Just in case anyone still thinks a process requiring manual human intervention is acceptable to provide accessibility to visual verification, please allow me to share yet another example of how this does not work for blind and visually impaired web site users. If you need Earthlink’s help, nobody is home and the company doesn’t care.

Earthlink provides its customers with e-mail spam blocking features. At the highest setting, the company’s spam blocker requires the sender of an e-mail to an Earthlink customer to verify they are a real human being rather than an automated program. Once that verification is made, the sender is placed on the customer’s approved list. It is not possible to get on the Earthlink customer’s approved list of senders unless you first pass the verification process. Without verification, your message is quite likely never to reach its intended recipient. As one might expect, the verification process involves the use of a visual CAPTCHA. One must be able to see a picture of a string of characters and enter them in to an edit box in a form to proceed. If you are visually impaired, a special link is provided pointing to a live text-based chat facility where, supposedly, one can receive help completing this process.

While following a thread discussing Earthlink on one of the blindness mailing lists, I took it upon myself to send an e-mail to Rosemary Jean-Louis, one of the company’s media relations people. As would be expected, I received one of these verification requests. Following the process laid out for visually impaired users, I clicked the appropriate link to begin the live chat. Alas, after more than an hour, I am still waiting for an Earthlink employee to actually begin their end of the chat session!

This incident is yet one more example of how we as blind people must not accept either total inaccessibility of CAPTCHA or the manual human intervention process of accomodation. In many cases, the human assistance is simply never provided, or it is ultimately offered in a manner that cannot be considered timely by any stretch of the imagination. We as blind and visually impaired human beings must absolutely insist on our equal rights to participate in this area of technology. We must ask, and demand if necessary, full and timely access to the same online resources as our sighted peers. This must extend to the accessibility of CAPTCHA schemes.

As it stands right now, Earthlink’s arrangements for providing accessibility to CAPTCHA are totally unacceptable, as they essentially amount to no access at all. The company also has other serious accessibility issues, including the specialized software it provides its customers and its new web mail user interface. Adding insult to injury, it appears to be impossible for us to send an e-mail to the company for the purpose of expressing our concerns and gaining perspective on Earthlink’s position on accessibility. What should we do about Earthlink and similar companies, who persistently and, thus far, successfully ignore the accessibility needs of the blind and visually impaired? The following is a copy of the note I sent to Rosemary Jean-Louis this morning concerning Earthlink’s inaccessible CAPTCHA. Please feel free to share your thoughts.

July 18, 2006

Dear Ms. Jean-Louis:

My name is Darrell Shandrow from the Blind Access Journal. We are a blind community resource that reports and promotes positive action on behalf of the blind and visually impaired to resolve technology accessibility concerns that serve to constrain us from full participation in society. Unfortunately, Earthlink has garnered some negative attention in this area.

Earthlink employs a CAPTCHA (visual verification) scheme for functions such as sign up and spam blocking. In order to complete these functions, the user must be physically able to see a picture of a string of characters, then enter those characters in to an edit box in order to pass the test. Passing the CAPTCHA test is required in order to be granted access to send an e-mail to many of Earthlink’s customers. These CAPTCHAs present an absolute barrier to entry for blind and visually impaired users, who are physically unable to see the picture of the text. This effectively means blind and visually impaired Internet users are not allowed to send e-mail to hundreds of thousands of Earthlink customers.

CAPTCHA can be made more accessible, thus reducing or eliminating the barrier to entry for blind and visually impaired users. An audio playback of the characters can be provided as an accessible alternative to the visual CAPTCHA. One of Earthlink’s competitors, America Online, provides this reasonable accomodation. Other companies, including Google, Microsoft and SpamArrest, also provide an audio playback of their CAPTCHAs. Please see the CAPTCHA article on Wikipedia for some additional detail on CAPTCHA, its impact on users with disabilities and links to information on making it more accessible.

Many people inside and outside the blind community have grown to consider inaccessible CAPTCHAs to represent “no blind people allowed” signs in much the same way as the “no blacks allowed” signs of segregation in the 1960’s and earlier. Locking out and segregating people with disabilities would seem to represent a “bad mistake” in Earthlink’s core values.

I would like to interview someone from your company to discuss Earthlink’s position on the continued use of inaccessible CAPTCHA as well as any plans the company might have to resolve this problem in the near future. Such an interview would be published on the Blind Access Journal podcast as well as other parts of the connected online blind community. I look forward to hearing from a company representative of sufficient authority in the next two weeks.


Darrell Shandrow