A new approach to solving CAPTCHAs has arrived on the scene for the blind and visually impaired. “Solona is a service that provides CAPTCHA solution assistance for visually impaired Internet users who encounter CAPTCHAS that are difficult or impossible to solve,” says Bernard Maldonado, the site’s creator. This unique service enables blind and visually impaired users to upload a CAPTCHA image and quickly receive the solved CAPTCHA code from a sighted person while safeguarding the users’ privacy and security.

I tested Solona on Twitter’s Create an Account page, where solving a CAPTCHA is required in order to sign up. After signing into Solona and opening the Twitter signup page in a new browser tab, I filled out Twitter’s form and captured the CAPTCHA image by pressing Alt+Print Screen. I then ran MSPaint, pasted the captured image into it and saved the image as a 256-color BMP file. Finally, I switched back to Solona, selected the option to Submit a CAPTCHA, uploaded the captured image file and pressed the Refresh button a couple of times as I awaited the solution. Within approximately 40 seconds, I received a correct answer which enabled me to create another Twitter account!

My experience, and that of many other blind Internet users, shows that Solona is a viable way to solve CAPTCHA images on web sites. I have two concerns with the Solona approach: one is practical and the other is philosophical.

In practical terms, the instructions for using Solona are rather complex, especially for all beginning and many intermediate blind computer users. There are instructions for use on Mac and Windows-based computers. Users are expected to understand concepts including copying and pasting, downloading and uploading files, saving files in a specific location or path and switching among several windows. Since many web sites time out if the CAPTCHA is not solved right away, the usefulness of this approach is likely to increase for beginners only after many unsuccessful practice attempts. Some intermediate and all advanced users should find the instructions easily within their grasp.

As an accessibility evangelist, I have a philosophical
concern about the use of services like Solona, where direct sighted intervention is required in order for the blind person to achieve their desired result. According to the instructions on Solona’s How it Works page, “The process is a two prong approach: The user submits a useable image of the CAPTCHA according to our instructions and a Solona operator processes the image and returns the text solution back to the user in order to proceed with the offending website.” This solution is dependent on the availability of a sighted operator. When noone is available, we can’t use this approach and an inaccessible CAPTCHA will lock us out once again. Web site owners may feel they’re off the hook with respect to ensuring the accessibility of their CAPTCHA schemes. Instead of improving accessibility, they may tell us: “Use Solona. That’s what it’s there for, isn’t it? To help you blind people?” My ultimate worry here is the creation of a separate-but-unequal status for blind people where a form of accessibility exists for us that is vastly inferior to that granted the sighted.

A major advantage of Solona is its complete accessibility for everyone, including the deaf-blind who continue to go completely unserved by web site owners who implement audio playback as their “accessible” CAPTCHA scheme. Unlike automated CAPTCHA solutions such as CAPTCHA Killer and Webvisum, no “cracking” or “hacking” is involved and there are no reasonable concerns that the service may be easily utilized to breach the protection CAPTCHA intends to deliver against spammers and other abusers. Solona is also cross-platform. Any computer and web browser that can be used to capture and upload images can be used with the service.

If stable plug-ins or screen reader scripts are created to make Solona easier to use for beginners, plans to ensure the continuous availability of sighted operators are realized and an organizational structure is established to ensure the ongoing viability of the service into the future, we may ultimately have an accessibility winner on our hands! Will the blind community embrace Solona as an acceptable way to solve CAPTCHA authentication? How will the technology industry respond? Will it raise awareness of the need for better access or will companies just dump us over to Solona without meeting their responsibility to deliver reasonable accommodations? Once a viable organizational structure exists for Solona, who will provide the funds to sustain the project? Would web site owners consider donating to Solona in leu of improving the accessibility of their own CAPTCHA schemes an acceptable accommodation? I invite all of you, my loyal readers, to take a stab at any or all of these questions in your comments. As always, your reading and participation is appreciated.