Future Reflections Summer/Fall 1999, Vol. 18 No. 2

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Photo of Curtis Chong
Curtis Chong

Bringing the Visual World of the Web to the Blind

by Debra Nussbaum

Reprinted from the March 26, 1998, New York Times.

Curtis Chong has been using the World Wide Web for three years to look up topics like music, fundraising, and medical research. He also uses it as a way to teach and encourage other blind people to get on the Web.

How does someone who cannot see the screen navigate the computer and Web, which is full of glitzy graphics and icons?

Chong communicates all his commands through the keyboard. His printer prints in Braille. He uses the Web browser Internet Explorer 3.02, with a piece of software called a screen reader and a speech synthesizer to turn the written words on the screen into words spoken in a computer-generated voice.

"We want to use the Web, and we want to use it like everybody else does," said Chong, director of technology for the National Federation of the Blind, based in Baltimore. "We don’t believe the computer is the great equalizer for the blind, but it’s one way to make our lives better."

For the more than half-million blind people of working age in the United States, getting on the Web may not only mean being able to research topics of interest but may also be a necessary skill for staying employed.

"It certainly affects the jobs of thousands of blind people," said Gary Wunder, a blind man who is a senior computer programmer at the University of Missouri Hospitals and Clinics. He is required to use the Web in his job for project assignments and updates. "It isn’t just optional anymore."

While current statistics on the use of computers and the Web by blind and visually impaired people are hard to find, technology companies and advocacy organizations say the numbers are rapidly increasing. Tens of thousands of blind people are on computers, and every year more of them are learning to use the Web, Chong said.

A 1991 study published by the American Foundation for the Blind in New York found that 43 percent of blind and severely visually impaired people were using the computer for writing, said Emilie Schmeidler, senior research associate for the Foundation. Her impression is that more visually impaired people are using computers and the Web now, she said, and "more and more jobs require the computer."

Being able to use the Web is critical to thousands of employed blind people.

A screen reader or screen access program like the one Chong uses is the translator that tells a speech synthesizer what to say when the visual icons are accompanied by a text description. "It’s my white cane that helps me know what’s on the screen," Chong said.

Henter-Joyce, a company in St. Petersburg, Fla., that manufactures the popular screen reader called JAWS (Job Access With Speech) for Windows, has between 15,000 and 18,000 customers, said the company’s president, Ted Henter. He said the customer base had increased four to five times since 1995.

At least seven companies make the screen readers. Henter-Joyce’s JAWS is one of the top sellers and costs about $795; the company’s new version, to be released this spring, will include a speech synthesizer. The National Federation of the Blind Web site includes a computer-resource page (<www.nfb.org/computer.htm>) that has information on how to get in contact with the companies that sell the readers.

But getting the technology right is only one piece of the package. If Web pages do not have text that identifies graphics or if they have moving type, they will not be accessible. The World Wide Web Consortium (<www.w3.org>) made up of universities, corporations, and research organizations and based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, started a three-year project in 1997 called the Web Accessibility Initiative that is creating guidelines to make technology and Web pages more accessible to blind, deaf, and disabled users.

The National Federation of the Blind has eight accessibility guidelines for Web pages that can be found on its Web site, (<www.nfb.org/webacc.htm>).

The Center for Applied Special Technology, a nonprofit research and development organization in Peabody, Massachusetts, has a free service in which it analyzes Web sites and offers suggestions for their accessibility <www.cast.org/bobby>.

The change from DOS, a text-based operating system, to Windows, a graphics-based operating system, was a setback for the blind.

"The world enthusiastically embraced Windows, and we were left out," said Wunder, who is also president of the Missouri chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. But in the last two and a half years, Microsoft "has shown concern and responsiveness" to the blind, Wunder said.

Version 3.02 of Microsoft’s browser, Internet Explorer, includes a component called Microsoft Active Accessibility, a layer of codes that are compatible with accessibility aids like the screen reader. In addition to aiding blind users, these codes also hook into software that helps users who are deaf or have other disabilities.

But a newer version, Internet Explorer 4.0, was released on Oct. 1, 1997, without the Active Accessibility component. Angry letters, phone calls, and e-mails let Luanne LaLonde, Microsoft’s accessibility product manager, and others at Microsoft know that this was unacceptable.

"We got a lot of e-mail," she said. In early November, about 35 days after the release of Explorer 4.0, Microsoft released Explorer 4.01, including Active Accessibility.

Web page design, of course, is an element of accessibility.

Vito DeSantis, manager of field operations for the southern regional office of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, uses the Web to find research on the eye condition that has made it impossible for him to see the computer screen over the past three years. He also likes to read newspapers on the Web.

"For visually impaired Web users like DeSantis, the vertical columns on the Web present the biggest problem because screen readers pick up the information horizontally.

"You have to really know how to navigate around the screen." DeSantis said. "I imagine quite a few people might get frustrated. Sometimes it’s just not worth the effort."

While screen readers help, Wunder said, "no screen reader has made the Web as easily accessible for the blind as for the sighted."

Even with top-of-the-line screen readers, Web pages have to have text explanations for graphics and icons or the visually impaired computer user cannot move.

"You get a screen and it says, ‘Image, image, image,’" Schmeidler said, quoting the sound her screen reader makes when the cursor hits an icon without accompanying text. "You have no idea how frustrating it is."

In addition to the advice on making a Web page accessible from the National Federation of the Blind and the Center for Applied Special Technology, the World Wide Web Consortium has a group of volunteer computer experts who are leading the Web Accessibility Initiative. The group’s goal is to write guidelines for Web page authors who want to make their pages accessible for all disabled users. A rough draft of the recommendations can be found on the consortium’s Web site (<www.we.org/wcci>).

"Everything is voluntary, and the documents are called recommendations," said Professor Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a member of the group. But for businesses and government agencies, making sites accessible may not be voluntary, he said.

In a policy ruling in September 1996, the Department of Justice said the Americans With Disabilities Act did cover access to Web pages.

"A Web site is an electronic front door," Vanderheiden said. "But blind users often have to let individual Web page authors know that they can’t understand their pages.

"Sometimes people instantly go and fix it, and sometimes people don’t care."

Blind users say they want basic instruction on how to navigate the Web and get what they want. They do not need long descriptions that are intended to help them see pictures or other graphics.

"Don’t try to tell me how wonderful the Mona Lisa is," Wunder said. "You can’t do that, but you can tell me how to get the picture and print it out for my daughter."

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