Blind users still struggle with 'maddening' computing obstacles

See video of Narrator screen reader in action

1 2 3 Page 3
Page 3 of 3

The Web

Of course, these days, many computers are used principally to access the Internet -- and there is no telling what a blind person will encounter there.

"It can take a while to wade through a strange site -- it can be maddening," complained Jay Leventhal, who is blind and serves as editor of AccessWorld Magazine, produced by the American Foundation for the Blind in New York. "Sometimes you find what you want to buy, but then you can't find the submit button. It seems to literally not be there. A skilled [blind] user can navigate a majority of the sites on the Web these days, but you have to master certain tricks, like jumping from header to header in order to skip over a lot of junk, and use the search function to get the information you want. An average user can struggle for a long time looking for something and will even struggle on a familiar site."

A major sin among Web sites is a failure to use the HTML ALT attribute, which can be used to attach a descriptive label to a nontext item. If an image, for example, has an ALT label, the screen reader will read it. Otherwise it is forced to read the file name, which often amounts to useless gibberish.

There are accepted guidelines for designing accessible Web sites, especially the guidelines derived from Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended. Cyndi Rowland, director of WebAIM, an accessibility organization at Utah State University in Logan, noted that the guidelines are mandatory for federal Web sites and for organizations doing business with the U.S. government. A number of states have also adopted the guidelines.

Her organization has a checklist of 16 requirements derived from Section 508, including use of the ALT description for images and image-map hot spots. Among other things, they state that frames should be given descriptive titles and that data tables should have row and column headers. There is a separate list of 12 requirements for applets.

One percent compliance

Rowland noted that in 1999, her organization surveyed 100 higher-education Web sites. Twenty-three percent of the opening pages were compliant, but compliance dropped to 3% for pages one link away and fell below 1% for pages two links away. Meanwhile, a recent survey of random university Web pages found only 1% compliance.

"In almost 10 years, there has been almost no improvement," she said.

Leventhal said it's fairly obvious when Section 508 guidelines have been followed. "You will find an invisible link -- which the screen reader can see -- that lets you skip the junk and jump to the main content. For some reason, many Web sites have large groups of repetitive links that you'll want to jump over. Meanwhile, not using the ALT tag is like not using punctuation. It's maddening."

Such frustration can produce lawsuits, and the National Federation of the Blind is currently involved in a class-action lawsuit against Target Corp. because the Target site proved to be inaccessible for blind users. Chong said the basic problem was a "next" button that was coded in such a way that it was invisible to screen readers, leaving blind users stranded. The problem has been fixed, but the lawsuit continues because Target hasn't committed to accessibility, Chong said.

Rowland noted that similar lawsuits in the past never produced any legal precedents because they were settled out of court, so this one will be watched closely. The federation's lawyer, Dan Goldstein, said the lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in March 2009. He wouldn't comment on the possibility of a settlement, and Target didn't respond to requests for a comment.

But what literally frightens blind users is the rise of so-called CAPTCHA technology for Web site security. (CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test.") To deny access to bots, the user must input a password that is displayed in a moderately distorted image that a machine can't read. Of course, the screen readers can't read it either.

"Many blind people are aware that they can't use particular sites, but they don't know why," Leventhal said. He said his own site simply asks a question whose answer would be known to human beings, such as, "What color is the sky?"

Some sites have an optional button to play an audio file that reads the password. However, this still leaves out the deaf-blind.

Beyond computers, sources complained of cell phones so complicated that they, too, need expensive screen readers. Many have small, flat buttons that are useless to the blind, culminating in the iPhone with no buttons. The iPod and its imitators don't have buttons either, and even kitchen appliances today often have digital readouts that are useless to the blind.

But Rowland noted that such considerations need to be weighed against the vast increase in electronic information during the past several years, at least part of which is accessible to the blind.

"You can't say that cup is half full, but there is something in it," she said.

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

1 2 3 Page 3
Page 3 of 3
7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon