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Fw: online obstacles discourage blind

From: david poehlman <poehlman1@comcast.net>
Date: Mon, 21 Jun 2004 08:47:03 -0400
Message-ID: <006101c4578d$da025e10$6401a8c0@DAVIDPC>
To: "wai-ig list" <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Joe Harcz" <michiganadapt@peoplepc.com>
To: "Blind Democracy Discussion List" <blind-democracy@octothorp.org>
Cc: <acb-chat@acb.org>
Sent: Monday, June 21, 2004 7:45 AM
Subject: online obstacles discourage blind


Monday, Jun 21, 2004


By K. Oanh Ha Mercury News

It's mid-morning, but Barbara Rhodes sits in front of her computer in
complete darkness, with the lights dimmed, shades drawn and computer screen

off. A robotic voice fills the room:

``A small penis will embarrass you.''

``Get it up tonight!''

``Hi hottie!''

Rhodes quickly presses the down arrow after each e-mail message. ``I hate
it. I just hate it,'' said Rhodes, who lives in San Jose. ``It's a robber -- 

my time.''

For those who are blind or visually impaired, spam is just one of many
daunting obstacles they encounter when venturing online.

It's been more than five years since the federal government brought the
issue to a forefront when it mandated that government Web sites and those of

suppliers must be accessible by people with disabilities. But many report
the online world is still rife with digital roadblocks. The answer,

say, is to universally implement consistent Web standards that ensure
accessibility and usability.

``There's a house full of good intent,'' said Kenneth Frasse, executive
director of Santa Clara Valley Blind Center. ``But progress hasn't been

``Things have improved a little bit but not appreciatively,'' added Frasse,
who is blind. ``There are still more sites that are inaccessible than that


To be sure, with nearly one in five Americans suffering from a disability,
the blind aren't the only group that struggles with the Web. The solutions

making the online world more available to people who are blind can often
serve people with a wide range of disabilities.

``Whether someone is deaf, has physical disabilities or cognitive
disabilities, the needs and solutions are so complementary,'' said Judy
Brewer, director

of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium, an
international non-profit group that sets technology standards for the Web.

Visual roadblocks

The blind, however, are most obviously affected by obstacles online. >From
Webcams to graphics to video, things that the sighted may take for granted

are stumbling blocks to people who are blind or visually impaired.

On this day, Rhodes tried to cruise a Napa Valley Web site for information
about wineries. Rhodes, who moonlights as a Web accessibility consultant,

screen reader software. The software is essentially a voice synthesizer that
``reads'' what's on the page by interpreting the Web site's underlying code.

The graphics on the Napa Valley page -- large vines with drooping grapes -- 
threw off her screen reader, which could only interpret it as ``gif.''

The links on the page, as written in the source code, were not descriptive
enough. Though sighted surfers could easily see the link for ``Featured New

it was coded only as, ``Featured.'' Often, a link might be read back simply
as ``link here.'' In the end, Rhodes gave up.

Recently, she also tried to buy tickets online and never got beyond the home
page of JetBlue. Though there were icons and links for ``Buying tickets,''

the screen reader spit back gibberish.

She had to call the airline and purchase her ticket over the phone. ``I just
want to be able to do what everyone else can,'' said Rhodes. ``I'm resentful

when I can't get access to things on the Web.''

Limited access

For blind users, Web pages are full of hurdles. PDF files often can't be
read by the screen readers, which usually recognizes them as graphics. Flash

as well as Java script, are generally incomprehensible too. If the screen
reader doesn't see a description of what's on the page in the source code,

may not even detect anything is there. Web site developers often don't even
bother to write captions or descriptions for graphic elements.

Pop-up ads, which are increasingly prevalent, sometimes cause the reader to
jump from reading what's on the screen to what's inside the pop-up ad.

Some blind people say they get so frustrated with not being able to navigate
around on the Web that they hardly use it at all. Few jump from link to

and usually they get onto the Internet only to get specific information.
These individuals, like IBM programmer TV Raman, say they rarely venture

the sites they are familiar with.

``I only cruise the Web through Google,'' said IBM programmer Raman, who is
working with the World Wide Web Consortium, also known as W3C, on

issues. ``I never go to a top level home page. It's too confusing to try to
navigate a site you don't know.''

It's easier to achieve large-scale accessibility if everyone can agree on
the same standards -- and if they're applied consistently as the Web is

said Brewer of W3C.

The group's guidelines now are widely viewed as the presumptive standard for
Web accessibility. They cover not only the content of Web pages, but also

tools used to write the content as well as the Internet browser or media
player that interprets the content.

Businesses also need to understand it makes financial sense to have products
that are accessible by everyone, said Brewer.

Security standards

``It costs more money to retrofit products,'' said Jamie Armistead, Bank of
America's senior vice president for e-commerce. ``It doesn't cost

more money to do it right the first time.''

Bank of America started its Web accessibility group two years ago and
follows the standards set by W3C. The challenge is to get suppliers the
company uses

to sign onto the same standards, he said. ``The more companies that adopt
these standards, the easier it is for all of us to follow them.''

For added security and to ensure that a human -- and not robotic software is
filling out information -- many secure sites require users to type in a

password on the screen. Automated screen readers can't recognize the
verification passwords. That problem can be mitigated by including an audio
file that

a visually impaired person downloads to have the password read to them, so
that they can then manually enter the password.

Rhodes has experienced that particular problem often. Her usual response is
to ``bug the company'' until they take action to make it accessible.

Despite her difficulties online, Rhodes stressed that her Internet
experience has dramatically improved since she first began using computers
in the 1980s.

``My computer is my connection to the outside world,'' she said.

Yet Rhodes, who sits on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's Web
accessibility committee, still hasn't figured out what to do about spam.

For now, the only stop-gap measure is to crank her voice synthesizer so it
reads to her at warp speed.

As she deletes the spam, she shrugs in resignation: ``This is annoying, but
this is a problem for everyone.''


The World Wide Web Consortium's Web site is at


Contact K. Oanh Ha at


or (408) 278-3457.


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