How Data Visualization Leaves the Blind Behind

Hands using a braille machine

Pie charts and bar graphs are foundational reporting tools found in nearly every corner of the developing world. It is difficult to imagine a world without them, particularly our global economy. Though data visualization might be as close to a universal language as we will get, like any communicative tool, there are intercultural limitations.

I own a Western, middle-class, abled white-male view of data communication. My perspective is not, by any means, the gold standard. It is just my perspective. How I build reports and deliver data is heavily influenced by trends and tools from Corporate America: Data selection and prioritization, the reporting methods and charts, the colors and complexity, etc. 

However, designing data visualization for an intercultural audience requires respectful exposure to other cultures and a proactive approach to inclusivity. 

There are many intercultural challenges facing data visualization today, but one of the most pressing concerns comes from the visually imparied. Blind and visually imparied people must navigate a world that takes data visualization for granted. 

For example, in 2020, the phrase “flatten the curve” was synonymous with reducing COVID cases. Most people understood the phrase even if they didn’t have a background in data visualization, because the curve chart was shown alongside the phrase on TV, online, or in the newspapers. But to a blind or visually impaired person unfamiliar with data visualization and data processing, the phrase was most likely lost in translation. What does “flatten the curve” mean to someone who doesn’t know or understand a curve? 

I have learned about the visually impaired from my wife, who is a Teacher for the Visually Impaired (TVI). As a TVI, she works with children who all have varying degrees of visual impairment. One of her consistent frustrations relates to textbooks. There is no requirement for a braille version of textbooks, and there is no universal standard for the braille version of textbooks. This means that sometimes a graph or chart will have “alt text” (i.e., language that explains an image; alt text is now encouraged on most websites as an SEO best practice) and sometimes it won’t. It will usually be up to my wife to translate the graph in a concise way. Exams and homework present similar issues. She often transcribes charts, graphs and maps into braille with short notice and little guidance. 

Fun fact: My wife’s profession is so badly understaffed that many college programs are offering free tuition, so school districts can start filling long-vacant TVI positions. 

As I wrote above, there are many intercultural challenges facing data visualization today. Blind and visually impaired people deserve a more inclusive effort from all of us: the processors, communicators, and storytellers of data.

Featured photo by Sigmund on Unsplash