MIT is making datavis more accessible for visually impaired users

3 Jun 2022

Image: © elypse/

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

Researchers have come up with a way of making data visualisations more accessible to people with visual impairments.

Currently, online data visualisation tools are very limiting for people with low vision. The screen-reader assistive tech that they use to read on-screen elements only covers text-to-speech. This means visually impaired people are excluded from gleaning insights from data that is presented through charts and other visualisations.

Researchers from 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 age 16.

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

They ran a detailed user study with blind and low-vision individuals to gather feedback on the prototypes. They prototyped several visualisation structures that provide text descriptions at varying levels of detail.

They tested these prototypes and an accessible data table – the existing best practice for accessible visualisations – with 13 blind and visually impaired screen-reader users. The users were asked to rate each prototype tool on several criteria, including how easy it was to learn and how easy it was to locate data or answer questions.

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

One prototype enabled 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 cycle through information on the same level.

Another prototype included the same arrow key navigation but also a drop-down menu of key chart locations so the user could quickly jump to an area of interest.

Familiarity matters

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

“That shows that principles like familiarity, learnability and usability still matter. No matter how ‘good’ our new invention is, if it is not easy enough to learn, people might stick with an older version.”

The research team published their findings 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 framework to build a user-friendly tool that could convert visualisations into accessible formats.

Meanwhile, to coincide with the most recent Global Accessibility Awareness Day which falls every 19 May, Google said it was it introducing updates to make it easier for Braille readers to use Android.

Google’s screen-reader with Android is called Talkback. The company said in May that it was beginning to build out-of-the-box support for Braille displays for Android 13 Beta.

The new updates will mean that users can avail of navigation and editing shortcuts for braille displays without additional downloads.

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

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

The report found that there is no uniform policy for making governmental websites and apps accessible, failing the more than 135m Europeans with disabilities.

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

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic