Oh Say Can You See? Perspectives from a Communicator with Low-Vision

By David Kosub

Scientists like me who traded their pipettes in for pens still attempt to understand the world around them through experiments—so join me in this virtual one. First, begin by closing your eyes…

Were you able to continue reading this post? If you were, then you have mutant powers, are cheating with your eyes open, or someone made it 508 compliant.

image of a blank white square
image of a blank white square

Let’s try another. What is the image on the left? If you do not see anything, then you can understand how some folks feel when a website does not convey an important message in writing. Through some personal reflections in this post, I hope to show that actively considering accessibility is at the core of successful communications.

Spoiler alert, for context, I progressively lost sight following my graduate research training. Like many other folks with low-vision, common activities of daily living, like simply trying to read a website, have since come with new and sometimes unexpected mountains to climb. These adventures revealed to me, as a creator, user, and explainer of content, that the more attention we pay towards accessibility, it will result in more people receiving the intended message.

And, this brings us to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, your friend and mine. The statute requires “Federal agencies make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities…comparable to the access available to others.” The way I consider it, Section 508 allows those with vision and other impairments to create, interact with, review, access, and comprehend the vast stores of federal information available to us all.

Below are a few ideas so you can see what I am talking about (pun intended) when creating accessible information for visually impaired users. These ideas also go beyond introductory concepts of 508 compliance training and the federal accessibility standards because they are presented through my personal low-vision perspective.

First, I believe in embracing the spirit of Section 508 and not to solely view it as another check-the-box to complete. When the 508 compliance process is integrated seamlessly into the workflow, then the paradigm can shift to one of an afterthought to that of appreciating how others consume information.

Strengthening existing standard operating procedures will help get us there. When 508 compliance is considered throughout the process, then only minor tweaks to content would be needed before being finalized. Though growing pains usually accompany such changes, I have nevertheless observed that folks have fewer headaches at the end of their production cycle when trying to make things accessible along the way.

My next example is the power of using tools at your disposal. You will find that exploring the existing capabilities available on your current software, and also testing various screen reading programs, an eye-opening experience (ok, promise no more puns). This opportunity allows you to feel how a visually impaired person interacts with content on different platforms, quickly revealing the unintended quirks in your materials. It also reinforces how important it is to create simple, user-friendly webpages, presentations, infographics, and databases. After all, nothing is more frustrating for a visually impaired person than when a website tries to do too much, causing a screen reader to melt-down and sound like Max Headroom on a bad day.

This is a team effort. I highly encourage sitting with a colleague and watching them navigate your materials too. Be it a formal seminar or one-on-one, I regularly welcome this starring role, so others can feel what a   low-vision user experiences. The benefits are reciprocal. It also allows me to learn something new, find the bugs, strategize on workarounds, marvel at the new solutions we often find together, and apply best practices to future problems. Though I am open to it, it is important to recognize that some people are more comfortable with this approach than others.

Moving on, a little extra effort does go a long way. Yes,  its time to talk about that tricky alt text description now.

Picture of a lazy kitty
Picture of a lazy kitty

Remember that mysterious image earlier? If it simply said, “picture of a lazy kitty,” then those like me with screen readers would get that warm and fuzzy feeling too.

Some well-intended folks, however, get flustered when thinking alt text must be beautiful prose. Alt text is brief helpful text, nothing more, nothing less. When I come across a graph that clearly states the axes, legends, and general trends, then I feel like part of the data club. When navigating a training video, arrows labeled “next” and “back” make me a happy student. Complex infographics can usually  be broken down to a simple take home message. Basically, my point is take a little extra time to embed alt text on images, but do not over-think it.

We are all in this together. If you have questions, then consider reaching out to your agency’s designated Section 508 coordinators and like-minded communication team members for help. We also have a wonderful sounding board, The 3 Blind Mice, here at NIH. This group is full of people who want to truly understand the concerns facing staff who are blind or visually impaired, facilitate internal interactions,  and find solutions to enhance their work experience. I believe each organization should adopt a similar concept because, of  all things, it establishes community.

Thank you for considering these perspectives. When we all reflect on how best to implement the precepts set-forth by Section 508, then more in the communities we serve will better understand our resources and our federal colleagues can more successfully perform their duties. This, in turn, ensures  we are better primed to reach our agency’s mission together.


Photo of blog post author David Kosub
Photo of blog post author David Kosub

David A. Kosub is an eleven-year veteran at the NIH who is strongly committed to achieving the mission of his agency. He has served in many diverse policy-oriented roles across the NIH Office of the Director and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In his current position with the NIH Office of Extramural Research, he  analyzes and interprets legislation impacting the grantee community (such as that stemming from the 21st Century Cures Act and appropriations language), responds to a wide array of comments and questions from the  public, distills intricate and detailed policy guidance into clear and comprehensive written materials (like the NIH Open Mike blog), and interviews subject-matter experts for the next All About Grants podcast to further share useful information to our applicants and awardees. In addition to his drive to help researchers unlock the mysteries of “all things NIH grants”, David is passionate about using administrative data to better inform decisions at NIH, which will inevitably affect the wider extramural research community.  Prior to these communications and outreach roles, he focused on planning for, evaluating, reporting on, and coordinating trans-NIH research priorities, particularly those addressing infectious diseases. He earned his doctorate in Immunology from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas in 2007. This research experience, which involved exploring how HIV disease progression adversely alters the innate immune system over time, strengthened his passion for biomedical science, and also inspired an interest in how public policy decisions propel research to address health concerns. When David is not deciphering the many NIH grant and research policies out there, you can find him pounding pavement across the District of Columbia while training for his next marathon somewhere around the world.