The Braille Monitor                                                                                       November 2002

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From the Technology E-mail Basket

by Curtis Chong

Curtis Chong
Curtis Chong

From the Editor: Here is an interesting and informative e-mail exchange between then technology department director Curtis Chong and a blind man from Texas. It is self-explanatory and reminds everyone of the NFB's best thinking about accessible Web sites. It also underscores the importance of our new Web-site accessibility certification program (see the October 2002 issue for details).

To: <nfb@nfb.org>

Saturday, August 24, 2002

I looked in on your Web site today, and I am disappointed and surprised to discover that it is not useful for people like myself with a vision impairment. I experience retinal degeneration, and I have lost nearly all useful vision, beginning about January 1983.

Nearly all Web sites are loaded with various graphical items, most of which others like myself cannot see.

The federal government offers plain text versions on most, or all, of its sites, thereby eliminating the problem.

As stated previously, I am disappointed and surprised that, of all people, yours is not fully accessible to every vision‑disabled person.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, September 6, 2002

Subject: Your comments on <www.nfb.org>

Dear _____:

I read with interest your e‑mail to the National Federation of the Blind dated August 24, 2002, in which you express disappointment and surprise that the Web site of the National Federation of the Blind (www.nfb.org) is not useful to people like you with a vision impairment. You say that nearly all Web sites are loaded with graphical items, which cannot be seen, and you point out that the federal government offers plain text versions on most or all of its Web sites, thereby eliminating the problem. Although you do not say so specifically, I gather that the problem you have with our Web site is that there is no text‑only version.

To begin with, I want to tell you that we very much appreciate your constructive comments about our Web site. You wrote them to help us alleviate what you perceive to be a significant problem—that is, the lack of a text‑only (and ostensibly more accessible) version of <www.nfb.org>. I am sure that you could have spent your time in more profitable pursuits, but the fact is that you took time to alert us to what you believe to be a significant problem. Thank you for that.

When you boil this issue down to its bare essentials, the real question is this: is it necessary for a text‑only version of a Web site to exist in order for that site to be usable by a blind person? Given the current state of speech and Braille screen-access technology, screen-enlargement systems, and Internet browsers, I would have to say "no." Real access is achieved when Web sites are created at the outset with blind users in mind. Among other things this means properly labeling important graphical objects with the appropriate ALT text, coding HTML tables properly, and—most important—testing the site with state-of-the-art screen-access technology.

Some blind people (and, for that matter, some highly technically sophisticated sighted people) would prefer to have Web sites with no graphics. However, the reality is that today's Web sites are created with graphical content (i.e., pictures and graphical hypertext links). This is so because Web site designers create their sites to be visually appealing. They want to attract people to their sites. If, to further the cause of accessibility, we ask for separate (and theoretically equal) text‑only versions of these sites to be created, it is highly likely that the text‑only pages will not be maintained as well as their graphical counterparts. The separate-but-equal doctrine was abandoned decades ago.

As you correctly point out, many Web sites are not completely accessible to the blind. To address this problem, you would have everyone create text‑only versions of their sites. We would attack the problem in a different way. We would have everyone create Web sites which provide useful information to screen-access programs for the blind while, at the same time, maintaining the visual richness which people, most of whom are sighted, seem to want. This is the rationale we used to develop the Web site of the National Federation of the Blind, and based on hundreds of comments we have received from blind people themselves (not all of whom are totally blind), our thinking was indeed sound.

Please write to me directly if you think I can help you to obtain useful information from the Web site of the National Federation of the Blind. The graphics on our site should not stand in your way.

Yours sincerely,

Curtis Chong, Director of Technology

National Federation of the Blind

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