Accessibility NZ had a provocative blog post on whether sighted web developers should use screen reading software to test the accessibility of their sites. Based on a conversation I had with a fellow instructional designer, it appears that the blog post might be misunderstood.
The point the author is making is not that sighted developers should skip doing accessibility testing with screen readers and only rely on testing with people who are actually blind, but rather that accessibility testing should not end with the tools. It can, and should, include both. The first past with testing tools can help you identify the most glaring problems and save you both time and money by letting you focus on the more difficult problems when you test with end users (which cost money to recruit)
Testing with a representative sample of people in the target demographic is just good instructional design anyway. The only difference in this case that we should not test with just the average user, but keep in mind legal requirements such as Section 508 and include a variety of people in the testing before we can say a site is accessible. The more diversity the better. This will provide not only good accessibility information, but good usability information that will benefit everyone who visits the site.
The author on Accessibility NZ made another good point: there are other disabilities out there. Yes, it is true that the web tends to present the biggest challenge to those who are visually impaired, but even within that population there are a range of needs. Someone like me who still has some sight will not use the same site in the same way as someone who is completely blind. I’m probably more like a sighted developer than someone who is completely blind, yet I could say a site is accessible based on my disability, but my assessment would not be representative of most people who are bind. When testing, we need to consider a range of different needs.
This is one post where reading the comments is actually something I would recommend. I was impressed by the reasonable and civil way in which the people in the comments conducted the discussion around this topic, and the range of perspectives they brought to the table.