Watertown’s Brian Charlson, 65, loves to cook. He has also been blind since he was 11. This never stopped him from making his favorite recipes, although cookbooks were typically a challenge. He used to rely on Braille ones, which were large and could be hard to store.
“One bookcase contains one cookbook in hard-copy Braille,” he says.
Now he gets recipes from America’s Test Kitchen, thanks to a collaboration with Perkins Access, an initiative from the Watertown-based Perkins School for the Blind. His wife, Kim, directs the Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library, and the couple is heavily involved in advocacy work for the blind and visually impaired community.
Perkins Access partners with organizations to create digital products, such as websites and apps, to reach people regardless of abilities. Last year, they began advising ATK on their website, creating information architecture and visual elements that are straightforward, without bells and whistles. Over Thanksgiving, Charlson used the site to find a cranberry sauce recipe for his family.
He browses the site thanks to JAWS, a computer screen reader program that allows visually impaired users to take in information from websites with text-to-speech or refreshable Braille displays. Not all websites are compatible with this kind of software. ATK’s site is designed with these users in mind, he says, using simple coding methods for scannable elements like headlines — nothing too complicated for his screen reader — and paragraphs. Many recipe websites are visually creative with lists, boxes, and pop-ups, which are fun but not especially user-friendly. ATK uses traditional organizational structures, making it easier for screen reader programs to absorb.
“This website is different because it stays with classic standards,” he says.
Charlson can also “see” images using alternative descriptive text, provided on the website and read by JAWS.
“For instance, for a ham studded with cloves: I can hear it with my software, even if I can’t see it on the screen,” he says. Fonts are simple and not used to distinguish visual elements. (A visually impaired person would have no way of knowing that red font might indicate a headline or a next step, for example.) Text and background colors are chosen to provide contrast so users with low vision can read recipes; cooking demos have the ingredient list and instructions read aloud.
“They say the measurements in the videos every time. They never forget,” Charlson says.
This Thanksgiving, Charlson got the ultimate compliment when he sent photos of his meal to family.
“My sighted older brother texted back: ‘Looks better than what I could do,’” he says, chuckling.
Some elements are free and other content is subscription only at www.americastestkitchen.com.