She Battles for Her Dream of a Blind-Friendly Web

by Blair Anthony Robertson

From the Editor: The following story appeared in the November 16, 1999, edition of the Sacramento Bee. It speaks for itself.

Here it is:

For the past six years, while the Internet was expanding into a household necessity for shopping, information, and entertainment, Cathy Murtha has essentially gone door to door on the Information Superhighway with a simple but daunting request on behalf of the blind: Mind if we tag along, too?

At stake, the Sacramento woman insists, is nothing less than the future. If left behind, people who are blind could be shut out of job opportunities and, she says, the opportunity for a new kind of independence.

Since getting her first computer in 1993, Murtha, forty-one, has written thousands of e-mails to companies encouraging them to implement often-simple Web design adjustments that make the sites more accessible to the blind.

With no fanfare Murtha's efforts—she estimates she has corresponded with up to 2,000 Web sites—have earned her a national following.

Her work for blind access online was given a major boost with the November 4 filing of a federal lawsuit against America Online by the National Federation of the Blind.

The Baltimore-based organization argues that the Internet company's software is nearly impossible for blind people to use. AOL says new software it is developing will be more accessible.

Murtha says she and others have waited long enough. "The Net is the future," she said during a break from the computer classes she teaches at the Society for the Blind in Sacramento. "It offers so much opportunity, shopping and everything else. If we don't have access to that, it's like closing the doors at Arden Fair Mall and saying, ‘I'm sorry, you're blind. You can't come in.' Nobody would put up with that."

"But a lot of sites on the Internet are doing that, and people don't seem to care. It's time people realize it's wrong, very wrong."

The federal lawsuit has focused mainstream attention on barriers the blind face on the Internet. Most blind people use programs that translate text into something audible, essentially having a talking computer. But Web sites laden with graphics are giving blind people like Murtha fits because their special software can't read the graphics.

"It's so easy to fix," Murtha said enthusiastically. "If Web designers on 90 percent of these sites would just use something called an ‘alt tag'—alternative text—you can still have the graphics, but we can see the text underneath and click on the information."

Among those who appreciated Murtha's online activism was Bryan Bashin, Sacramento's executive director of the Society for the Blind. He liked her work so much he hired her six months ago to teach computer skills to other blind people.

"She got remarkable results and had quite a reputation," Bashin said. "The online blind community, which numbers in the tens of thousands, knows who she is and what she has done. She is a pioneer. She has paved the way in many respects."

Curtis Chong, director of technology at the National Federation of the Blind, says the lawsuit against AOL will increase awareness that the blind, with a 70 percent unemployment rate, cannot afford to be left behind as computer technology expands.

"One of the biggest challenges we face is that most people can't even conceive that we use computers in the first place," Chong said. Many see technology as the great equalizer for the blind, a chance to forge greater independence. For example, Web sites are beginning to offer online grocery shopping, which allows the blind to read the selections by themselves, make purchases through their computers, and await home delivery. Much simpler than a trip to a supermarket.

"This comes down to being able to compete with our sighted peers in the information age," Chong added. "Jobs are at stake."

George Buys, who helps manage Audio-tips.com, a popular blind-oriented Web site based in Mesa, Arizona, has never met Murtha but is grateful for her work. In fact, Buys read his first newspaper by accessing a link on Murtha's Web site.

"What a thrill that was," Buys said. "She has been tirelessly working in that area, and her work has made it possible for me to design my own Web site."

But Murtha's work, it seems, is never over. All she wants to do is surf the Web, learn things, meet people, buy stuff.

Many major Web sites are adding new graphics every day. Every time she logs on and hits a roadblock, she fires off an e-mail. And breaks down another barrier.