American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: Early Childhood      TECHNOLOGY

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Driving Blind on the Information Superhighway: The New and Improved Rules of the Road

by Amy Mason

Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 61, Number 1, January 2018

Amy MasonFrom the Editor: Amy Mason is on the staff of the International Braille and Technology Center at the NFB Jernigan Institute in Baltimore. This article is the first in a series through which Amy will try to take some of the mystery out of surfing the web for blind users. With the right tools and training, blind people can use the web as efficiently as sighted folks, and have just as much fun.

Back in the dark ages of computing (the Nineties), the world was fascinated and confused by Sir Tim Berners-Lee's 1989 invention: the World Wide Web. We didn't really know what to do with it, why or how to use it, or even what to call it. Before settling on the more commonly known terms, calling it "the web" or "the internet," we tried out some very unusual and unique terms. One of my personal favorites has always been "the Information Superhighway." The idea of a road trip, with its breathtaking opportunities for discovery, silly sing-alongs, car games, and yes, real dangers and risks, has always seemed an apt metaphor for what the internet makes possible.

According to Berners-Lee, "The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect." Sadly, on our more frustrating days, a more overused and untrue phrase has seldom been uttered.

When viewing the web and its history with a cynical eye, a blind person may conclude that we have always and will always trail behind in access to technology, and, by extension, in access to the internet. For instance, in 1995 JAWS for Windows 3.1 was released, while at the same time sighted users were humming "Start Me Up," and exploring Windows 95 with all the excitement of a child on Christmas morning or an Apple fan on iPhone launch day. We gained access to Windows 95 a year later. We have seen many products fall into this mold. By the time many notetakers make their way through development, they seem comically behind mainstream devices. Somehow, more than twenty-five years on, we still have to educate developers on the importance of labeling graphics, buttons, and form fields.

Even so, the internet has changed the lives of millions of blind people for the better. Tools such as Bookshare have unlocked more books than ever before. As we deal with correspondence and other business using print-reading technology and online applications, many of us have cut our time with human readers from an hour or two a day or perhaps two to four hours per week to an inconceivable hour or two each week. Even shopping and transportation have been transformed.

When the web was new, it was as though we had set out in a Model T. We couldn't go far or fast, but everything was new and exciting. Today we are driving on an eight-lane interstate highway. In many ways, using the web, like driving the interstate, has lost some of its thrill of adventure. To others it's still marvelous and exciting in all new ways. The road is flatter, smoother, and generally in better repair. The speeds are faster. The perils have changed. New roadside attractions, amenities, and pitfalls exist. On-ramps, off-ramps, seedy motels, gas stations, and restaurants have transformed our expectations while traveling. Even the cars we drive are unrecognizable when we compare them to those we used twenty years ago.

To get the most out of this faster, busier, more complex internet, we need to learn what the signs mean, understand the strengths and weaknesses of our browsers and other tools, and have a proper understanding of what accessibility and access to the web mean. Therefore, today I'm going to start by taking you to school—driving school, to be exact.
Welcome to Driving School!

Definitions and Concepts

Greetings, class. In today's lesson we are going to discuss what you need to know before you get behind the wheel of your shiny new car—I mean browser. If you've been using the web for a while, you may be rolling your eyes at the idea of learning anything new in a definitions and concepts course. I'm going to ask that you play along, just so we have a shared vocabulary going forward.

If you are very new to the idea of browsing the web, you will probably want to spend some time with a one-on-one coach or, barring that, some very good tutorials on how this whole web browsing thing works. But I want at least to lay out the general terms you will hear throughout the rest of these articles. If you are more experienced, please feel free to skim past this section, but do so at your own risk. Now for the definitions:

The internet: The network made up of all computers and other devices that are connected in order to allow them to communicate. Everything you do that involves your computer talking with another computer outside of your home network involves information traveling across this network in one form or another. This includes email, the bank statement you downloaded yesterday, and videos of kittens purring on YouTube.

The World Wide Web: This is often what people mean when they say they were on the internet. It is made up of many unique locations, known as web pages or websites, that are put up by government entities, companies, organizations, and individuals.

Web pages/websites: These are individual locations on the worldwide web, or web for short. Some websites you may know about include www.nfb.org, the National Federation of the Blind's website; www.google.com, the world's most heavily used search engine (a site to search for information from the web); www.facebook.com, a large website where people can communicate; and www.amazon.com, a big online store.

Web browser/browser: The software you use to view and interact with web pages. Common examples include Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Internet Explorer.

Links: These are the connections from one website to another or from one piece of information to another. When you activate a link, you will be taken to the information it connects to.

Buttons: These perform actions, such as submitting a form or rearranging information when you activate them.

Headings: Information on websites is laid out so that people can skim for the information most relevant to them. In print, headings are bigger, bolder, or otherwise more noticeable than other text on the page. Blind users can use a screen reader to jump among headings in order to find information more quickly as well.

Landmarks: A new way to organize websites, you can think of Landmarks as big buckets that separate large parts of a website from one another, like the links at the top (sometimes called navigation) from the article in the middle.

Text Fields: This is where you can type a piece of information onto the web; some screen readers announce these as "text area" for large ones and "text field" for small ones.

Radio Buttons: Like the buttons on an older car radio, only one of these can be selected from a group at a time.

Checkboxes: Like radio buttons, they allow one to answer a question, but more than one can be chosen for any given question.

So what makes an accessible website, anyway? I'm so glad you asked. Accessible is a difficult term to define, so we are going to break it down for this series in a few different ways. In its most basic form, a website, piece of software, book, home appliance, or other device can be called "accessible" for any given user if he or she can gain access to its features and operate or use it without assistance. Unfortunately, everyone has different criteria for determining whether something works for them, so this definition, while clear, does not actually help us define the term in a way that we can all agree on. Therefore, I am going to propose a few definitions we will use in these articles to better describe how blind people interact with lots of everyday objects, including the web.

Inaccessible: The device or product has one or more essential features that someone cannot use independently, and the user is not likely to find a workaround, adaptation, or alternative that will allow equivalent access.

Usable: A state in which the item or device can be used by someone, but is not blind friendly—it may not be as efficient or straightforward as it is for others or as a blind user would wish it to be. Many websites fall into this category for a large number of blind users, even though they present accessibility challenges that would make them inaccessible for others. The usability of a device or website will depend on both the nature of that item and the user's flexibility, knowledge, or resources.

Functional Accessibility: This is the gold standard. If something is functionally accessible, it is easy and straightforward to use. A person can get done what he or she needs to do without undue hardship. Once again, this is a subjective measure.

Technical Accessibility: Accessibility based on agreed-upon standards. Websites that meet these standards will usually be usable and functionally accessible for many more people than those that do not. Technical Accessibility is not a perfect guarantee that something will be usable for everyone, but it is a pretty good indicator that it is more likely to be.

At the end of the day, usability, functional accessibility, and inaccessibility are states that are only partially based on the technical accessibility of a site. Instead, these states are made up of that site's technical accessibility, the browser and screen reader (or other access technology) conveying enough information about the site, and the user's training and experience. So, you see, we actually have quite a bit of control over the experiences we have on the web.

Rules for Road Builders: WCAG and the Technical Standards

The web community has spent a lot of time in the past debating what technical accessibility really looks like. Today, however, the community is largely reaching an agreement. The most popular technical standard is the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 at the AA Level (WCAG 2.0 AA, for short). These standards are referenced directly and indirectly by many governments crafting their own accessibility guidelines. This officially includes the United States beginning in the first few months of 2018. The US has had an accessibility standard called Section 508 since 1998, but these rules were difficult to test, and therefore they were difficult to enforce. Consequently the federal government has recently completed a refresh process for Section 508 that directly references the WCAG Guidelines going forward. This is good news for the accessibility of the web, since these guidelines are easier to test for, and because it means that government and public websites are going to be held to the same standard.

There are four overarching principles that WCAG calls on websites to meet. Each of them contains a number of guidelines that expand upon that main idea. The four principles are:

Perceivable: A user needs to be able to tell that there is something there and make out what it is. Examples of this include graphics having descriptions that can be read with a screen reader, videos offering captions and audio descriptions, and websites having enough contrast that they can be read.

Operable: An operable site can be navigated and interacted with. Items in this section include ensuring that the site can be navigated using only a keyboard, making sure that there is nothing flashing that might cause a user to have a seizure, and ensuring that the purpose of a link is easy for users to understand.

Understandable: Success criteria and guidelines under this major point include ensuring that the web page tells the user's computer what language it is written in (so that screen readers can use an appropriate voice or accent and computers can load the correct characters and fonts on screen), a user's focus won't be moved without warning, and that when filling in forms, users are provided with all the information they need to finish successfully.

Robust: This is the hardest to understand. Criteria under this heading essentially boil down to the idea that a website is going to work across a wide number of devices and in a lot of different environments. This includes telling screen readers and browsers what different controls are and how to expect them to behave so that information can be provided to the user.

The discussion of web standards is a much bigger and broader topic than we can cover in detail here, but it's helpful to understand the idea of what constitutes "technical accessibility" so that you can determine what you should expect to know to use the web effectively and what you should be able to expect from web developers (whether or not they meet those expectations).

Evaluating Road Conditions: The State of the Web Today

Let's take a moment here and be very blunt. The state of the web is really mixed. That's why we are having these lessons. It's sometimes hard to figure out when you are having a problem because you don't understand something that should work, or when the problem isn't you but that the website was created badly. The bad news is that this is the case for all of us—sighted people, too, have this question as they surf the web. However, there is plenty of good news. More web developers are coming to recognize the value of accessible and intuitive design and are trying to implement it in their products. We are seeing some very powerful and very functional sites. Increasingly because of work done by the National Federation of the Blind and many others, through legislation, education, and (when nothing else works) litigation, more sites than ever before are working with varying levels of success to reach proper technical accessibility as described in WCAG. Even better, there are some true leaders in the field who are moving beyond concern for "technical accessibility" and are working on ways to create truly functional accessibility for as many users as possible. These organizations are testing with blind and other disabled users, hiring specialists, and working hard to innovate in the field. They want to build the best web they can for everyone.

Many developers are pushing the envelope of what is possible in designing accessibly for the web, which means that we users will find lots of new information being presented by our screen readers. Think of it almost like road signs. Initially we only had a few: links, buttons, and edit fields. Now there are some really wild bits of work like calendars that allow you to choose the date from a grid or autocomplete programs that will offer suggestions for what's next, even before you hit enter. Therefore, we users must realize that we can no longer pull our Model A out of the garage and tootle down the road, expecting gravel lanes and a twenty-miles-per-hour speed limit. To make the most of the highway on which we find ourselves, we need to learn how to read the signs and make sure we know what to do to get the most out of our car/browser. If we don't, we're going to be left in the dust.

Final Thoughts

Initially I was intending this project to be a single article discussing how to improve one's web browsing experience as a blind user. But as I outlined it, I realized that this is far too much information for a single piece. Instead, over the next several months, new installments will be published in the Braille Monitor and in Future Reflections. Topics in this series will include:

Browsers: Choosing the Right Vehicle for the Journey

Screen Readers: Efficient Driving Requires the Right Sensors

Basic Navigation: Hitting the Road and Finding Your Way

Defensive Driving: Strategies for More Complex or Less Accessible Journeys

Browser Tune-Up: Customizations that Can Increase the Pleasures of the Journey

Social Media: Making the Most of Some of the Web's Finest Roadside Attractions

So, class dismissed—for now.

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