Maryland Today | System Breaks Down Barriers for Blind Web Designers

Many apps help blind users surf the web – but what if a visually impaired person wants to design the visual layout of a page? There are few tools to support them, especially without the help of a sighted person.

Now, researchers at the University of Maryland are increasing accessibility by developing a novel device that lets blind users design web page layouts using touch and sound.

With TangibleGrid, blind designers can capture and adjust brackets representing visual elements, such as text boxes or videos, on a magnetic baseplate. The substrate senses the type, size, and position of the brackets, puts the information into words, and then renders the web page on the browser.

The project is led by second-year Ph.D. Li Jiasheng. A computer science major with a focus on advancing technology to provide visually impaired people with better access to the digital world.

“I hope TangibleGrid can be a bridge for more blind developers to participate in front-end design,” Li said. “As more and more blind people are able to code and create their own programs, we hope this tool opens new doors for them – not only as a hobby for creating personal websites, but also for their careers.”

One of those users is Ebrima Jarjue, who was instrumental in developing the system. Jarjue graduated last year from UMD’s School of Information Studies with a master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction and is now a Section 508 compliance auditor, tester, and analyst for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, ensuring equitable access to information for people with disabilities.

Accessibility issues affecting his academic performance at Montgomery College and UMD prompted him to proactively provide advice and feedback to disability support services at both institutions.

“For the most part, I helped them help me succeed in college,” he explained. “These experiences, along with my passion for advocacy and accessibility to inclusive design, were important factors that drove me to develop TangibleGrid.”

Huaishu Peng, an assistant professor of computer science who is also involved in the TangibleGrid project, stressed that Jarjue’s input was invaluable.

“To really understand the needs of blind developers, co-designing with them is critical,” said Peng, who holds an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Computing at the University of Maryland.

Two other co-authors of the paper describing the project are fourth-year computer science PhDs. Candidates Zeyu Yan and Ashrith Shetty HCIM ’20. The system will be demonstrated and demonstrated this week at the ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium in Bend, Oregon, the premier forum for human-machine interface innovation.

In addition to working with Jarjue, the UMD team interviewed five other blind users — two with previous web design or programming experience, and three with no experience. These interviews directly guided the design process and inspired TangibleGrid’s capabilities. For example, giving blind users autonomy is a recurring theme; respondents often expressed frustration with having to rely on others to validate their work.

“I can put the content in [templates] With the help of screen readers, but I don’t know how they are rendered on the page, I always ask a sighted friend to confirm the results,” said one participant who actively uses WordPress and Medium. , TangibleGrid provides an audio description of the layout in real time as the designer adjusts the stand by hand.

Once the team was finally able to test the device post-COVID, they were excited to see blind users operate it successfully.

“It’s great to see blind users, even people with no previous web design experience, being able to use the tool to design simple web layouts,” Peng said.

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