and services are accessible to blind people (specifically screenreader users and Braille readers). Visit the accessibility page For more information about these services or how else I can help you and your business.

You can also use this form to sign up for my monthly newsletter, or to get your free copy of “common barriers to accessibility” in terms of websites, products, social media, training materials, or events.





yesno


Accessibility – it’s not enough that your website started off being accessible

The worst time to ask for feedback is the time immediately after you’ve annoyed someone!

Have you ever had that experience? You’ve been kept waiting on hold in a queue that went on for what feels like hours, or you’ve had the worst customer service ever, and then you get a request to give feedback about how satisfied you were with the service? Sometimes people are so annoyed, that they do in fact give feedback – and it’s rarely positive.

I had a similar experience yesterday evening. I’m not going to name and shame the site here. I do sometimes use social media or my personal blog to highlight problems and try and get them fixed, but this blog is more about good practice. I will however explained what happened, because I think it’s important.

The site is one that I’ve used before. It’s not the most accessible, but I can get most things done without too many work-arounds. Recently they decided to make some changes and update the page I wanted to use.

I wasn’t aware of any improvements. Maybe it does look nicer. As a blind user, I can’t comment on that. What I did notice however, was that only two of the buttons that I might want to use had graphic labels. As luck would have it, the one that I wanted to click had not been labelled correctly. So I had a 50% chance between unlabelled0 and unlabelled1.

Would you click unlabelled buttons if you didn’t know what they would do?

I didn’t want to take my chances, so I asked someone to take a look and tell me which one I needed. I can remember for next time if I need to use that page again, but I shouldn’t have to. Sighted visitors to the page know what the buttons do.

Apart from the obvious frustration, there are two issues here:

1. Inconsistency

Someone on the team clearly knows how to label buttons correctly, because the other two had graphic labels that my screenreader could read. In the same way that site owners want consistent branding and use of colour across their site, consistent web design and coding is important too, especially on the same page.

If none of the buttons had been labelled correctly, I might assume that the person designing it didn’t know how to. But that’s clearly not the case here.

2. Updates shouldn’t be a step backwards for accessibility

Previously, the buttons on this page did have correct graphics labels, and these somehow got lost or overlooked when the page was updated. This actually makes the experience worse for me now.

It’s easily done if you have more than one person working on a site, or if someone inherits a site that was designed by someone else, but it’s really important not to lose the accessibility features and basic good practice that were already built into the site.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you can’t see a problem as someone didn’t bother to label a page control properly that nobody will notice.

In terms of the site in question, it’s not the first time that I’ve flagged an accessibility issue, it’s been fixed, and then the changes were lost in the next update.

This is a strong argument for why accessible and inclusive design should be on the agenda as a matter of course, not an afterthought whereby people have to fix all the things that get broken with an update.

Then they wanted my feedback!

Directly under the unlabelled buttons was a request for user feedback about the new design. I was happy to oblige and I hope that my feedback will be acted upon. I’d still have preferred it if I hadn’t had to spend time tracking down someone who could help me with something that previously hadn’t been an issue.

I’m fortunate. I do have someone who helps me with visual tasks in my businesses, but it’s an unfair and unrealistic assumption that blind people always have someone close by that can help them out. I don’t have help full-time, and if I want to use your site in the middle of the night when nobody is around, I should have that freedom just as any other visitor does!

Take-away

People are creatures of habit and generally we’re not fans of change. This is even more so if you break someone’s user experience with your next update, so it’s worth making sure that anything you’re planning to do won’t have a negative impact on the accessibility of your site.

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