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Visual Verification: Audio CAPTCHA Broken, How Will Web Site Operators Respond?

May 6, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In the article Google’s Audio CAPTCHA Cracked, PC Magazine is reporting impending security challenges for a technology on which we depend in order to reasonably accomodate our need for equal access and participation on the Internet. While companies obviously work to improve the security and usability of visual CAPTCHA, what action will they take toward the blind and visually impaired? Will they improve audio CAPTCHA or will they restore the dreaded “No Blind People Allowed” signs that still bar us from admission to many web sites? How much more difficult has it now become to convince others to unlock their doors to us? As always, comments are welcomed and encouraged.

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.

Visual Verification: LiveJournal Makes the Switch to ReCAPTCHA

March 27, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

As of today, LiveJournal has switched to ReCAPTCHA to protect their registration process. This visual verification system protects against spammers, allows access for the blind and visually impaired and helps with the optical character recognition of books. ReCAPTCHA provides a turnkey form of protection for web site operators who feel they can’t or don’t want to roll out their own accessible CAPTCHA solution, so we feel there is no excuse for any web site that continues not to offer at least an audio equivalent to meet our accessibility needs.

Visual Verification: LiveJournal Audio CAPTCHA Still Exists, Instructions Not Being Displayed

March 25, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

We have received the following update from LiveJournal:

Some users are currently unable to see the instructions for the audio CAPTCHA option. This option still exists and can be used by typing the word “audio” in the CAPTCHA box (without quotation marks). We are currently investigating the issue that is preventing the instructions from displaying.

An answer to the original support request has also been provided, including a bit more detail:

Thank you for your report. Please be assured that it is in no way LiveJournal’s intention to keep blind people from using their journals or creating new journals. The audio CAPTCHA system is still there, but the text indicating it isn’t displayed in an accessible manner. You should still be able to access the audio captcha by typing the word “audio” (without the quotes) in the text box where you would otherwise type the CAPTCHA text.

LiveJournal developers have been alerted to the accessibility problem and will investigate it and correct it as soon as practical. For more information, you may want to watch the lj_releases community, as corrections of known problems are announced there when they become available.

I apologize for the inconvenience.

The continued operation of the audio CAPTCHA has been confirmed. We are glad to hear that this accomodation does, in fact, still exist and are anticipating the restoration of the instructions covering its use. We thank the LiveJournal folks for their prompt attention to this important matter.

Visual Verification: LiveJournal Removes Audio CAPTCHA, Puts Up "No Blind People Allowed" Sign.

March 25, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

We have just learned from a number of blind and visually impaired LiveJournal users that their audio CAPTCHA has been removed. We are now asked to “prove you’re human” without an accessible alternative. As with other situations where there is a lack of reasonable accomodations for CAPTCHA, this represents nothing less than a “no blind people allowed” sign. We find it doubly disturbing in this case, given that an accomodation in place for several years has now been taken away from us.

A support request has just been filed with LiveJournal asking for an ETA on the re-implementation of the audio CAPTCHA. All blind and visually impaired people, and those sighted people who care about what happens to us, are urged to add their comments and requests to this ticket asking for the restoration of the audio CAPTCHA as soon as possible. We further implore LiveJournal to publicly explain their actions, apologize to the blind community for its oversight and provide details on how it will move forward to ensure the accessibility of the service in the future.

Visual Verification: EarthLink Implements Audio CAPTCHA for spamBlocker, Tears Down "No Blind People Allowed" Sign

March 8, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

One of my tasks as ACB Radio’s volunteer webmaster is to send responses to feedback from listeners. After sending a note to an EarthLink customer this morning, I promptly received one of the company’s dreaded invitations to add my e-mail address to the customer’s approved senders list, so that my response and all future correspondence could be delivered successfully. In the past, these messages linked to a request form containing an inaccessible CAPTCHA (visual verification) that did not permit blind and visually impaired people to add themselves to the approved senders list of any EarthLink customer. The result was that some e-mail senders were not permitted to communicate with EarthLink customers with spamBlocker configured at its maximum level of protection, simply due to their physical lack of eye sight. On July 18, 2006, I wrote an article entitled Visual Verification Accessibility: Nobody Home at Earthlink covering exactly this issue.

This morning, I noticed an important difference in the request form linked from the invitation. An audio CAPTCHA has been included, now affording blind and visually impaired users the opportunity to request communication with all the company’s customers, regardless of spamBlocker settings. It turns out that, according to an update announcement posted to the company’s Web Mail Blog, the audio CAPTCHA was added on November 3, 2006. I am glad to see this issue finally resolved after almost three years of inaccessibility, and appreciate EarthLink’s reasonable audio playback CAPTCHA implementation.

Visual Verification: Finally Tears Down "No Blind People Allowed" Sign, Makes Credit Reports Accessible to Blind Consumers

February 9, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Matt McCubbin from Blind Bargains reports that the AnnualCreditReport web site instituted by the Federal Trade Commission and sponsored by the three credit reporting companies has finally decided that blind and visually impaired consumers ought to be granted the same opportunities to review their credit reports online as the sighted have enjoyed for three years. Despite a complete lack of response from the FTC Webmaster to numerous letters from blind individuals, the site now implements an automated, telephone based alternative to their inaccessible visual only CAPTCHA. After selecting the state in which the consumer resides, a link is offered near the bottom of the form pointing to an alternate request page. Once this alternate page is chosen, the user simply completes the form, notes the six digits near the bottom, calls an indicated toll free telephone number, enters the numbers given on the web site, receives another six digits, enters those digits from the automated telephone message into the box and is granted access. Although this solution isn’t inherently perfect for deaf-blind consumers, they can utilize their state’s relay service to complete this transaction.

We are glad the Federal Trade Commission, the three credit reporting companies and all other involved parties have finally brought down this access barier, though we would have appreciated the professionalism and respect of follow up letters to our correspondence. We are also waiting to see if the FTC or the sponsoring credit reporting companies will post a press release concerning this new accessibility accomodation. We believe that any other federally funded web sites featuring inaccessible visual only CAPTCHA or any other accessibility barriers may be at least in violation of Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act, and would welcome any reader comments concerning any such sites.

Visual Verification: OpenDNS Advocates Use of Audio CAPTCHA and Offers to Help Webmasters Implement the Technology

January 25, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Allison reports the latest entry on the OpenDNS Blog advocating use of audio CAPTCHA to make services available to everyone, including the blind and visually impaired, and offering to provide webmasters with assistance in the implementation of the technology. We appreciate not only the audio CAPTCHA on OpenDNS, but also their active advocacy on our behalf.

Visual Verification: OpenDNS Adds Audio CAPTCHA, Tears Down "No Blind People Allowed" Sign

January 23, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

John Roberts, a product Vice President of OpenDNS, reports that the organization has now implemented an audio CAPTCHA to make its protected services accessible to blind and visually impaired users. We tested the CacheCheck and Adult Site Checker, finding the audio CAPTCHA to be both easy to use and reliable. We thank OpenDNS for providing its services to the entire Internet user community in an accessible form and implementing a reasonable accomodation to its CAPTCHAs so that everyone, including the blind and visually impaired, may fully participate.

Visual Verification: CAPTCHA Prevents Blind Users from Uninstalling Sponsored Version of Messenger Plus Live!

December 29, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

If you are blind or visually impaired and are contemplating the installation of Messenger Plus Live! to enhance your Windows Live Messenger experience, we recommend strongly that you avoid selecting the ad supported “sponsored mode” during the installation process. If the software is installed in this mode, it is currently impossible for a blind person to remove the software from their computer due to a visual only CAPTCHA that does not provide audio playback or any other reasonable accomodations for our accessibility needs. Installation and removal of the non-sponsored version of the software continues to work well without this CAPTCHA, and this has always been the preferred way for blind or visually impaired people to run this particular application.

The following letter has now been written and posted to the Messenger Plus Live! Help and Support forum.

December 29, 2007

Dear Patchou and all other MsgPlusLive Developers,

I am writing to tell you about a critical concern facing blind and visually impaired people who install Messenger Plus Live and to ask for your help to resolve the issue in an equitable manner.

As blind computer users, we rely on a piece of assistive technology known as a screen reader. An example of this software is Window-Eyes, developed and sold by GW Micro ( Most blind people install Messenger Plus Live in unsponsored mode; they have learned from the community that the ads in sponsored mode can interfere with the proper operation of this vital tool. Unfortunately, some blind users have installed the sponsored version of your software, finding that the functionality of their screen reader has been impaired, impacting the ability to use their computers in the process.

As the sponsored mode version of MSG Plus Live is currently written, a visual CAPTCHA is presented during the uninstallation process. Blind people are physically unable to see the picture of characters in a CAPTCHA, thus they are unable to solve such a challenge / response scheme. The result is that those of us who have installed the sponsored version of your software are completely unable to remove it from our computers.

Please consider resolving this critical issue as soon as possible by removing the visual CAPTCHA altogether, by implementing an audio playback CAPTCHA such as the one found at or by using an alternative e-mail confirmation or text based challenge / response system.

Your consideration and time is appreciated, and I anticipate hearing from someone on the Messenger Plus Live development team as soon as possible.

Best regards for a happy New Year,

Darrell Shandrow

Accessibility Evangelist

We ask all of you who read Blind Access Journal, blind and sighted alike, to visit this forum thread and lend your voice to our request to have the visual CAPTCHA made accessible for everyone, including those of us whom happen to be blind.