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Concerted, Multidisciplinary, Organized and Systematic Approach to Accessibility Evangelism Needed

March 1, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I’ve been thinking long and hard about accessibility evangelism in general as of late. Although a few positive differences have been made along the way, the overall results of our efforts here at Blind Access Journal have represented significantly less than the proverbial drop in the bucket. Once in awhile, an online petition is initiated, a company voluntarily decides to make its products and services more accessible or an organization files a lawsuit in an attempt to compel a company to become more accessible based on existing, vaguely defined legislation. Despite continuous, ongoing technological innovation for the sighted, we blind and visually impaired people are being left further and further behind, both by a mainstream technology industry that largely ignores us and an assistive technology industry that can’t or simply won’t innovate to the level that is really needed in order for us to participate in society on anything approaching parity with our sighted peers. Unfortunately, a few dedicated souls in the online, connected blind community can’t reverse these disturbing trends alone. Successful accessibility evangelism that results in our being afforded the opportunity to fully participate in the information age is going to take a concerted, multidisciplinary, organized and systematic approach directed by an organization with a positive track record of acting in the best interests of the blind and visually impaired.

At the Blind Access Journal, I can count on the fingers of my two hands the number of people who have provided us with anything approaching a significant amount of assistance with any of the accessibility evangelism we have undertaken. As this continues to be the state of affairs, we at the Journal become discouraged, decreasing our inspiration to do our critical work. Any accessibility evangelism efforts must involve a consistently concerted effort on the part of at least tens or hundreds of members of the blind community and those who care about what happens to us. Until the amount of participation in accessibility evangelism increases by leaps and bounds over its current levels, no major steps forward can be taken. The following represent examples of steps one could take to further the cause of equal accessibility for the blind:

  • When you see an accessibility issue, send an e-mail to the company asking for its resolution in a reasonable way that permits our participation.
  • Promptly sign online petitions, write letters and take other steps requested of you by accessibility evangelists.
  • Send an e-mail to us or to others you believe to be effective accessibility evangelists asking what you can do to help further the cause of equal access.
  • If you are a blogger or podcaster, whether blind or sighted, discuss accessibility and ask your audience to take positive action.

The blind community is small, yet there are at least tens of thousands of us already connected to the Internet. If a company’s representatives hear from only one or two people asking for an accessibility accomodation, those requests are likely to go largely ignored in most cases; however, if they hear from even a couple of hundred people asking about the same issue, that’s bound to be sufficient to garner some serious attention. This is especially true if many such requests can get escalated up the company’s or organizations management chain of command. If these requests can be made by a large number of people in an organized, systematic manner, the impact could be even greater.

In order to be most effective, I have come to the conclusion that accessibility evangelism needs to be done in such a way as to coordinate the efforts of individuals in an organized, systematic manner. The employees and management of companies and organizations will become confused if many individuals make complex requests for wildly differing forms of accessibility accomodations. It is obvious that such confusion and complexity would turn anyone off to the possibility of working with us to meet our needs in a reasonable way that allows us to participate while minimizing the economic and time impact to their business operations. Both the individual and the organizational components of such evangelism are critical. The following are examples of steps that could be taken to make accessibility evangelism a more organized, systematic enterprise:

  • House an accessibility evangelism department or team within the umbrella of an organization that truly cares about what happens to blind and visually impaired people. Examples of such organizations might be the Accessibility Is a Right Foundation, The American Foundation for the Blind or Benetech.
  • Devise an accessibility help desk blind and visually impaired people may contact when access barriers are encountered, assign the access issue a case number and work the problem toward an acceptable resolution as would any other technical support help desk operation in the world.
  • Create a knowledge base featuring assistive technology and mainstream solutions to accessibility barriers.
  • Establish sound policies and procedures for handling accessibility advocacy projects from the initial request for help, through appropriate escalation steps to final disposition.
  • Using information from the help desk in accordance with policies and procedures, initiate private and public advocacy campaigns in both the blind community and the sighted world at large to encourage positive resolution to those barriers that seem particularly intractible.

Such a mammoth project clearly requires coordination and support by a team of core individuals who are able to direct and encourage the advocacy efforts of the entire blind community. This core group should represent a multidisciplinary cabal of men and women from a widely diverse field of interests and professions. Experts in communications, marketing, public relations and sales could make requests of companies and organizations to improve accessibility and relate positively with the entire blind community to encourage their proactive participation in the accessibility evangelism process. Computer programmers and other technology experts could devise solutions to access barriers and educate other programmers on all the cost effective ways to go about resolving the issues effectively. Journalists could objectively report on the current state of accessibility issues and write opinion pieces covering all the ways the barriers may be effectively reduced or eliminated. As a last resort, lawyers and political scientists could address accessibility issues from a legal and political point of view, attempting to achieve structured settlements, filing lawsuits and encouraging the passage of additional, relevant legislation as needed. It takes significant depth to properly address these critical issues in ways that can result in successful outcomes.

It is our human nature to take the path of least resistance. We are often finding excuses for doing nothing about the issues that impact us. We believe “someone else” will take care of the problem on our behalf. This is an incredibly destructive fallacy for our community. There are far too few someone elses available to do this critical work. A truly effective accessibility evangelism effort must be concerted, involving effort expended by a large number of members of the blind community as well as those in the sighted world who care about what happens to us. In order to achieve any lasting impact, accessibility evangelism ultimately must be housed within a recognized organization and be comprised of a team effort with a dedicated core group of multidisciplinary professionals who will utilize a solid set of policies and procedures to direct the efforts of a much larger group of volunteers and the entire blind community. If we really desire the accessibility we must have in order to participate in society on an equal footing with the sighted, it is time for us to get serious by combining individual and organizational resources into an accessibility evangelism project that can take the needs of the blind community and educate the rest of the world in ways that turn problems into effective solutions.

How Do We Effectively Educate the Public and Combat False Assumptions About Accessibility?

January 19, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I just finished reading Independent Street : Is Your Web Site Blind-Friendly? How to Avoid a Lawsuit by Wendy Bounds. While Wendy provided a good overview of the issues surrounding the law and the need for web site accessibility, I found many of the comments to be rather shocking! How do we effectively carry out the monumental task of educating the public at large and those who could become part of the accessible solution of the future? How can we show the world that accessibility is a good idea and that, in most cases, becoming accessible doesn’t have to represent a huge expense? Just as most of us recognize the inherent human rights of other populations, such as African-Americans and women, we must recognize that accessibility is a right and a necessity in order for those of us with disabilities to be participating, productive members of society. I have just posted my own comment to this article and ask that each and every one of you who read Blind Access Journal please do likewise. It may also be helpful to check out Mike Calvo’s excellent response to the article and many of its associated comments. We must all do our part to get out the good word about accessibility.

Happy New Year as We Celebrate the Third Anniversary of Blind Access Journal

January 1, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

On Friday, December 17, 2004, we began Blind Access Journal as a vehicle for accessibility evangelism. Though the first article was a subdued piece covering an accessible wireless security software program, the second article covered accessibility related concerns with the UPS shipping company. From those modest beginnings, we have directly advocated for improved access to technology and transportation, raised awareness of the need for accessibility, stirred up the blind community through vigorous discussion of critical topics and written numerous thought provoking articles on accessibility, blindness and human rights of people with all disabilities. As 2007 has now come to an end, and we have now embarked on a brand new year, we thought it would be interesting to review a sampling of our accomplishments and other memorable moments over the past three years:

  • December 2004 – We began our ongoing campaign for accessible CAPTCHA (visual verification) and multifactor authentication schemes with the article entitled Google’s Inaccessible Account Creation Process highlighting the company’s use of a scheme for protecting web based resources that inherently blocks access for blind people by requiring the use of eye sight without nonvisual alternatives.
  • February 2005 – Published the article entitled Securing Our Future In An Uncertain Brave New World, which spurred some thought provoking discussion in the online blind community.
  • February 2005 – We began our brief advocacy on behalf of Terry Schiavo, a minimally conscious Florida woman who was deliberately removed from her life-saving feeding tube by her husband, resulting in her death, despite the wishes of the rest of her family to keep her alive. Bioethicists like Dr. Peter Singer must be delighted. We are concerned that concepts such as “quality of life” and “undue burden” may, one day in the distant future, could place our very right to exist as people with disabilities in serious jeopardy.
  • April 1, 2005 – Darrell proposes marriage to Karen, she accepts and they are engaged on Jeff Bishop’s The Desert Skies radio show on ACB Radio Interactive. It is possible to download an archive of this special event.
  • June 2005 – Blind Access Journal officially joins the podcasting scene.
  • October 2005 – First significant use of the “No Blind People Allowed Sign” as a means to insist on accessible alternatives to CAPTCHA (visual verification) schemes on web sites.
  • November 2005 – Darrell attends the first Portable Media Expo and Podcasting Conference in Ontario, California; makes new friends and further raises awareness of the need for accessibility.
  • November 2005 – Darrell appears live on Leo Laporte’s This Week in Tech podcast live from the expo. TWiT is heard by hundreds of thousands of technology oriented listeners around the world.
  • November 2005 – Adam Curry publicly pledges in front of a worldwide audience to ensure that the products and services offered by Podshow are accessible; claims accessibility is part of the company’s “core DNA”. We had this nice chat at the podcasting expo. Unfortunately, Mr. Curry has never followed through on any of his promises!
  • November 2005 – A reporter publishes the article Journalist Advocates Better Online Access For Blind shortly after my appearance at the podcasting expo.
  • November 2005 – America Online adds audio playback to its CAPTCHA for the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) signup process.
  • January 12, 2006 – We initiated the Google Word Verification Accessibility Petition asking that the mission statement to “do no evil” be followed and all the company’s CAPTCHAs be promptly made more accessible to the blind and visually impaired. The petition garners 4,725 signatures and receives widespread coverage on blogs and podcasts as well as several mainstream technology media outlets.
  • January 2006 – PRWeb makes their visual verification scheme accessible in less than one week of the request! We thank Al Castle, the company’s Chief Technology Officer, for his amazing communication and responsiveness.
  • February 2006 – Darrell almost loses his job due to the conversion of his team to the use of inaccessible software. His job is saved and duties reassigned thanks in large part to persistent, effective advocacy.
  • April 2006 – In response to effective advocacy, Google begins the process of rolling out its audio playback CAPTCHA and agrees to hire software engineers in a commitment to become more accessible overall.
  • May 2006 – Google completes roll out of audio CAPTCHA.
  • June 2006 – Darrell and Karen are married in a wonderful ceremony and reception aboard the Odyssey with family and close friends in attendance. You may listen to a recording of the ceremony.
  • June 2006 – In response to a letter from Blind Access Journal, Sirius Satellite Radio adds an audio playback feature to its CAPTCHA, restoring the ability of blind subscribers to listen online.
  • July 2006 – Darrell is quoted in a brief article entitled Google for the Blind in the San Francisco Chronicle.
  • August 4, 2006 – Darrell and Karen make their debut with the Desert Cafe show on ACB Radio Interactive. The show now has a permanent time slot at 22:00 UTC every Monday.
  • October 2006 – Bloglines responds to our report of accessibility challenges after changes made to the web site by taking effective, prompt steps to restore accessibility. We thank Ben Lowery with Bloglines for his fast response.
  • January 2007 – Darrell becomes co-host with Jeff Bishop of Main Menu, a technology oriented talk show from a blindness perspective, on ACB Radio Mainstream.
  • January 14, 2007 – Darrell and Karen appear on the Marlaina program on ACB Radio Mainstream.
  • January 2007 – FeedBurner adds an audio CAPTCHA.
  • February 26, 2007 – Darrell undergoes the first of two surgeries to repair a retinal detachment in his right eye. The first surgery includes a cornea transplant and minor laser work.
  • March 16, 2007 – Darrell undergoes second surgery after second retinal detachment. This one turns out to be much more serious and painful.
  • May 2007 – Skype responds to accessibility concerns from Blind Access Journal and other parties by releasing an update resolving the most critical issues.
  • May 2007 – We get an effective, prompt response from the U.S. Senate concerning an accessibility issue on the senate.gov web site.
  • May 2007 – Blind Access Journal weighs in on the Freedom Scientific v. Serotek lawsuit in defense of Serotek with a petition asking that the parties resolve their differences in a manner that preserves innovation in the assistive technology industry.
  • May 2007 – Darrell publishes the following thought provoking articles, resulting in requests for republication in several blindness organizations’ monthly magazines:
  • June 7, 2007 – Freedom Scientific settles with Serotek in a manner that permits Serotek to continue developing and selling its innovative technology.
  • June 2007 – Darrell publishes the thought provoking article entitled My Thoughts on the Relationship Between Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies, Consumers and the Blindness Assistive Technology Industry as discussions of the state of the blindness assistive technology industry continue at a fever pitch.
  • July 2007 – Blind Access Journal begins promoting the Yahoo! Accessibility Improvement Petition asking the company to make all their CAPTCHAs accessible to the blind and visually impaired. The petition is still ongoing, and is officially endorsed by the American Council of the Blind.
  • July 2007 – Darrell publishes Accessibility Is A Right, Not a Charity, Convenience, Luxury or Privilege in an attempt to further clarify the absolutely critical nature of the need for accessibility to facilitate our civil rights as people who are blind or visually impaired. We believe this article has been republished, with permission, in Dialogue Magazine, as well as several others.
  • July 2007 – After we wrote a letter to Netralia, the developer of the CallBurner Skype call recording software, we received an incredibly quick response in the form of an accessible application! See this article for the full story. We thank Paul Andrews at Netralia for spearheading this effort. CallBurner has become the only application we use for all our Skype call recording needs. It turns out to be quite useful in advocacy situations in combination with the Skype-in or Skype-out services for receiving and placing telephone calls, as well as in recording interviews for eventual replay on radio shows and podcasts. CallBurner is the official Skype telephone call recording program of the Blind Access Journal!
  • August 2007 – Darrell publishes Imagine The Dark Future of CAPTCHA and Multifactor Authentication for the Blind as a wake up call to the blind community.
  • August 2007 – Darrell’s letter to Leo Laporte concerning the need for accessible CAPTCHA is read and discussed in depth on Episode 102 of the Security Now! podcast with Leo Laporte and Steve Gibson.
  • September 2007 – The new blind-access mailing list is created as a core group of interested parties discussing effective approaches to accessibility evangelism. You may join by sending an e-mail to blind-access-request@lists.blindaccessjournal.com with the word subscribe in the subject field.
  • September 2007 – Darrell publishes The Heart of Accessibility Evangelism in response to several disturbing conversations on the subject.
  • October 2007 – We ask Freedom Scientific to take steps to reasonably accomodate its deaf-blind customers by making text transcripts available for all their podcasts and other audio content.
  • November 2007 – Slashdot.org adds an audio playback feature, making their CAPTCHA accessible.
  • November 29, 2007 – Darrell’s sister, Michelle Sinnock, passes away due to lung cancer.
  • December 2007 – Darrell writes letter to the developers of Messenger Plus Live asking for an accessible alternative or removal of the CAPTCHA required to uninstall the sponsored version of their software.

As you all can see, we have accomplished a few things. There is, however, so much more left to be done. Several challenges over the past couple of months have resulted in very little activity here on the journal. One blind couple can’t do everything! The task of keeping the journal running is monumental. We are, thus, asking for your support as our faithful readers. Please consider doing one or more of the following:

  1. Join the blind-access mailing list. Send a blank e-mail to blind-access-request@lists.blindaccessjournal.com with the word subscribe in the subject field. This list serves as a vehicle for informal discussion of accessibility issues and ways in which we might best evangelize their favorable resolution.
  2. Submit your own articles, ideas for articles or any other useful information directly to us by writing to our editor@blindaccessjournal.com e-mail address or by leaving a message on our comment line at 206-350-2621.
  3. Place telephone calls, sign petitions, write letters and take all other actions we request of you from time to time in order to show your support for our right to have the accessibility we must be granted in order to fully participate in society.

2008 is now upon us. We wish all of you happiness in this new year, and invite all of you to join us out here on the front lines of accessibility evangelism!

Categories: accessibility, advocacy

QVC Asked to Retain Accessibility in Web Site Update

October 12, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Randy from Accessible Devices has informed us that the QVC home shopping network is beta testing a significantly updated web site. While the current site is accessible to blind shoppers, the beta site is apparently not so great. We have just submited a short note to the QVC webmasters asking that they keep in mind the accessibility needs of their blind customers. A response has been explicitly requested, so please stay tuned for any updates. In the meantime, all blind and visually impaired QVC shoppers are asked to immediately complete this contact form asking QVC to continue reasonably accomodating and retaining their blind and visually impaired customers by ensuring the ongoing accessibility of the web site. One quick note from an accessible evangelist is only the very beginning, but it is not even close to sufficient as an ending step. If you are blind or visually impaired, and you shop with QVC, please fill out the form requesting web site accessibility right now.

Categories: accessibility, advocacy

Freedom Scientific Asked to Reasonably Accomodate Deaf-Blind Customers

October 5, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I just read the article Freedom Scientific says no to access for deaf people on the Access Ability blog, and I must say I am rather dismayed. The issue at hand is the current lack of accessibility of the company’s FSCast to the deaf-blind segment of the blind community.

While Freedom Scientific manufactures products to meet the needs of an underserved, minority population, it also seems to be failing to accomodate a segment of that very community. How can we ask the mainstream technology industry to reasonably accomodate us, when we allow companies in our own blind community to pass on providing accessibility by claiming a lack of resources?

We at Blind Access Journal ask Freedom Scientific to reasonably accomodate its deaf-blind customers by following these steps to incrementally increase the accessibility of their podcast audio content:

  1. Provide a link to an alternative document that delivers similar information. In the case of the most recent podcast episode 10, for instance, posting the JAWS 9.0 release notes at the same time as the audio would have represented a positive step forward.
  2. Provide detailed show notes that cover all the same important information delivered in the audio presentation. This can be a summary, at least in the beginning, so long as the same important information is delivered.
  3. Finally, the ultimate goal should be to supply full text transcripts of each FSCast episode.

We ask Freedom Scientific to do the right thing by moving toward full accomodation of its deaf-blind customers in a way that is inexpensive while ensuring their full inclusion in everything the company has to offer. We believe the largest player in the blindness assistive technology industry ought to be able to show positive movement in this area by the time episode 11 of the FSCast is released. Come on, Freedom Scientific, please step up to the plate, do the right thing and make sure all your blind customers, including those whom also happen to be deaf, are afforded a full and equal opportunity to participate.

Categories: accessibility, advocacy

Visual Verification: Six Apart Continues to Lock Out the Blind with Inaccessible CAPTCHA

September 29, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

We continue to be locked out of full and equal participation by Six Apart, developers of the TypePad blogging platform, due to an inaccessible CAPTCHA used for account creation and posting comments to blogs. In the past, numerous attempts to contact the company have gone ignored. Now that it has come to our attention that various members of the disability community use TypePad as their blogging platform, despite its inaccessible CAPTCHA, it would seem to be time for another attempt at getting this issue properly addressed by Six Apart. All blind and visually impaired Internet users, along with those sighted people who care about what happens to us, are urged to use the Contact Us page on the Six Apart web site to ask the company to finally do the right thing by making their CAPTCHA accessible. I have already contacted Jane Anderson, Six Apart’s Media Contact, asking for her assistance in resolving this issue or devising a plan for doing so in preparation for another article in the works concerning TypePad bloggers in the disability community. It has been proven over and over again that, if we keep on publicly and privately discussing this issue of the inaccessible CAPTCHA lockout, it often does eventually get resolved. Let’s all keep the lights shining clearly on this challenge as we move toward more positive results.

Visual Verification: Registration Assistance and Other Progress with Del.icio.us

September 28, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

It would seem that our accessibility concerns with the registration process, and possibly other areas, at Del.icio.us are now being taken more seriously subsequent to my public posting of accessibility related issues on the Yahoo! property’s development mailing list.

Nick Nguyen, Del.icio.us Product Manager, indicates that the following steps will be taken to improve accessibility:

  1. While an audio CAPTCHA is under development, a direct link to the support team will be provided on the registration page. This has already been accomplished.
  2. The del.icio.us team, in conjunction with the company’s in-house accessibility people, will work to ensure not only better access to the registration process, but also improved accessibility of the browser extensions, plugins and the web site.
  3. Blind and visually impaired people will be invited to participate in the beta process for the new web site. Send an e-mail directly to Nick Nguyen at nick (at) yahoo-inc dot com to get involved.

We thank Nick Nguyen and Bjoern Fritzsche at Yahoo! for their consideration of our accessibility concerns and their serious, thoughtful responses.

The Heart of Accessibility Evangelism

September 8, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I think we all recognize that, in many cases, there simply is not a strong bottom-line business reason for companies (either assistive technology or mainstream) to work hard on making sure their technologies function in ways that are in the best interests of all users, including those of us whom happen to be blind. There are, thus, only two major levers available to us in our advocacy efforts. The first involves the fact that, in our society, accessibility is simply the right thing to do. This approach involves the “heart” of accessibility evangelism. The second approach involves making a business case for accessibility based on the application or presumed applicability of one or more disability rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. In this rather rough approach, accessibility is ultimately forced as an alternative that is less expensive than continuing to ignore our needs.

In the case of screen readers, the economic incentive is simply to ensure the product works with Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office and the Windows operating system. Any additional capabilities, especially with respect to custom job related applications like Salesforce.com and Siebel, is viewed as icing on the cake. Precious little effort is expended on the part of assistive technology companies to ensure the usability of many customer relationship management (CRM) and other similarly critical application infrastructures required in today’s workplaces. How many jobs do you know about where use of e-mail, spreadsheets, web browsing and word processing are all that’s required in order for a qualified employee to conduct the duties of the position?

Most mainstream technology companies claim there’s little or no real business incentive to make their products and services accessible to us. After all, blind people represent less than a percent of the world’s population and there’s just not enough money in it for companies to justify the expense. Only the possibility of legal action or the presumed applicability of some Federal laws make the expense of accessibility less than the potential loss of business from government agencies.

As we all can see, the current state of affairs remains bleak. It has been this way for a long time now, yet the problem may accelerate due to the ever-widening gap between the capabilities of increasingly sophisticated and visually oriented mainstream technologies with respect to the rather limited nature of current screen reading technology for the blind. My apologies if this offends, but it is, ultimately, the truth against which I would invite any credible challenge.

As we continue to advocate for mainstream technology companies to reasonably accomodate our needs for equal access to the technologies in our daily lives, on the job and in the classroom, we must also simultaneously advocate for our assistive technology companies to focus on innovation, rolling out screen readers that can meet the challenge of the current and future world of technology, much of which continues to be developed by people who have absolutely no inclination toward accomodating us. It is wonderful when assistive technology and the mainstream computer industry can work together, meeting one another halfway in order to provide access, but the days of screen reader developers relying on this approach have been numbered for quite sometime in all but a precious few cases.

As we insist on innovation which will permit us to continue learning and making a living, we are going to have to devise new methods of accessibility advocacy. Our approaches must convince the decision-makers in the technology industry that at least one of the following statements is true:

  1. Conscience dictates that delivering accessibility is simply the “right thing” to do.
  2. The presence or absence of accessible technology often makes the difference between whether or not a blind person is able to fill a particular position in a company or take advantage of an educational opportunity.
  3. It is better to help blind people than it is to hurt, ignore or otherwise leave us out in the cold.
  4. Accessibility is a good thing to do from a media or public relations perspective.
  5. Accessibility can represent an “interesting” project to undertake from a development point of view.
  6. A small increase in the customer base will result when products and services are made accessible to blind computer users.
  7. Blind customers of companies who take the effort and time to address our needs tend to be among the most loyal portion of the company’s overall customer base.
  8. Sighted people who care about what happens to their blind colleagues, friends and relatives may prefer doing business with companies who do the “right thing” with respect to accessibility.
  9. Religion may indirectly dictate that blind people should be afforded equal access to information.
  10. The laws in several nations of the world directly or indirectly mandate a certain level of accessibility for people with disabilities.

It is important to note that only four of the items (customer loyalty, increased customer numbers, laws and public relations) on this “accessibility evangelism top ten” list can be said to relate directly to business considerations. The rest relate to the heart. What does a person believe to be the “right thing” to do with respect to their emotional make up as well as their logical mind? Should we devise ways to shame those who would ignore us into doing the right thing? Would a person ignore the needs of their spouse, relative, close friend or colleague should they become blind? How would such a person want to see their blind spouse treated? Wouldn’t they insist on reasonable accomodations? Should we place a bit more emphasis on the “heart” of accessibility evangelism? Your thoughts are welcome as always in the form of a comment to this article.

Visual Verification: Request of NFB to Officially Support CAPTCHA Accessibility Initiatives

September 8, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The following letter was composed and sent to Dr. Marc Maurer, President, National Federation of the Blind, on July 28, 2007. It has been five weeks now. We continue to await a response from the organization concerning their official position and willingness to dedicate additional resources to these critical accessibility concerns.

July 28, 2007 

Dear Dr. Maurer:

My name is Darrell Shandrow.  You and I met a number of times at NFB national conventions and the National Center for the Blind.  I am an online accessibility evangelist, operating a blog known as Blind Access Journal.  It can be found at http://www.blindaccessjournal.com.  My purpose for writing this letter is to ask you to direct some of the resources of the National Federation of the Blind toward effectively advocating equal accessibility of CAPTCHA (visual verification) and other multifactor authentication systems for the blind and visually impaired.   

In CAPTCHA and some hardware based multifactor authentication schemes, a string of distorted characters is presented visually, and entry of those characters into an edit field is required in order to be granted access to a protected system.  The purpose of CAPTCHA is to differentiate between a script or other automated computer program designed to abuse a resource and a real human being who desires legitimate access.  Visual multifactor authentication schemes provide a second level of security beyond the traditional username and password.  Pictures can’t be interpreted or automatically conveyed using Braille or speech access devices and many hardware security keys still do not provide any alternative output mechanisms.  Until an accessible alternative is made available, people with vision loss can’t see the code to be entered into the box to be granted admission.  

There now exists a number of techniques to reasonably accomodate CAPTCHA and multifactor authentication for the blind and visually impaired.  The most commonly implemented accomodation is an audio CAPTCHA, where the characters in the image are audibly played back to the blind or visually impaired user for correct entry into the edit box.  America Online, Microsoft and PRWeb are examples of companies offering this form of accomodation.   

Another form of accomodation is a text based CAPTCHA.  In such a scheme, a user is asked to solve a simple logic or math problem or answer a basic question in order to be granted admission.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is an example of an agency that uses such a text based solution.  Some technology experts say this solution is relatively easily cracked by computer programs, so it probably will not be widely implemented in its current form. 

  A third form of accomodation involves the need for manual human intervention on the part of the company requiring the CAPTCHA.  In such a scheme, the resource is protected with a visual CAPTCHA along with a link to click, an e-mail address to write a message or a telephone number to call.  The blind person clicks the link, writes the e-mail or calls the telephone number to receive assistance.  Unfortunately, this approach is fraught with serious challenges that make it completely unworkable in most cases where it is in use.  When a blind user fills out the form, writes the e-mail or calls the number, it is absolutely necessary that the request for help be fulfilled immediately in order for the solution to provide a level of access equal to that enjoyed by his or her sighted peers.  In almost all cases, such requests for assistance either go completely unanswered or are answered in an inappropriate time frame, perhaps days after the request is made.  Another serious problem is the actions taken once the requests are answered.  Are there specific processes in place for effectively delivering these reasonable accomodations?  Are all employees who may be taking the calls properly trained to follow the procedures?  It has been proven to us over and over that the unfortunate answer to both questions is a resounding “no”.  Though some companies are willing to offer these manual interventions as reasonable accomodations, it is clear that, in all cases we have experienced, they do not take seriously the promise to actually deliver the goods.  Examples of web sites supposedly offering the human intervention method of accomodation include GoDaddy.com, Slashdot.org, ticketmaster.com and Yahoo.com. 

Unfortunately, there still exist many web sites that do not offer any reasonable accomodations to their visual CAPTCHA at all.  Examples of sites in this camp include activate.sirius.com, friendster.com and myspace.com.  When a blind person does manage to find someone at these companies to contact, assistance is rarely, if ever, offered. 

At a bare minimum, visual only CAPTCHA locks blind people out of equal participation in web sites such as information portals and social networking resources.  More seriously, visual CAPTCHA without reasonable accomodation actually prevents blind people from completing business transactions, as in the CAPTCHAs on godaddy.com and ticketmaster.com.  Finally, visual only multifactor authentication schemes, such as security keys, can prevent blind people from accessing their money or even obtaining or retaining employment! 

I am writing to ask that you direct the National Federation of the Blind, as the largest consumer organization of the blind in the United States, to show clear leadership in advocacy for access to CAPTCHA and multifactor authentication.  In the short term, please officially support the Yahoo! Accessibility Improvement Petition at http://blindwebaccess.com and make higher level efforts to contact Yahoo! executives to discuss the need for a better CAPTCHA solution on Yahoo! web sites.  In the longer term, please consistently support existing grassroots advocacy efforts in this area and carry out new efforts on an organizational level to exercise influence and, possibly, legislation to address these serious concerns. 

Sincerely, 

Darrell Shandrow – Accessibility Evangelist

We thank the American Council of the Blind for joining us in support of the Yahoo! Accessibility Improvement Petition along with the organization’s willingness to consider taking on additional future efforts surrounding accessibility issues involving CAPTCHA and multifactor authentication. A cross-organizational approach to this and other critical access needs would serve to further these vital causes.