NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Oh Say, Can You See?

NIH’er with Low-Vision Offers Perspectives on Accessibility

Scientists like me who traded their pipettes in for pens still attempt to understand the world around them through experiments, so join me for a virtual one. First, close your eyes. 

Were you able to continue reading? If so, then you have mutant powers, cheating with your eyes open, or someone made it accessible.

Here’s another. What's here? If you do not see anything, then you can understand how some folks feel when websites do not convey an important message in writing. Here, I want to convey that actively considering accessibility throughout your professional duties means more people will understand your intended message. Spoiler…I’m visually impaired. 

Doing so means you should remember Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973—your friend and mine. It requires “federal agencies make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities…comparable to the access available to others.” 

Section 508 allows those with vision and other impairments to create, interact with, review, access and comprehend the vast stores of NIH information available to us all. 

Here are ideas to see what I am talking about. You may also find these training ( and federal accessibility standards ( helpful. 

The spirit of Section 508 should be embraced, not viewed as another checkbox to complete. When it’s integrated seamlessly into your workflow, then the paradigm shifts from an afterthought to appreciating how others consume information. Though there may be growing pains, I usually observed that folks have fewer headaches at the end when trying to make things accessible along the way.

You may also find that exploring the existing capabilities on your current software and testing screen readers are eye-opening. These experiences allow you to feel how a visually impaired person interacts with content, quickly revealing unintended quirks and reinforcing the importance of creating simple, user-friendly materials. 

I encourage sitting with a colleague and watching them navigate your materials to feel what a low-vision user experiences. Though I am open to it, recognize some people may be more comfortable with this approach than others.

Picture of a lazy kitty

Now let’s talk about alt text. Remember that mysterious image? If it simply said, “picture of a lazy kitty,” then people like me with screen readers would get that warm and fuzzy feeling too. 

Alt text is simply brief helpful text. When coming across a graph clearly stating the axes, legends and general trends, then I’m more involved in the NIH data club. When navigating training, clearly labeled images make me a happy student. Presentations with tagged descriptions go a long way (and presenters who fully verbalize their slides, even further). Complex infographics can be broken down to simple messages. My point? Take some extra time to embed alt text, but don’t overthink.

We are all in this together. NIH Section 508 coordinators ( and communication staff can help. Also consult the 3 Blind Mice (, a group formed to understand the concerns facing low-vision staff and find solutions to enhance work experiences. 

When we all consider accessibility, then more in the communities we serve can better comprehend our resources and staff can more successfully support NIH’s mission. 

To read more about Section 508, go to

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

Published 25 times each year, it comes out on payday Fridays.

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