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Computerworld Article: Blind users still struggle with ‘maddening’ computing obstacles

April 21, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

We have reproduced this recently published, well-researched Computerworld article entitled Blind users still struggle with ‘maddening’ computing obstacles in a simple, text format for easier reading by all blind and visually impaired Internet users. The original source of this article may be rather challenging to read for many from an accessibility perspective.

Anyone who is able to reasonably access the original article by way of the link above will find some of the comments disturbing, to say the least. If at all possible, you are urged to add a comment of your own supporting the fact that accessibility is quite simply “the right thing to do” in all cases where it represents a “reasonable accomodation” that makes the difference between our exclusion or our full participation in society.

April 16, 2008 (Computerworld) Put your graphical user interface to this test: Adjust the contrast on your display until the screen is completely black. Now, perform basic e-mail, word processing and Web-browsing tasks. What? Having a problem?

Welcome to the world of the 1.3 million Americans who are blind. For them, the world of personal computers, office automation and the Internet offers mixed blessings. That world wasn’t designed for them, but with the right assistive technology, they can take part in it. When everything works well, they have access to an ocean of information vastly greater than anything previously available to the blind. But pitfalls and maddening frustrations are a constant reality.

Screen readers

Blind computer users mainly rely upon screen-reader software, which describes the activity on the screen and reads the text in the various windows, explained Gayle Yarnell, owner of Adaptive Technology Consulting Inc. in Amesbury, Mass. Yarnell is blind.

It can take a while to wade through a strange site — it can be maddening. Jay Leventhal, editor of AccessWorld Magazine

Screen readers cost between $500 and $1,000, although there are also freeware screen readers, she noted. (Windows XP and Vista come with a screen reader called Narrator, but even Microsoft Corp. says it’s not powerful enough for serious use.)

The screen reader’s output can be sent to the computer’s speakers as a synthesized voice or to a Braille display. The latter uses tiny push pins to create a pattern of raised dots that can be read by a moving finger. A unit with an 80-character line (enough for one full line of text) costs about $10,000, and Yarnell said that most blind people use a 40-character unit, which costs closer to $5,000. Braille displays are better than speech for editing because individual characters can be isolated, she noted, and they are a necessity for the deaf-blind.
She also said that it lets her silently read e-mail while talking to someone else.

Although major operating systems usually have built-in screen readers for accessibility by the blind, they are rudimentary at best. In fact, after starting Narrator, the screen reader that comes with Windows XP and Vista, Microsoft’s introductory screen says, “Most users with visual impairments will need a
screen reader with higher functionality for daily use.” Here’s an example what a blind user would hear upon opening up Computerworld’s Web site with Narrator activated in Windows XP, the operating system most in use today.

But knowing what the screen is saying is just the beginning — the blind user then has to issue commands using keyboard shortcuts, because the mouse cursor is useless. Using shortcuts involves a lot of memorization, but at least the option is always available — or at least it used to be. “Starting with Version 3.1, Microsoft tried to make sure there was a keystroke to do everything in Windows,” noted Dave Porter, an accessibility consultant and head of Comp-Unique Inc. in Chicago. “But with Vista, we seem to have lost that thread.” The main problem is that, with Vista, the effect of a keystroke depends on the situation about a third of the time. Also, there are things that simply can’t be done with keystrokes, said Porter, who is blind. “It’s not so much that the keyboard shortcuts are different but that the user interface has changed,” said Rob Sinclair, director of accessibility at Microsoft.
“We have gotten away from a lot of menus and created a more simplified experience. No one would argue that there is no learning curve, but we have seen value and heard great feedback from those who have taken the time to learn the new version. “There are some amazingly powerful features in Vista for those with disabilities, like a Start function that begins with a search field,” Sinclair added. “You can type in the name of an application, or a command, or search for a keyword in a document or an e-mail. You can launch any application with a few
keystrokes, easier than using menus.” He also noted that the latest version of Microsoft Office still supports the old shortcuts.

Beyond Windows

Speaking of user applications, compatibility with a screen reader can be a crap shoot, and some commercial software packages include custom controls that screen readers can’t recognize, said Dan Weirich, co-founder of GW Micro Inc., a screen-reader vendor in Fort Wayne, Ind. “In the days of DOS, there was a fixed number of characters across the screen, so identifying the information in the different parts of the screen was relatively simple,” he said. “Finding the boundaries of the information is harder now, since there is no native indicator as to what is inside each window when you scrape the screen.” He said his software comes with scores of preconfigured settings for various software packages, but no tweaking is required to run with the most commonly used applications.

Finding ways for a screen reader to process new display technologies — especially on the Web — is a constant struggle, Weirich added. “Different standards come along that are difficult to handle, and then there is a breakthrough and we have a fix, and it works. That is ongoing.” He also said that Microsoft worked with screen-reader vendors so that Vista versions were available the day Vista hit the shelves — whereas there was a delay of six to nine months after the release of Windows XP.

Beyond packaged software lies the world of in-house applications, where things can really go haywire for the blind user. “We often find that screen readers don’t work with in-house applications — it’s too easy to break the interface,” said Curtis Chong, president of the computer science division of the National Federation of the Blind and an official at the Iowa Department for the Blind in Des Moines. “It can be as simple as an application that puts up a lot of windows on the screen which are not windows from the viewpoint of the operating system. The screen reader will see one huge blob of information and read across the window boundaries,” said Chong, who is blind. He said this can cause problems for job applicants, for example. “You can have the best paper credentials in the world, and pass the HR screening test, and be the person they want — and then the question comes up of, ‘What e-mail program can you use? What word processor can you use?’ Your answers can cause the job to evaporate,” Chong said.

Porter was actually nostalgic for the 1990s. “It was all DOS and mainframe interfaces. If you knew how to handle DOS and word processing, you could probably get a job. We could train people to do a specific job, and it worked, and the employer got a loyal employee determined to keep that job and fight to keep up with changing technology. These days, they want a jack of many trades — computer skills, plus phone skills, Internet surfing, marketing, people skills and the ability to travel.”

The Web

Of course, these days, many computers are used principally to access the Internet — and there is no telling what a blind person will encounter there. “It can take a while to wade through a strange site — it can be maddening,” complained Jay Leventhal, who is blind and serves as editor of AccessWorld Magazine, produced by the American Foundation for the Blind in New York. “Sometimes you find what you want to buy, but then you can’t find the submit button. It seems to literally not be there. A skilled [blind] user can navigate a majority of the sites on the Web these days, but you have to master certain tricks, like jumping from header to header in order to skip over a lot of junk, and use the search function to get the information you want. An average user can struggle for a long time looking for something and will even struggle on a familiar site.”

Best Practices

Here are a few official HTML guidelines:

  • A text equivalent for every nontext element shall be provided.
  • Equivalent alternatives for any multimedia presentation shall be synchronized with the presentation.
  • Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.
  • Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.

A major sin among Web sites is a failure to use the HTML ALT attribute, which can be used to attach a descriptive label to a nontext item. If an image, for example, has an ALT label, the screen reader will read it. Otherwise it is forced to read the file name, which often amounts to useless gibberish.

There are accepted guidelines for designing accessible Web sites, especially the guidelines derived from Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended. Cyndi Rowland, director of WebAIM, an accessibility organization at Utah State University in Logan, noted that the guidelines are mandatory for federal Web sites and for organizations doing business with the U.S. government. A number of states have also adopted the guidelines. Her organization has a checklist of 16 requirements derived from Section 508, including use of the ALT description for images and image-map hot spots. Among other things, they state that frames should be given descriptive titles and that data tables should have row and column headers. There is a separate list of 12 requirements for applets.

One percent compliance

Rowland noted that in 1999, her organization surveyed 100 higher-education Web sites. Twenty-three percent of the opening pages were compliant, but compliance dropped to 3% for pages one link away and fell below 1% for pages two links away. Meanwhile, a recent survey of random university Web pages found only 1% compliance. “In almost 10 years, there has been almost no improvement,” she said. Leventhal said it’s fairly obvious when Section 508 guidelines have been followed. “You will find an invisible link — which the screen reader can see — that lets you skip the junk and jump to the main content. For some reason, many Web sites have large groups of repetitive links that you’ll want to jump over. Meanwhile, not using the ALT tag is like not using punctuation. It’s maddening.”

Such frustration can produce lawsuits, and the National Federation of the Blind is currently involved in a class-action lawsuit against Target Corp. because the Target site proved to be inaccessible for blind users. Chong said the basic problem was a “next” button that was coded in such a way that it was invisible to screen readers, leaving blind users stranded. The problem has been fixed, but the lawsuit continues because Target hasn’t committed to accessibility, Chong said. Rowland noted that similar lawsuits in the past never produced any legal precedents because they were settled out of court, so this one will be watched closely. The federation’s lawyer, Dan Goldstein, said the lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in March 2009. He wouldn’t comment on the possibility of a settlement, and Target didn’t respond to requests for a comment.

But what literally frightens blind users is the rise of so-called CAPTCHA technology for Web site security. (CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test.”) To deny access to bots, the user must input a password that is displayed in a moderately distorted image that a machine can’t read. Of course, the screen readers can’t read it either. “Many blind people are aware that they can’t use particular sites, but they don’t know why,” Leventhal said. He said his own site simply asks a question whose answer would be known to human beings, such as, “What color is the sky?” Some sites have an optional button to play an audio file that reads the password. However, this still leaves out the deaf-blind.

Beyond computers, sources complained of cell phones so complicated that they, too, need expensive screen readers. Many have small, flat buttons that are useless to the blind, culminating in the iPhone with no buttons. The iPod and its imitators don’t have buttons either, and even kitchen appliances today often have digital readouts that are useless to the blind. But Rowland noted that such considerations need to be weighed against the vast increase in electronic information during the past several years, at least part of which is accessible to the blind. “You can’t say that cup is half full, but there is something in it,” she said.

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