Gary Wunder

Gary Wunder

NFB Testifies on Internet Access and the ADA

by Gary Wunder

     From the Editor: Early this year a staffer for the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives wrote a memo to the chairman worrying that, if the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) really does apply to the Internet, insuring access for disabled people might create undue hardship for small businesses, slow the expansion of the fastest-growing segment of the economy, and in general stifle creativity. The memo also suggested that Web-site creators would have their First-Amendment right to free speech limited by requirements to make their sites accessible. All this furor arose from legal discussions of the NFB's suit filed last November against America Online. Since the Department of Justice has in fact produced a memo expressing the opinion that the ADA does indeed apply to the Internet, the suggestion was made that the Committee look into the situation and perhaps do something about it.

     The Committee conducted a hearing February 9, and the NFB scrambled to arrange the most persuasive witnesses we could present. A number of organizations helped to assemble effective speakers to argue that requiring equal access to the Internet would not restrict the content of any Web site and to explain what blind people do need and want. Gary Wunder, President of the NFB of Missouri, Member of the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors, and a computer professional, flew to Washington and testified in person. He also submitted written testimony.

     Was our effort successful? It is still too early to be sure, but no proposed legislation preserving the right to create inaccessible Web sites has yet been introduced. We must remain alert to the threat during the months ahead. Here is Gary Wunder's written testimony:

Before the Subcommittee on the Constitution

Committee on the Judiciary

United States House of Representatives

February 9, 2000

Statement of Gary Wunder

     Good morning, Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee. My name is Gary Wunder, and my address is 1209 Ireland Court, Columbia, Missouri 65203-2088. I work as a programmer-analyst expert for the University of Missouri and serve in a volunteer capacity as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind.

     I come today to speak to the issue of access to the Internet and the extent to which that access is protected under federal law. I do not come as an expert on the law. I am here as a person who makes his living writing programs and getting information to medical doctors and hospital administrators. I am also here as a person who has been the beneficiary of the computer age and the Internet, and I also come as one who has paid the price when access to computers and the Internet was off limits to me because only the needs of visual users were considered in the design of some very important products. Last, Mr. Chairman, I also come as a person who is blind and who knows both how difficult accessing electronic information can sometimes be and how liberating that access can be when just a little thought is given to alternative methods of access.

     Blind people look to the Internet as a long-sought solution to the problems of communication that result from lack of sight. Ask any blind person what physical problems confront him as a result of blindness, and he'll tell you they are access to the printed word and not being able to drive. Think now about the beauty of the Internet for this group. Material typed into a computer can generate print for the sighted, Braille for the blind, or synthesized speech for either group.

     Because a user can travel from Web site to Web site without ever leaving his chair, the difficulty posed by transportation in the conduct of business is also significantly reduced. I should note in discussing access that the vast majority of blind people are over age sixty-five. I think it would be a costly mistake for us to overlook the needs of this community and the significant purchasing power they represent.

     Since members of this Committee are sighted, perhaps it would be helpful for me to explain how a person without vision uses the Internet. Many of us purchase programs called screen readers, which look at the information sent to the screen and attempt to tell us, through speech or Braille, what is displayed there. The text on the screen and the little pictures and graphics known as icons are converted to something we can hear or feel. If there is a button we are to push to move to the next screen, our screen readers say "NEXT BUTTON." If we are presented with a form where we are to enter our name and address, the screen reader will say "NAME" when we are in the name field, and when we come to the area of the screen where we are to enter our state, it will say "COMBO BOX" and allow us to move through the choices until the two-letter abbreviation we want is found. Those kinds of boxes, which usually appear in alphabetical order, leave me wishing I was from Alabama or Alaska instead of Missouri.

     Most of you make extensive use of a mouse when you navigate the Internet, but blind people cannot do this. Instead of a mouse used to point and click, we use the tab and arrow keys to move from item to item on a screen. Therefore our request of Web site developers is that each item which can be accessed with a mouse also have provision for being accessed by the keyboard. This could mean a tab stop or perhaps a key sequence which could perform the same task as clicking with a mouse.

     In many ways living in what has come to be called the Information Age is a dream come true for people who are blind. Not so long ago writing this testimony for you would have meant first writing a draft in Braille, writing a second Braille copy to perfect the draft, and then typing that Braille document so you could read it in print. Imagine the difficulty if, while trying to transcribe the Braille into print, I was interrupted by a phone call. Where did I leave off in the transcription? Have I made any typographical errors, and, if I have, can they be corrected with white-out? The fact is that to ensure I had written a quality presentation for this subcommittee would have taken the involvement of someone with sight to proofread my final product.

     Now, with the advent of the personal computer, speech and Braille technology, and the Internet, I can write my material myself, proof it myself, send it to others for their comments and criticisms, and eventually send the final draft halfway across the country for printing and distribution. Never in my wildest imaginings did I conceive of this possibility when I was typing my high school and college papers, but I would be hard-pressed to do without this now.

     For all of our progress and the opportunity the Internet holds, there are still some problems we face in using the services which more and more Americans take for granted. One of our biggest difficulties comes when we try to shop on-line using pages where the creator of the Web site has failed to label the pictures he shows with a brief textual description. Computer technology is not yet sufficiently advanced to recognize a picture and tell us what appears on the screen. For this information we must rely on the creator of the page we're viewing to add a line of text which says, for example, "Swiss Army Knife" or "Queen Size Electric Blanket." These explanations are easily added and are of tremendous benefit not only to the blind but also to people who see.

     Sometimes newspaper articles, in an attempt to be helpful to the blind, have left the impression that graphical displays are an obstacle for us. The presence of graphics is not the problem, but the presence of unlabeled graphics and the design of systems which rely only on graphics are what cause us tremendous difficulty. People who have things to market should make their pages as visually attractive and marketable as they can, in the same way they would design a store window. Making services available to the blind isn't a matter of deciding whether to make a screen visually appealing or audibly accessible. It means taking thirty seconds to add a textual description to the graphic you've decided to display and thereby expanding your customer base to include the ever-growing number of persons who either do not see or do not see well.

     Some have suggested that labeling graphics and push buttons might constitute an undue burden on small businesses and Internet start-ups. This is to state the problem in the negative. However, one could also say with equal plausibility that choosing graphics rather than text is the burden. Either one--used exclusively--limits the audience that can be reached and results in missed opportunities to communicate and sell products.      Whatever costs there are in making the Internet accessible, one thing can be stated without argument--designing accessibility in from the start is easier than trying to incorporate it after the fact. As we know from experience with physical structures, it is much easier to plan for an elevator than it is to figure out where to put an elevator shaft in an already occupied building.

     In recognition of this concept and because of the economic benefits derived from an accessible Internet, representatives from industry, government, and the general public have collaborated through the Web Access Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium, which has developed and promulgated guidelines and recommendations to enhance and ensure accessibility to the World Wide Web. This group has made great strides in achieving a consensus, and its work has been largely responsible for developing the infrastructure, which has incorporated concepts to encourage full access in its basic design.

     When we discuss the economics of access, we dare not overlook the broader commercial applications for the products created to meet special needs. Well known are the spin-offs from our exploration of space which have resulted in diverse products from those as technologically simple as the Corning Ware used in our ovens to the relatively complicated hand-held calculator which helps us balance our checkbooks. Less commonly understood is the role of access technology in advancing the frontiers of consumer products.

     In 1976 the first reading machine for the blind was developed, which could look at ink print on a page, scan it into a digital image, recognize its ink shapes as letters, and then verbalize the resulting text in human-like speech. Now scanning devices are readily available to the general public. The recognition of text from a page allows many companies to store paper documents in their electronic data banks, and the text-to-speech pioneered in this first machine is now common in everything from simple children's toys to complicated telephone answering machines.

     Let us also not forget that the first efforts to get a computer to understand human speech came as a result of trying to give people who could not use a keyboard access to the world of computing. Now this technology is sufficiently advanced to allow the dictation of this very statement and its accurate transcription.

     Sometimes, when I've spoken on behalf of accessibility, the argument that adding textual labels will result in the elimination of visual attractiveness and program responsiveness has been advanced. Technologically there is little merit in this position. A graphic displayed on a screen may take upwards of half a million computer characters to display, while its text description will take less than 100. The text we need is displayed on the screen only when a user focuses on the graphic to which it pertains. It is even possible to have text labels which are never displayed on the screen but which exist in the background and are retrievable only by the screen readers we use.

     Mr. Chairman, blind people are caught in a catch-22 when arguing for accessibility. When we go to a company that is trying to develop a new product, as we did when Microsoft started marketing the Windows operating system, we are told that we need to wait and see whether the product will be accepted by the public. We're assured that blind people are valued customers and that our needs will be addressed as soon as the technology demonstrates its viability. Then, after the product is selling like hot cakes and we're losing access to jobs and information, we're told that it is difficult and time-consuming to modify the existing product. It may not be the next release or the one after that, but be assured that eventually our needs will be considered.

     My own experience as a programmer testifies to the fact that it is often easier to write a program from scratch than it is to go into someone else's program, figure out what he was trying to accomplish, and then determine what I can do to make the requested changes. The place for considering usability by people who will not use the computer under the traditional mouse/screen paradigm is here at the beginning. This is where it is least expensive and most likely to be truly integrated into the product.

     What we are discussing when we talk about access is not whether it is technologically possible but whether we plan to use this technological revolution to include people who have all too often been excluded. Let me give you an example of the technology which gives me difficulty as I try to earn my living and advance to ever greater responsibility.

     Microsoft Project is a program that lets people manage the work tasks they've been assigned. Each project has a due date, and, if it is large, as many projects are, it will have subtasks which themselves have intermediate due dates. When a manager looks at his projects, he is presented with a screen showing those projects which are most critical in bright red and those of less criticality in lighter shades. It is intuitively obvious as he looks at the screen which projects need his immediate attention and which will wait. The calculations done by this program are simple and straightforward: check today's date against the due date of each project, and assign a color for display based on the difference between the two.

     No matter how obvious the technique, that number is still inaccessible to me. If someone had thought about the nonvisual user when designing this system, it would have been easy to put out a list in order of due dates. A list with the most critical project first and the least critical last would have given me exactly the same information gained by my sighted colleagues, but a mechanism for making that program produce a simple list was not a part of its design.

     I could give you many other examples of software which has been similarly inaccessible, but the important point is that the information which was needed was displayed with only one audience in mind--the visual user--although there is nothing inherently visual about two dates and the number of days which separate them. In fact, much more effort went into figuring out how to display those projects in a visually attractive color scheme than went into determining their order.

     I said at the beginning of this testimony that I knew the blessing of access and the curse of inaccessibility. Programs such as the one I have described resulted in my taking a demotion from Project Manager to Senior Programmer. No one had problems with my job performance as long as we used systems which were primarily textual, but five years ago the technology I had available could not help me answer the question of how I would supervise the development, testing, and implementation of new computer systems using the tools which my organization had committed itself to purchase.

     I've never seen any figures to indicate that the cost of accessibility is economically impractical, and I submit that the issue may have more to do with ideological objections to government involvement than the real cost of implementing accessible systems. Mr. Chairman, our society and its disabled people have entered into a contract in which society says to the disabled, we will give you training and we will provide opportunity if, in return, you will do what you can to join with us in work, in community, and in taking responsibility for pulling your own weight.

     As blind people we have interpreted this contract to mean that we must be as self-reliant as we can, asking from society only those things we really need in order to compete. If it were possible for the makers of screen-reading programs accurately to read any Web page a designer could concoct or if I could figure out a way to deal with such pages through memorization or other mental gymnastics which we who are blind are called upon to employ, then I wouldn't be here today to ask for the help of the Congress and the business community in focusing on the special needs of blind consumers.

     There are many examples of companies and small businesses which have enthusiastically joined with us to make their E-businesses friendly for blind users, but the importance of government's leading by example and the law's expressing the clear expectation that all segments of our society have access dare not be overlooked.

     A decision to lessen the expectation that E-business be accessible is ominous for the blind, for we know that the Internet is not just a window on the world, but more and more it is the world. It is where people talk, where people shop, and where people increasingly make their living. Lowering the bar for access won't simply mean fewer shopping sites for people with little or no vision.

     Since the Internet is only an extension of our personal computers, lessened access will mean fewer programs we can use and fewer employment opportunities for us. The line between the Internet and business is almost nonexistent. In my job electronic mail conducted via the Internet is the standard way we communicate. Our meeting calendars are maintained electronically and shared using this same technology. Even the list I use to telephone my colleague in a neighboring building is maintained on a mailing list, accessible only by using the tools of the Internet.

     I urge this Subcommittee to affirm the importance of access to this new world we're entering and to differentiate between the real-world needs of blind people and the hypothetical and yet unproved burden placed on small businesses being required to ensure access. The effort required of the business community is minuscule when compared with the benefits to blind and disabled people and to the society in which we live. The cost of isolating the blind, the disabled, and the senior citizens of our nation is far too high, and the benefits to all of us will be immense if only we stay the course.