Built-in tools and extensions to make web browsing easier for people with vision impairments

It’s not easy, but you can do it.

Navigating the world as a person with a vision disability is hard. Browsing the internet is no different. Dedicated software and hardware can make it easier, but some solutions don’t work on all sites and others come with a steep learning curve.

Until the web becomes more accommodating, though, people with vision impairments will need to work with the tools available. There’s no perfect option, but there are several add-ons and settings for Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox that will make the internet a little bit easier to see.

Focused object highlighting

If you have trouble finding your cursor, this Chrome feature will help by briefly highlighting the object you click on, whether it’s a button, link, or a block of text. Enable it by going to Settings, Advanced, Accessibility, and checking the box next to Show a quick highlight on the focused object.

Color correcting

Websites are not generally built with colorblindness or limited eyesight in mind. Visual accents are usually designed to catch the attention of people with no vision impairments, but are lost on those whose eyes process light differently. There are a number of features and extensions that can help, starting with High Contrast—a Chrome extension that inverts the colors on a webpage so people with limited vision can see all elements more clearly. High Contrast has the added bonus of displaying all webpages as if you were using night mode, which helps ease the strain on your eyes.

[Related: Online classes are difficult for the hard of hearing. Here’s how to fix that.]

Although this tool works with most websites (including Popular Science), it’s not exactly consistent. One day, High Contrast couldn’t override Twitter’s signature light-blue-and-white color palette, but the next day it worked smoothly. Along the same lines, it once displayed the organizational platform AirTable as a big, black square with no discernible… anything, and later displayed it normally, with its corresponding inverted colors.

For a more customizable experience, people with colorblindness can go for the Color Enhancer Chrome extension. This tool applies a subtle color filter to websites, which you can adjust to the severity of your condition. Add it to Chrome and then turn it on it by clicking the extensions button (it looks like a puzzle piece) to the right of the navigation bar, and then turn on the toggle switch under Color Enhancer. Now you’ll see a Color Enhancer icon to the right of the navigation bar (it looks like a triangle made out of three circles). Click on it and check the box under Enable, then go to Setup. You’ll see three customizable options that let you adjust colors for your eyes; choose what works best for you and click OK. You can modify the filter’s intensity by playing around with the Color adjustment slider, which pops up when you click on the extension button.

If you use Firefox, you have two options. Click on Preferences, General, and scroll down to Language and Appearance. Next, go to Colors… and choose Fonts & Colors. There, you can find a font you’re comfortable with and a color combination for backgrounds and links that suits your needs. Within the same dialog box, find the option to Override the colors specified by the page with your selections above, click it to open a drop-down menu, and set it to Always.

[Related: Designing spaces with marginalized people in mind makes them better for everyone]

You can also opt for a high-contrast Firefox theme. Click the three lines in the top right and then choose Add ons. In the search bar within the new window, type “High contrast themes” and choose the one you like to install it. These work like the High Contrast extension on Chrome, but Firefox applies the theme to its entire browser—not just webpages.

Text-to-speech solutions

Making the web accessible for people with severe vision impairment may be the biggest challenge. There are specialized software and hardware solutions, but you can achieve similar functionalities by installing artificial intelligence-powered text-to-speech extensions on a browser. Some of them, like Read Me or Read Aloud do the trick, but won’t work unless you click on text, which defeats the purpose if you can’t see well.

The most comprehensive option is Google’s Screen Reader. This extension uses the same technology as ChromeVox, the text-to-speech tool built into Chromebooks, and it’ll read webpages aloud for you. The extension starts working immediately after you install it. To customize this tool, click on the orange Screen Reader icon to the right of the nav bar and choose Options. You’ll be able to set up shortcuts for navigating pages and controlling speech, turn on features like highlighting the text being read, and select different voices.

[Related: This company wants to replace braille with a controversial new font]

When it comes to sounds, Screen Reader has a lot of options that are optimized for different languages. The problem is that you won’t know which one is which until you try them. Under Voices, you’ll see a list of names. Alex is the default male, English-speaking voice, and though you’d think Alice, the second name on the list, is the female version of that, it’s actually a voice optimized to read Italian.

The other problem with Screen Reader is that there’s a lot on a webpage that you don’t actually want to read. Think about your inbox—when you check it, you usually focus on your new, unread messages, particularly the sender and the subject. But if you tell a machine to read your inbox for you, it’ll start in the top left, which may include the names of your email folders or other products from the company managing your email service. It reads every page this way, which may make it hard to get things done. Users can make it better by using the navigation options and shortcuts, but there’s certainly a potentially frustrating learning curve.

Some websites are more complicated than others, and using simplified versions will help Screen Reader get things right a lot faster. For the rest, you’ll just have to have patience.

Sandra Gutierrez G.
Sandra Gutierrez G.

is a Chilean journalist and the assistant DIY editor at PopSci. She has previously worked as an editor for MSN.cl, and a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. When she's not putting baking soda on things, she's walking her 10-year-old beagle, Lucas. Contact the author here.