Blind and online: Progress, not perfection, for visually impaired tech users

Today's digital environment has a lot to offer blind computer users, but the Web remains a minefield of frustration.

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The Web minefield

With a robust screen reader, a device can be perfectly accessible, but that's of no benefit to blind readers if it's used to go to inaccessible websites. While certain end-user devices have gotten friendlier for the blind, the Web as a whole remains a source of frustration.

"Most sites are not completely accessible or [are] completely inaccessible," says Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). "Most you can use, but there may be little hitches, like not being able to find the Submit button."

"Education sites are a train wreck; a lot of content is put up by professors who don't know how to design properly," says Burton. "Travel sites are another bear; I can't name an airline site that isn't horrible. They take so long that I just have a sighted intern book flights. Hotel sites are another problem -- I just call them."

Every blind Web user has a list of pet peeves, and most fall into themes (see the sidebar). But there is a set of rules that a designer could follow to avoid unknowingly sabotaging blind or other disabled users -- the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the Web's ruling body, the World Wide Web Consortium in Cambridge, Mass., does indeed publish such guidelines. The current version is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, finalized in 2008.

"We are not a regulatory body and do no enforcement. We do not do certification," says Judy Brewer, director of the WAI. "What we do is address the accessibility of the Web for those with disabilities. Part of that is an effort to develop guidelines for the accessibility of Web content."

The guidelines cover the need for graphics to have alternate text labels -- a leading issue with blind users, as mentioned in the sidebar -- but they also cover disability topics that go beyond vision issues, such as making all functions are available from the keyboard, providing for easy navigation, providing enough time for the user to read and use the information, and avoiding flashing graphics known to trigger seizures in victims of photosensitive epilepsy.

An increasing number of governments have been referencing WCAG 2.0 when establishing accessibility standards, she notes. But in the U.S. the main applicable law (the American with Disabilities Act of 1990, or ADA) was passed before the Web became a workplace necessity for entire categories of workers.

"But there is such a thing as corporate social responsibility," she says. "It is better to be known for being inclusive. Why keep people out? For someone to participate in society today, full access to the Web is important."

To encourage compliance, her organization offers information to help advocates make a business case for Web accessibility, based on social, technical, financial, legal and policy factors. But despite all efforts, "Most computer science people are still not getting a comprehensive education in the diversity of user needs," Brewer adds.

The WAI does not offer certification or consultation, but other organizations and consultants do, often basing the testing on the WCAG 2.0. For instance, Clara Van Gerven, an NFB technology specialist in Baltimore, says that her organization offers compliance certification. A full website assessment, with ongoing consultations, costs $8,000. When clients inquire about accessibility, "often they have no clue as to what's required, and it's common for see them not act on recommendations. If higher management does not care, then nothing will happen," she says.

So far Van Gerven has certified 23 sites, but only a handful of those belong to major corporations, including Target, General Electric, Merck and Newegg. The rest of the certified companies are in the education or disabilities sectors.

About the same number of large enterprises have been convinced to make their websites (and/or their ATM machines) accessible to blind users by Lainey Feingold, a disabilities rights lawyer in Berkeley, Calif. Rather than simply sue, she uses a method she calls "structured negotiation" to get results outside the courtroom.

"They often don't realize that blind people can use computers," she says of the average respondent. "Blind people may be calling the customer service lines, but sometimes a lawyer is needed to get the issue put before the right people."

The various sites that have been revamped for accessibility may constitute a drop in the bucket, Feingold acknowledges. "But those drops send out ripples."

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio. He is blind in one eye.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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