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Website Accessibility Again
by Curtis Chong
From the Editor: In late April NFB Director of Technology Curtis Chong received an e-mail message from a man, not an NFB member, who was unhappy about inaccessible job applications. He was looking for support for his solution to the problem and wondered how Mr. Chong thought he should proceed with his project. Curtis's answer to this message provides an excellent discussion of this difficult and complicated issue. This is what he said:
May 7, 2002
I read with interest your e-mail dated May 25, 2002. You raise some thought‑provoking points.
You decry the fact that job applications--especially those on paper--are often difficult or impossible for a blind person to fill out without sighted assistance. You say that even job applications that are on the Web or available in some other electronic form are difficult or impossible for a blind person to use. You would solve this problem by establishing a requirement for all government-funded agencies to post all of their job applications on the Web, using a standard format that is accessible. You then go on to suggest some alternatives for turning this idea into reality.
Anything posted on the Web by anyone--whether it be a governmental agency or private organization--should be accessible to blind people using screen-access technology. This is a position which has been espoused by the National Federation of the Blind ever since nonvisual access to the Internet became an issue. We filed a lawsuit against America Online, and because of it AOL 7.0 is much easier to use with screen-access technology than its predecessors. We went after a number of Web‑based tax‑filing services, and today major companies such as Intuit regularly come to the National Federation of the Blind to ensure that the next year's tax‑filing Web application works with screen-access technology. Of course we have a long way to go, as your e-mail so concisely demonstrates. Most Websites are not designed to be accessible to the blind, and consequently those of us who have some ability to use the Internet often run into trouble when trying to use them.
Do we really want to require all job applications to be posted on a Website simply to benefit the blind? If an employer decides to post job applications on the Web, then all of those applications should be accessible to everyone, blind and sighted alike. But to say that, to help the blind, an employer must make job applications available on its Website sends a message which reinforces the notion that the blind cannot compete effectively in the workplace. Imagine what an employer would think. If a blind job applicant can't handle the simple process of filling out a printed application, how can he or she be expected to deal with printed leave slips, memos, reports, and the myriad of printed material that crosses the desks of many professionals every day? Taking this line of reasoning a bit further, should the employer be required to put every piece of printed material on its Website? I don't think so, and I don't believe you do either.
Much of the responsibility for handling printed information must be borne by the blind person. We live in a world that is oriented to sight. The blind are a minority. While we can expect to have some information provided to us in an alternative format, the plain fact of the matter is that there is a fine line between a reasonable accommodation and an unreasonable demand. I happen to believe that requiring nonvisual access to job applications that are already posted on a Website is reasonable.
However, it is not reasonable on the one hand to say that we want an equal chance to compete for a given job while on the other hand we demand that all job applications be provided to us in an accessible electronic format. If an application is available to us only on paper, we should muster the resources necessary to fill it out, and we shouldn't complain about it. I believe this is part of what we mean when we in the National Federation of the Blind talk about fully integrating the blind into society on a basis of equality with the sighted. We do our part whenever and wherever we can, and we ask for help when it can be given without seriously inconveniencing anybody or when the person giving the help stands to benefit by giving it.
Let me be clear about what I am saying here. I agree with you that a lot of forms on the Web are difficult or impossible for even the most highly trained blind computer user to fill out without sighted assistance. You are right to say that forms created using Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) are a real pain in the neck. These are very real problems, and it is reasonable for us to expect‑‑no, demand‑‑that they be solved through the simple expedient of considering nonvisual access issues during the very early stages of the design of a Website or application.
However, when a particular form or application cannot be used without sighted assistance, and if what we want requires us to use that form or application, then we must procure the assistance necessary for us to complete the job. Independence does not always mean that we do it ourselves. It means that we have the wherewithal to take control of our situation and to solve the problems which confront us in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
Curtis Chong, Director of Technology
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
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