by Curtis Chong
From the Editor: In recent months we have heard increasing discussion about Internet access for people with disabilities. Some Members of Congress have raised questions about whether or not users of access technology have the right to surf the Web. Without considering those who use alternate methods of Web access, individual Web site designers are casually choosing construction features that prevent blind people from visiting their sites. So Curtis Chong, NFB Technology Department director, was understandably pleased when the Connecticut Attorney General's office contacted the NFB for help in fighting one battle in this ongoing war for access. Here is the story of what happened next as Mr. Chong tells it:
The National Federation of the Blind has a long-standing commitment to access by the blind to information and electronic services. We created NEWSLINE(r) for the Blind so that blind people could read national and local newspapers; we created America's Jobline(r) so that the blind and other people could find jobs listed in America's Job Bank without having to use a computer; and we filed suit against America Online (AOL) so that the blind could use this large Internet service provider along with their sighted friends, neighbors, and colleagues.
The AOL lawsuit attracted the attention of Richard Blumenthal, Attorney General for the State of Connecticut. We exchanged phone calls and e-mail correspondence and conducted meetings. It became very clear that, like the Federation, Mr. Blumenthal was keenly interested in promoting equal access by the blind to the information super highway--in particular, to information and services offered through the World Wide Web.
While we were getting acquainted, it came to our attention that the Federal Internal Revenue Service had announced partnerships with a number of companies offering on-line tax preparation services through the World Wide Web. We decided to find out if these Web-based services were accessible to blind people using screen-access technology.
We examined the Web-based tax return filing services of four companies: HDVest, Intuit, H & R Block, and Gilman & Ciocia. Despite all of the media attention devoted to Web-page accessibility in recent years, we found that not one of the Web-based tax filing services was completely usable with screen-access technology. Here are two examples of the problems we encountered.
A portion of the home page of one company contained a screen of advertisements which was updated about once every fifteen seconds. Anyone trying to use a screen-access program to read the page would be moved back to the top every time the screen was updated--just about the time one found something interesting.
Another tax-preparation site displayed links and buttons on the page which could not be reached or activated using the keyboard. They could also not be recognized as links or buttons by the screen-access technology.
We talked over our findings with Mr. Blumenthal's office. We agreed to send a letter to the tax-preparation companies, telling them that their Web-based tax services were not accessible to the blind and asking for a commitment to redress the problem or risk litigation. We sent the same letter to all four companies. The following is the text as it went to one of the recipients:
March 30, 2000
Mr. Herb Vest
Chairman of Directors and CEO
HD Vest, Inc.
Dear Mr. Vest:
As a result of the publicity surrounding your partnership with the IRS for the filing of tax returns online, it has come to the attention of the State of Connecticut and the National Federation of the Blind that your online tax return preparation service, as well as your Web site as a whole, is inaccessible to the blind in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Based on the information we have on your site, we believe that it can be made accessible, with reasonable modifications, within six months. Please notify us by April 4, 2000, as to whether you agree to make your Web site accessible and, if so, whether there is any reason that this could not be reasonably accomplished by October 31, 2000. Unless we have received those assurances, and barring the discovery of any sound reason to the contrary, we will proceed immediately as necessary to ensure the accessibility of your site.
Please feel free to contact Daniel Goldstein [the NFB's attorney] or Assistant Attorney General Seth Klein with any questions, including those that relate to the types of accessibility problems found on your Web site and/or the solutions to these problems.
State of Connecticut
Attorney for National Federation of the Blind
The companies responded to the letter in very short order. Along with the legal discussions there was an exchange of information between various technical personnel and me. It was clear that nonvisual access had never been considered during the design of the tax-preparation Web sites. Only one of the companies seemed to know that blind people use computers and obtain information from Web pages with the help of screen-access technology. Ultimately, after a lot of discussion, all four companies wrote back to the Connecticut Attorney General expressing their willingness to engage in reasonable efforts to make their Web sites accessible within six months and pledging to work cooperatively with the National Federation of the Blind to resolve nonvisual access problems.
Mr. Blumenthal convened a press conference on April 17 to applaud the agreement. Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, and I were on hand to support the Attorney General, talk with the press, and demonstrate the techniques used by the blind to surf the Web. Here is the press release that was issued:
Official Press Release
Connecticut Attorney General's Office
Attorney General, National Federation Of Blind
Applaud On-Line Tax-Filing Services
For Agreeing to Make Sites Blind-Accessible for 2000 Tax Season
April 17, 2000
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal today was joined by Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), in announcing agreements with four companies--HDVest, Intuit, H & R Block, and Gilman & Ciocia--that provide on-line federal income tax filing services to make their Internet sites accessible to the blind.
The four companies have agreed to work with the Attorney General and the NFB to change the coding for each of the five Web sites in question--<hdvest.com>, <turbotax.com>, <e1040.com>, <hrblock.com>, and <taxcut.com>--to enable blind individuals to access the sites. According to the Attorney General, the changes will greatly improve the ability of blind individuals to access the sites through the use of standard screen-reader programs, which can translate screen information to Braille or computerized speech formats.
These code changes will include implementation of recommendations by the World Wide Web Consortium, an international organization that works to develop universal standards for HTML coding. HTML is the computer language used to create and design Web sites. It allows users to move from page to page within and between Web sites.
"The blind should have equal rights and effective access in traveling the Internet's information highway. Disabled Americans should not have to reinvent or reassert such basic rights in the new Information Age, just because the means of access is now a computer rather than stairs or sidewalks," said Blumenthal. "Filing tax returns electronically is one example--but only one--of essential access that should be guaranteed. Rights must be protected- kept real, not virtual--even in this age of new technology."
"Blind people can and do make extensive use of computer programs and the Internet, so naturally we are thrilled these companies have decided to work with us to ensure that their sites are accessible to the blind," said National Federation of the Blind President Marc Maurer. "The world of technology is constantly growing and changing, however, so this is a first step in a longer journey."
Each company's Web site was recently listed on the Internal Revenue Service's official Web site as an on-line partner for the purpose of electronically filing federal income tax returns. Each site, however, proved inaccessible to the blind upon testing by the Attorney General and the National Federation of the Blind. The Attorney General and the NFB alerted the four companies that their Web sites were in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires public accommodations to take reasonable steps to ensure accessibility to individuals with disabilities. The four companies have issued written assurances that they will work with the Attorney General and the NFB to make their Web sites accessible to the blind in time for the 2000 tax season.
The National Federation of the Blind has found a new friend in Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Attorney General. Because of his willingness to work with us, four more companies are learning about the importance of nonvisual access to the services they offer through the Web. This is a good beginning. Let us hope that we can form similarly fruitful partnerships with attorneys general from other states.