IRLNovember 5, 2021

What it’s like navigating the internet when you’re blind


Neil Jarvis is obsessed with the internet. He’s also totally blind. For IRL, he discusses online shopping, why screen readers are a lifesaver, and how evil CAPTCHA systems are. 

As told to Shanti Mathias.

Online grocery shopping changed my life. I’d been going to grocery stores forever, but it was an experience full of friction: I was reliant on someone else to lead me around the shop, and always felt so conscious of taking up their time. I couldn’t see the products or what was on special, and I had a very narrow view of what was in a supermarket. 

It would have been the late 90s when I started doing online grocery shopping, and the first time I searched for “milk” or “cornflakes”, it blew my mind how many options there were. With an internet connection and a screen reader, the world became bigger.

People think blind people struggle to know where they are and who they’re talking to, but we’re good at being oriented. My challenge is accessing information sighted people take for granted. When I was a child, I desperately wanted to read books like my brother could; I used to bribe and con anyone nearby into spending half an hour reading to me. I’ve never forgotten that frustration. 

To make navigating the internet possible, I use a screen reader. These devices take the information that goes to the monitor sighted people use, intercepts it, and presents it through synthetic speech, electronic braille, or both. I listen to the synthetic voice and control what gets read with keyboard commands. I can’t use a mouse, by the way – you can’t click on things if you can’t tell where the cursor is.  


To make using a screen reader efficient, I set it to 320 or 330 words per minute; normal speaking speed is about 100 words per minute. When I demonstrate this to people as part of my digital accessibility work, they’re always surprised.  

Screen readers can be prohibitively expensive. We’re talking thousands of dollars, and you have to keep updating the software. There are free ones, but I like to use a range across my different devices – I’m the king of the Swiss army knife approach. 

Technology makes so many things possible for me. With the internet, I can do my own research, banking and shopping, and I get lost for hours on Wikipedia. I get sucked in by old TV programmes on YouTube. I can satisfy the desires of that 10-year-old child who wanted to read. The internet has given me greater independence, which means the world to me. 

These days, there’s lots of entertainment with features for people who can’t see. Most Netflix movies will have an audio-described option, which helps when you can’t see the expressions on people’s faces. I also love YouTube. The screen reader asks, “Are you interested in this?”, and thanks to the algorithm, I nearly always am.

Still, it is hard missing out on the visual aspects of the internet. When people first started putting resources online in the 90s, they would post photos of forms and newspaper articles, because nobody thought that the internet would really replace paper. It’s just awful for me when something is presented as an image; I can’t work with images at all. The analogue today is the rise in visual data journalism. I’m sure those charts are useful and interesting, but I always hope for a table or some words to accompany them, so I can know what’s going on. 

I’m not an Instagram user, because I’m not interested in looking at pictures of people’s dinner unless they describe it… well, even then I’m probably not interested! Lots of news comes with videos that autostart: if you go to the New Zealand Herald’s website, they’ll start playing a tangentially-related video and there’s no clear way to stop it, so I just have to close the tab. 

That’s thoughtless design, but it’s the CAPTCHA systems that are truly evil. Imagine being told to click on an image to prove you’re a real human and not being able to do that. I understand their purpose, but there are better ways to achieve it. If using a digital service means negotiating a CAPTCHA, I’m simply going to go elsewhere. The bots will get the better of them in the end, anyway. 

I probably have too many apps on my phone, but I’m always loath to delete them; maybe 15 or 20 are accessibility related. Half a dozen of my apps describe photographs, which has been a total revelation. I’ve been able to load a picture of my grandfather to get a sense of what he looked like in his prime. We were very close, and he died when I was young.

I use technology all day, every day. I take Ubers, I check the weather, I navigate to new places. The Covid Tracer app is a great example of an accessibility challenge: I try to be assiduous about scanning in, but I don’t know where the codes are, and if I need to give my phone to someone else to assist me, it defeats the purpose. Paying for items is another challenge. I usually use my Apple Watch or phone, which is so much easier than paying with cash I can’t see, but I have to wave my hand around in the air or have someone guide my arm towards the Eftpos machine. I’ve learned to navigate lots of little complications like that. 

The things that technology makes possible for me, I want to be possible for everyone, even those who aren’t as comfortable with digital devices as I am. There are so many things content creators can do to make the internet more accessible, and it’s not much extra effort. Label your links so I know what I’m clicking on; don’t just say “click here”. Describe your images so that people who can’t see know what the image contains. It makes such a difference. 

Accessible digital content is life changing. It’s been 30 years since I started using bulletin boards on the early internet and first did my Christmas shopping online. But after all this time, I still wake up every morning and think: “Isn’t the internet marvellous?”

Have you been the victim of a catfishing or online scam? Do you make your living in the gig economy? Got a great yarn about the internet? Get in touch with us at irl@thespinoff.co.nz. 

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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