Electronic accessibility continues to be one of the hottest growing accessibility trends of 2023. Also known as e-accessibility, it relates to the way information on the Internet can be accessed by people with visual, auditory, or other impairments.

According to the Royal National Institute for the Blind, 2 million people in the UK live with sight loss [1] and according to the Government UK Health Security Agency, 11 million people have partial or total inability to hear in one or both ears [2].

Word Forest, an international reforestation charity based in East Devon, are always looking for ways to improve how they convey stories about the climate emergency. Visitors to their website who have visual impairments will recognise the blue accessibility symbol on the top right of each page. It offers a range of viewing options including a monochrome screen, various font and background colours, high contrast and different typefaces.

By World Sight Day on the 12th of October, their team hopes to have recorded and uploaded all 457 articles in their news feed. There will also be audio players on each of the different pages of their website. The news feed contains a diverse range of articles about their projects empowering women by reforesting Kenya. It also contains broader sustainable living pieces that encourage people to be better all round environmentalists.

Head of IT and co-founder of Word Forest, Simon West comments: “It’s easy enough to address hearing loss by ensuring you always have an option for subtitles in videos. Solving that for historic blog entries is going to take time but I’m confident we’ll get there, pole, pole (Kiswahili for slowly).”

Empowerment and equality sit at the heart of Word Forest’s mission. Their goal to have the recordings done by humans (not AI) has resulted in a call out on Reach Volunteering and to a couple of their Corporate Partners for enthusiastic readers!

The driver behind this accessibility boost is the charity’s other co-founder and CEO, 57 year old Tracey West, who was born deaf in one ear. She explains: “Struggling to hear adequately has been a life-long challenge. I can usually work around it. In meetings, I try to position myself towards the front and on the left so I can hear ‘the room’. That doesn’t always work once people start getting animated and moving around. I lip read too which helps a lot.”

“Simon and I are also learning to sign because my hearing is deteriorating and he wears two hearing aids. I know we’re going to find the new signs recently added to BSL really useful, although I suspect it just means we’re going to be able to get cross in another language” she jests.

Over the past 12 months, Tracey has been beset by two aggressive cataracts, resulting in two procedures to get her vision back on track. She has another more complex eye issue now and because of that, another operation due soon. Over the last year, she has experienced how isolated a person can be made to feel when they have a major visual impairment.

Tracey explains: “Learning how to cope with ongoing, worsening sight has been unbelievably debilitating. It made looking at books and magazines very difficult and tiring, even when I used typoscopes. Looking at stuff on the Internet was a nightmare. Now I’m rising up from a year of darkness and I need to ensure that Word Forest’s storytelling abilities are as good as they can be.”

Helen Roberts was the Education Trustee at Word Forest until recently. Sadly, she had to retire from her role in 2022 due to worsening macular degeneration. Helen adds: “This is an incredible leap forward for the visually impaired! This offering is incredibly important to me and other visually impaired and blind souls. Well done Word Forest for this pioneering move. I’m not aware of any other websites doing this at the moment – well done indeed!”

In July 2023, Word Forest was honoured as a recipient of the NatWest SE100 award. It’s considered to be a benchmark of excellence in the social enterprise sector recognising sustainable practices alongside a profound commitment to social impact. For research purposes, Word Forest examined a sample of 60% of the other SE100 recipients to see what visual and/or audible accessibility options they offered. None of them had any recordings of news features, or audio descriptions of web pages, and none of them offered any accessibility options for visually impaired readers.”

Simon concludes: “People have been talking about accessibility for ages, and there is no doubt that some things have improved. My experience supporting Tracey and some of our volunteers with vision problems is that not enough has been done. I am proud to lead this pioneering charge to making our site fully accessible. I hope it goes on to inspire other organisations to follow our lead!”

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