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Article: Blind surfing

From: Kelly Ford <kford@teleport.com>
Date: Thu, 12 Nov 1998 12:20:35 -0800
Message-Id: <>
To: w3c-wai-ig@w3.org
I am disheartened to read the comments of Ted Henter near the end of this
article.  Voluntary standards, no matter what screen reader one is using,
have certainly not solved the problem of web accessibility.  I'm a regular
user of JFW and while I find the program quite functional, it does not make
vast parts of the web "a piece of cake" as Mr. Henter asserts.

Blind surfing 
By Matt Beer 
Thursday, November 12, 1998 
1998 San Francisco Examiner 


San Jose man's complaint brings disabled issues to the forefront of the Net 

"Like a knife stuck in my head." Randy Tamez still winces when he recalls
the pain from a tumor that left him legally blind 12 years ago. 

It's a disability that has now put Tamez at the edge of the World Wide
Web's next frontier: government-mandated cyberspace access for disabled

On Nov. 2, Tamez filed a formal complaint against the Metropolitan
Transportation Commission, which oversees nine Bay Area counties' mass
transit systems. 

Tamez alleges that his inability to access the site's documents, including
bus and train schedules, violates the Americans With Disabilities Act,
passed by Congress in 1990. It's one of the first formal complaints filed
against a Web site, according to Cynthia Waddell, the city of San Jose's
ADA coordinator. 

"It's the coming of cut-curb requirements for the Internet," said Waddell.
"And follow-up litigation is a real possibility." 

Cyberspace was hardly where Tamez thought he'd end up when he was wheeled
into an operating room at San Jose's Valley Medical Center in 1986. The
36-year-old Oakland native's cheerful voice grew somber as he described
what doctors found after opening his head: a large blood-fed tumor pressing
into the left side of his cerebral cortex, crushing his optic nerves. 

Two operations and a regimen of radiation treatment killed the tumor, but
not before it had blinded his left eye and left him with 20/2800 vision in
his right. 

Tamez can discern shapes, shadows and light, but he can't read, watch TV or
see the details of his world. 

"It was devastating," Tamez said, shifting about in his easy chair in his
neat San Jose ranch home. "I had to relearn how to live again. How to walk.
How to bathe myself. Everything." 

In 1989, Tamez enrolled at San Jose State University as a political science
student. Grants and scholarships enabled him to hire a reader to help him
with library research sessions. 

His text books were read out to him on cassette tapes. He was ushered about
the campus by student assistants. 

"Being treated, basically, like a disabled person," Tamez said, "opened my
inner eyes. . . . This world is not set up for people with disabilities." 

During this time, Tamez began using the university's student computer
center. The keyboard was a small piece of friendly landscape, thanks to
touch typing skills he learned in high school. But even in the high-tech
world, Tamez encountered barriers. 

"There were computers (at the school)," he said. "But none of the
technologies that a vision-impaired person like myself needed, like large
print readers and voice technologies." 

With his reader, Tamez began researching state and federal regulations on
disability rights, including the ADA. 

In late 1995, Tamez filed a letter of complaint with U.S. Department of
Education, alleging that the school had failed to provide disabled students
with equal access to the school's computers. 

That complaint was resolved in 1998. According to Tamez, the university
purchased equipment and trained staff to enable handicapped students to use
the university's computers and the Internet connections more easily. 

A university spokesperson would not comment on the complaint, citing
privacy regulations, but said San Jose State University has spent
$1,083,850 on ADA-related campus improvements since 1993. The filing of
that complaint, Tamez said, made him realize that his disability wasn't as
crippling as he thought. 

"It was liberating," said Tamez. "I wasn't trapped anymore." 

In 1996, with the help of a Social Security grant of $25,000, Tamez
outfitted his home with a high-speed desktop computer, a laptop and a voice
synthesizer that read his computer screen back to him. 

He began connecting with the outside world and exchanged strategies with
other disabled computer users on how to knock down internet barriers. 

He has a lot of company out there. 

According to a 1996 study by the American Foundation for the Blind,
one-third of blind and visually impaired Americans have a computer in their
homes, a ratio almost on par with fully sighted Americans. That same study
found that nearly 40 percent of blind people overall had used a computer,
and a third of those had access to the Internet or other on-line services. 

"We're taking over," laughed Tamez. 

But as more and more sensory impaired users go on-line, the more barriers
they find in front of them, the biggest of which is called the World Wide

As Web sites fill with pictures, video clips and sound, text becomes a
secondary concern to on-line designers. But text drives the technology -
especially screen readers - that allows a sight- or hearing-disabled person
to use the Web. 

"The on-line world was friendly when it was a text-based medium," said
Waddell, San Jose ADA coordinator, who is deaf. "But as it has rapidly
grown to a robust multimedia environment, it has erected new barriers that
were never there before." 

In Tamez's bedroom, a lemon and green parakeet named Birdy jumped excitedly
in his cage as a mechanical voice from a speech synthesizer recited the
words that play out across the screen, "My computer. Netscape Explorer
three point oh. Connected at twenty four point four." 

Tamez deftly logged onto several regional mass transit sites, jumping from
page to page, showing off the pros and cons of each site. On the
Metropolitan Transportation Commission site (www.mtc.ca.gov), he was
stymied when the machine called out, "edit field." 

"Edit field what?" said Tamez. "Now, I know, from talking to a sighted
person, that this is an e-mail form, but I can't tell that from what my
machine tells me." 

A visitor asked Tamez to log onto Amazon.com, a popular book-selling Web
site that he has yet to explore. "Text only," the screen reader declared,
reading the site's tags. 

"That looks promising," Tamez said, but he got lost on the text-only site.
The machine started reciting links and fields that are confusing and don't
follow a logical course from left to right, top to bottom. He pushed his
face to within an inch of the monitor. 

"I can see blocks of color," he said, "but that's it. I'm lost." 

Tamez's recently filed a complaint against the MTC as part of a growing
mound of paperwork that is steering ADA regulations toward the Web. 

Two other formal complaints, filed against San Francisco and Washington
this year, allege those cities failed to make public touch-screen computer
kiosks compliant with hearing- and vision-impaired users. Both cities have
promised to enact guidelines and training to bring the kiosks in compliance
with the ADA. 

The feds have begun taking notice. In September 1996, the Department of
Justice ruled - after an inquiry by Sen. Tom Harken, D-Iowa - that Web
sites were subject to ADA regulations. And in September, the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights issued a report urging the government to be more
proactive in creating Web disability access standards. 

It's a prospect that Tamez welcomes. "A Web site is like a public
building," he said. "You open it up to the public, and you can't
discriminate against people who can't get up the stairs." 

"Why should a disability make you a second-class citizen in cyberspace?"
Tamez said. 

But some don't welcome government involvement in the Web, even if it's to
help the disabled. 

"I personally do not think it's a good thing," said Ted Henter, 47, creator
of JAWS (Job Access With Speech), one of the first viable, commercial
screen readers. 

Henter, a former motorcycle racer who was blinded in an auto accident, said
voluntary standards were the answer to making the Web disabled enabled. 

"It's a piece of cake to make a Web site work for us," said Henter. "I hate
to see the government make the rules to live by. It's not worth having the
government involved." 

Countered Tamez: "That's like saying people will voluntarily drive the
speed limit when you know they'll go over it when no one's watching." "I
just think we need someone to watch," Tamez said. "And the government is
the only entity that can do that." 

1998 San Francisco Examiner   
Received on Thursday, 12 November 1998 14:19:45 UTC

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