Front Page Story! Disabled find many barriers online

from Sunday Austin American Statesman

Disabled find many barriers online

By Andrew Park
American-Statesman Staff
Sunday, September 3, 2000

Tired of having to squint to read the display of his small green computer
screen, Guido Corona one day replaced it with a 19-inch television.

When text on the edges blurred beyond recognition, he pulled a cardboard box
over his head and the monitor to block out extraneous light.

When light seeped in anyway, he lined the makeshift hood with black paper to
cover the cracks.

When he found himself squinting again, he rigged his computer to talk to him
and soundproofed his office so colleagues wouldn't be bothered by the noise.

It was 1984 and Corona, a programmer in the research labs of IBM Corp., was
losing his eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disorder that
can lay dormant for half a lifetime and then turn a sighted person blind
within a matter of months.

Elsewhere within IBM, blind programmers were rigging printers with rubber
bands and coat hangers to get them to print Braille and going back to
primitive punch card sorters that could be read by their hands.

They knew -- even in the early days of the personal computer -- that a
technological revolution was coming and they didn't want to be left behind.

Today, PCs can be custom-made for the visually impaired, and a whole
industry has grown up to develop technologies to help people with
disabilities. But that doesn't always make them useful to folks like Guido
Corona, because much of the Internet -- which has become so important in
American life that it increasingly separates the haves from the have-nots --
remains inaccessible to people with disabilities. They struggle every day to
find their way through complex Web pages that are clogged with animation,
video and data that would fill reams of paper -- but are void of any
accommodation for their needs.

Ten years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which
forced corporations and governments to address the needs of people with
disabilities in the physical world, advocates are focusing attention on the
barriers in the virtual world.

It is another digital divide, and if you think the issue is simply the
ability to shop online, think again. At some point, the Internet will be the
platform for learning, working and participating in society. Texas is
pushing hard to adopt electronic textbooks in public schools, for example,
but they will be of little value if students with disabilities cannot use

``To the extent that the world is moving to the Internet, it ups the ante
that we have to be there or we cease being competitive,'' says Curtis Chong,
director of technology for the National Federation of the Blind in

``We've always said that blind people can be competitive. But being
competitive can be tough to do if the technology is moving too fast for you
to keep up with."

Fighting for access

According to a study released in March by researchers at the University of
California-San Francisco, less than 10 percent of people with disabilities
regularly use the Internet, versus nearly 40 percent of people with no

In the past two years, major computer and software makers have decreed that
their products will be built with accessibility to everyone in mind, from
people who can't use a mouse to those who can't hear a computer's beeps and
whistles. But the needs of people with disabilities still get trampled under
the rush to expand the Internet and use it to transform all aspects of
American life, from business to government to education.

"Ninety percent of the Internet pages have some problem with
accessibility,'' says Kelly Ford, a Portland, Ore., consultant who teaches
Web design to corporations and is one of the more outspoken advocates of
building in accessibility. ``Inaccessible information is just as much of a
barrier as a set of steps is to a person in a wheelchair."

After years of pushing technology companies behind the scenes to improve the
accessibility of their products, the fight is becoming public.

In the past year, advocates for people with visual impairments have sued
major corporations including Bank of America, H&R Block and Intuit, claiming
that the companies' popular software and Web sites aren't compatible with
the screen-reading technology they use to surf the Web. They charged that
Internet services such as online shopping, banking and tax preparation
constitute public accommodations that, under the ADA, have to be as
accessible to people with disabilities as the public library or the mall.

America Online recently settled a suit by agreeing to make future versions
of its Internet service software accessible to screen readers and other
technology that people with disabilities use. The Department of Justice
ruled in 1996 that the ADA applied to the Internet, and the government is
adopting rules requiring accessibility in all technology it buys. The rules
are expected to encourage state and local governments as well as the private
sector to pay more attention to the issue.

But it remains to be seen whether corporate policies and government
regulations can keep up with the explosive growth of the Internet. New
elements are added every day to Web sites, often without regard to how
different viewers might experience them. The emergence of affordable
high-bandwidth connections such as cable modems and DSL has encouraged Web
designers to create sites with complex features like streaming audio and
video, animation and built-in, executable programs -- elements that even
many people without disabilities have trouble using.

``I think as the Web continues to grow, it gets more inaccessible,'' says
Jim Allan, information technology director at the Texas School for the Blind
and Visually Impaired.

With the advent of each new potentially world-changing Internet
application -- telecommuting, distance learning, online voting, digital
signatures, e-books -- people with disabilities question whether they will
be able to take advantage, too.

``Every new thing that comes along, the first thing I do is worry,'' Chong
says. ``I will say that most of my worry has been justified."

Screen-reader success

Guido Corona is not alone at IBM, and was not when he joined in the early
1980s. Long before the Web existed, computing's emphasis on the visual
caused problems for people with blindness and other disabilities, forcing
them to improvise.

Each time such improvisations failed him, Corona cursed his state-of-the-art
computer and blamed technology, even though he knew it was his vision that
was reaching early obsolescence.

"It was me, my eyes that were going the way of the Edsel or the dodos,''
says Corona, 47, his eyes hidden by mirrored sunglasses more suited to a
Texas state trooper than a computer programmer.

As he continued to struggle, Corona learned that an IBM researcher named
James Thatcher was developing a program that, when combined with a speech
synthesizer, would read text aloud from a PC screen.

``That was really a very important thing for the blind community, because it
opened up jobs that wouldn't be available to them,'' says Thatcher, who
retired from IBM in April.

Corona jumped at the chance to be one of the early testers of that
product -- called PC-SAID -- beginning a long association with Thatcher that
culminated in 1996, when IBM moved its Special Needs Systems group, which
was charged with bringing together all of the company's efforts in
developing computing for people with disabilities, to Austin. Corona, then
working in Toronto, soon followed.

By the early 1990s, millions of people were logging onto e-mail and a
text-based Internet through services such as AOL and Prodigy, including many
blind people who used screen-reading programs. With the invention of the Web
browser, though, developers were able to format text into boxes and columns
and add logos, charts, photographs and drawings and the Internet began to
evolve into a much more graphic environment.

Once again, people with disabilities were left behind. Not only did the
emphasis on spectacular graphics mean that visually impaired people using
screen readers were stymied; the growing emphasis on the mouse as the tool
for navigating the visual world of the Internet also meant that many people
with mobility problems would be left out.

``In 1997, I was essentially refusing to recognize it because it was
becoming a truly schizophrenic experience,'' Corona says. ``There were less
and less places that you could go to."

About the same time in a laboratory in Tokyo, an IBM researcher was
programming a screen reader that would recognize not just conventional text,
but also the tags in HTML that control where text is displayed, its
appearance and its function on Web pages. The program, called Home Page
Reader, offered the visually impaired user signals to how a Web page was
laid out and how to navigate it. Thatcher's group brought the software to
the United States and released a second version last year.

Home Page Reader -- and programs like it from assistive-technology companies
such as Henter-Joyce Inc. -- rely on Web developers to include text
alternatives to graphic elements as they are programming their pages. It is
an easy step in designing a page, but one many programmers overlook.

``When the issue of accessibility comes up, that's not the No. 1 priority.
The No. 1 priority is to have a nice-looking product,'' says Adam Weinroth,
a Web developer at Mediatruck Inc. in Austin, whose team won first place in
a contest last fall in which local design firms created accessible Web sites
for nonprofit organizations. ``Now it's to the point where people are
potentially missing out on customers or missing out on revenue because of

Indeed, people with disabilities are increasingly looked upon by
corporations as a lucrative market, and their combined buying power of $300
billion is only expected to grow as baby boomers age.

But change is not easy. Advocates bring inaccessible sites to the attention
of the companies that run them, and their recent targets have been some of
the biggest names on the Web: Dell Computer, Citibank, Priceline. After
becoming a faithful customer of, Kelly Ford complained when
the site was redesigned and its accessible features were dropped. The
Seattle company made the appropriate changes, but it was later sold to
another company whose online grocery site is not accessible.

And sites that target a wide audience have been embarrassed when they have
failed accessibility tests. The Bush for President campaign recently
relaunched its site, only to read in the media that it didn't meet
accessibility standards.

Last spring, people found that the ballots for the online primary held in
Arizona were inaccessible; voting buttons were not labeled with text
alternatives. As with Ford's experience with online grocery shopping, people
with disabilities were denied a chance to do something they struggle with in
the physical world.

``It was the one time that people who are blind could have had complete
independence when voting at the polls, and they blew it,'' said Cynthia
Waddell, who helped the City of San Jose become the first major municipality
to address the accessibility of its Web sites.

Change comes slowly

Not everyone agrees that Web sites should be required to include the kind of
clues that Home Page Reader and other screen-recognition software can use.
At a hearing in February, a House subcommittee heard testimony on whether
the Internet was a ``public accommodation'' as defined by the ADA, and much
of the testimony was against the idea.

``It would be hard to find a better way to curb the currently explosive
upsurge of this new publishing and commercial medium than to menace private
actors with liability if they publish pages that fail to live up to some
expert body's idea of accessibility in site design,'' Walter Olson, a senior
fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, told the House Judiciary
Subcommittee on the Constitution.

And many who call for better accessibility favor encouraging more
enlightened design, rather than forcing it. Gregg Vanderheiden, director of
the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin at
Madison, and others speak of a future in which ``universal design'' allows
all people to access Internet content, no matter what their capabilities are
or what type of device they are using. Rather than build sites that use only
text or that have separate sites for people with disabilities, they advocate
designing sites that transform gracefully, recognizing the special needs of
the user as soon as they load onto the screen. And despite the effort IBM
has made promoting Home Page Reader, the special-needs group remains a bit
player in the corporation's cast -- only 17 employees out of a work force of
more than 300,000. Only in the past three years has the company bothered to
file for patents on technologies for people with disabilities, and despite a
companywide directive last year that all IBM products and Web sites must be
accessible, Chairman Louis Gerstner has not talked publicly about the need
for the industry to follow suit.

Like IBM, Microsoft has widely advertised its accessibility effort, but it
employs just 50 people and has been active only since 1998. Before then, the
company did not work with developers of accessibility software, so blind
users had to wait nine months before being able to work with accessible
versions of new systems such as Windows 95.

``It's very easy for our products to get lost because we have very small
volume and there are many other very important products in which we get
lost,'' IBM's Thatcher says. ``It's hard for IBM to sell so few products."

For Guido Corona, Home Page Reader has been a godsend and he is back to
being an Internet evangelist. Many sites still confound him, but most weeks,
he spends hours searching the Web for news, the latest price of IBM stock,
downloadable books and music, and stories about science. On his desk at home
are books by Tom Clancy and Thomas Mann he has scanned into his computer to
be read back to him later.

In the 19th century, when the masses were learning to read, the divide
between the blind and the sighted populations widened. Those who could read
suddenly had access to information about the world, while the blind had to
rely on hearsay. Later, they could listen to radio and television, and
Braille texts and recorded books helped. But none of it was available widely
enough or quickly enough to provide timely access to information.

``Now with the explosion of information on the Internet, that gap becomes
even greater because the amount of information out there is growing
exponentially, but the blind population will start with the same methods,''
Corona says.

``So when the Internet becomes all of a sudden accessible, it's truly
opening the floodgate of knowledge, of information, of self-worth, of
education, of being a part of this global village.

``And that is awesome."

You may contact Andrew Park at or 912-5933.

Jim Allan, Statewide Technical Support Specialist
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
1100 W. 45th St., Austin, Texas 78756
voice 512.206.9315    fax: 512.206.9453
"Be BOLD and mighty forces will come to your aid." Basil King

Received on Tuesday, 5 September 2000 16:28:06 UTC