Rocky Mountain News, Colorado USA.
Monday, July 31, 2006.
Major Internet companies are moving to better meet the needs of the hundreds of thousands of blind people who regularly browse the Web.
Blind Internet users generally use software that reads a description of a site's features aloud, sometimes in conjunction with hardware that displays portions of the site in Braille.
But navigating increasingly feature-heavy Web sites, whose messy and complex programming can be difficult for the software to translate, poses problems. Aiming to increase use of their popular products even more, Internet companies are launching new - and tidying up old - services for easier use by the blind.
Google Inc. last week launched Google Accessible Search, a search tool that ranks results based on the simplicity of the site's page layout. Pages with a large number of headings and that lack extraneous images and text - factors that make the page easier to read with a screen reader - will rank higher, saving blind Internet users the time of navigating to results they won't be able to comprehend. The search tool is at labs.google.com/accessible.
AOL, a unit of Time Warner Inc., will soon update AOL Web mail to make it more screen-reader friendly. The revisions, which will be under way by the end of the year, will eliminate the need for users with screen readers to switch to a separate text-only page.
While designing its new home page, Yahoo! Inc. considered ways to make it more accessible to blind users. For example, carving the site into a greater number of headings such as "Entertainment" and "Sports" makes it easier for a visually impaired browser to navigate the site.
The new products and awareness appear to be making a difference.
Eric Brinkman, 19, said he used to have to reformat nearly every page he arrived at so that it could work with his screen reader. Now, he finds that extra step unnecessary, and he has also uncovered new tricks and shortcut keys for navigating around sites such as Wikipedia.org, Google.com and Amazon.com.
"I have become very dependent on computers," says Brinkman, of Niantic, Conn., who spends several hours a day online. He has been legally blind since birth.
New tools for developers also are likely to drive further improvements across a broad range of sites. Microsoft Corp. has recently released UI Automation, developer technologies that will make it easier for screen readers to translate robust Web applications. The technologies will be officially released with the company's Vista operating system and will allow screen readers to convey information to users such as how many new messages are in their in boxes without reading off each message individually and to find all the links on the page quickly and alert the browser to which ones they have already visited.
There are roughly 10 million blind or visually impaired Americans, according to the American Foundation for the Blind, a New York-based advocacy group.
The group estimates that roughly 1.5 million people who have difficulty seeing print even with glasses have access to the Internet, but only about 200,000 who cannot see print at all do. The numbers are expected to grow as technology improves and Internet companies offer new services.
Those with mild vision impairments can often be helped by simply magnifying their screen display. Blind Web users have descriptions of what appears on the screen read back to them aloud and move from heading to heading with keyboard shortcut keys and arrows. A blind person who visited Yahoo.com, for example, would hear the different headings such as "News" or "Movies" spoken and could transition to the next heading by hitting the "H" key.
Such assistive technology can be pricey. A popular variety, Freedom Scientific Inc.'s JAWS for Windows, costs around $1,000. Another tool, a refreshable Braille display that translates a description of what is on the screen into Braille on a device that resembles a keyboard, can run from $1,400 to $7,000.
"The biggest frustrations are these sites with some 500 different links and lots of graphics," says Dena Shumila, 32, who is blind and runs her own consulting firm in Minneapolis.
She says that when people don't properly label their links and buttons, she is stuck listening to generic commands like "nav bar link one" and "nav bar link two."
"Then you don't have a clue what is going on," she says.
Unless accompanied by alternative text, code embedded beneath a graphic, photos and video are incomprehensible to a screen reader.
Kathy Brack, a 55-year-old blind Internet user, was recently shopping online at LLBean.com for a bathrobe and slippers but got stuck when she couldn't get any verbal information on the products. To ensure that she had landed on the style and color she wanted, Brack, of Raleigh, N.C., had to ask someone to describe them.
The new Web services coincide with a push to revise federal Web accessibility standards and renewed legal efforts to get accessibility guidelines more widely adopted. Currently, no federal law requires all Web sites to be accessible to the blind or to those with other physical disabilities. The guidelines that apply to technology procured by a federal agency, including Web sites under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, are about to undergo revision by a federal advisory committee.
It is likely to look into issues such as establishing new guidelines for Internet-based phone applications, multimedia and webcasts. Many states have also adopted these guidelines.
To date, advocacy groups have hit roadblocks in pressing accessibility guidelines on the private sector. In 2002, Access Now Inc., a Florida- based advocacy group for the disabled, sued Southwest Airlines in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on the grounds that a blind person could not purchase a ticket on the site. The plaintiffs alleged that the airline therefore violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that disabled individuals must enjoy equal access to goods and services in places of public accommodation.
The judge ruled that the case against Southwest be dismissed, deciding that Southwest.com was not a place of public accommodation.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind is suing Target Corp. over the inaccessibility of its Web site to blind Internet users. The suit argues that Target's Web site is a service of Target's stores, which are public accommodations and therefore subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as two California state laws. The company says the lawsuit is "without merit" and that the company's Web site complies with all applicable laws.
An accessible Web
What some Internet companies are doing to make Web browsing easier for the blind:
Google is offering a new search tool called Google Accessible Search that ranks findings by factors such as the simplicity of the Web page's layout, an attribute that also makes it more accessible to screen readers.
AOL will soon update its Web mail to make it more screen-reader friendly, eliminating the need for users with screen readers to access a text-only page.
Yahoo's new home page is easier to surf with a screen reader, thanks to a greater number of section headings.
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