Monday, December 2, 1996
New Software Improves Web Access For The Blind
By SREENATH SREENIVASAN
Cathy Murtha had never used a computer until early last year.
As a busy mother of three children, she had not discovered a need
for a computer and did not even know how to turn one on.
Now she not only knows how to operate a computer, she runs
Magical Mist Creations, a small Internet-based business, with her
partner, Tom Baccanti, that designs and evaluates sites on the
World Wide Web, the graphics-oriented portion of the Internet.
There would be nothing particularly remarkable about that,
except for the fact that both Ms. Murtha and Baccanti are blind.
"People are shocked I can do this," Ms. Murtha, who lives in
Pioneer, Calif., said. "They had never imagined a blind person
could find a use for a computer, much less make a business out of
Ms. Murtha is one of thousands of blind computer users who
surf the Web. The American Foundation for the Blind in New York
estimates that of the 12 million Americans with visual
impairments of some sort, 900,000 use computers.
"The Internet has changed forever the lives of blind people,
mainly because it provides independent access to information,"
said Larry Scadden, who works on technology issues for the
disabled at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.,
and is blind.
Kelly Ford of Gresham, Ore., who runs Webwatch, an
accessibility discussion group on the Internet, agrees. "Sighted
people don't know how difficult it is for a blind person to use
services that everyone else takes for granted, like looking up a
phone directory," he said. "Now that a lot of this is on line, I
feel so liberated."
Richard Ring, who runs the National Federation of the Blind's
International Braille and Technology Center in Baltimore, said
blind people have reached a crucial crossroads in the way in
which they use the Internet. "We have made tremendous strides in
getting access to the Internet, but we need to be vigilant in
order to keep up," he said.
Ring's center is the world's largest proving ground for
products for the blind and has worked to test the accessibility
of computer hardware and software. "But more cooperation is
required" he said, "if we are to keep up with all the fast-
The use of computers by people who are visually impaired
depends on two factors: the fact that text can be read aloud by a
speech synthesizer with text-to-speech software or output in a
Braille format, and the user's ability to navigate the screen
with a keyboard.
For years, the blind could use the Internet to send and get e-
mail, because it only involved text. Even when the World Wide Web
made its debut in the early 1990s, people who were visually
impaired had access to most of it through DOS- based, nonvisual
browsers like Lynx. But then the Web became increasingly
"I felt like road kill on the information superhighway when I
first logged on to the Web," said Gregory Rosmaita, then a
student at Caldwell College in Caldwell, N.J. His screen reader
would identify any graphics as "image" or "link," without
descriptions of any sort, leaving him confused and frustrated.
"When blind people use the Internet and come across unfriendly
sites, we aren't surfing, we are crawling," he said. "Imagine
hearing pages that say, 'Welcome to ... image.' 'This is the home
of ... image.' 'Link, link, link.' It is like trying to use
Netscape with your monitor off and the mouse unplugged. See how
far you'll get."
But with special training and improved screen readers, users
like Rosmaita have been able to use the Web more effectively. So
effectively, in fact, that he is now the Web master of the
Caldwell College site. "I am very proud that no one who has
visited the site has ever been able to tell that the person who
designed and runs it is blind," he said.
For other users, PW Webspeak, a nonvisual browser, provides a
straightforward way to use the Internet. "We wanted to put the
Web within the reach of every blind person, not just the ones
with advanced computer skills," said Ray Ingram, executive vice
president of Productivity Works, which makes PW Webspeak.
Instead of reading aloud what is on a computer screen,
Webspeak reads the HTML - or hypertext markup language, the
programming code of the Web page - and interprets it directly.
This format lets people with low vision and dyslexia surf the Web
at their own pace.
Tom Dekker, who runs the Visually Impaired Computer Users
Group of New York, has used PW Webspeak. "It does make things
easier, because the learning curve is higher with screen
readers," he said. PW Webspeak now comes with a built-in version
of Real Audio, a program made by Progressive Networks Inc. The
technology, which allows users to listen to continuous streams of
audio broadcasts, is attractive to blind users who depend on
Despite the strides made by visually impaired users, big
problems loom. Innovations like multiple-page frames and bit-
mapped images, which make for easier navigation for sighted
users, are part of the hindrances to access. Screen readers get
thrown off by these features and confuse the blind user. Also,
the tremendous growth in the use of animation and Java, a
programming language developed by Sun Microsystems, makes some
sites difficult for the blind to use.
There are simple things Web designers can do to make their
sites accessible. Providing a text version of each site, using a
"no frames" option and providing a description of graphics or
photographs can make the experience for visually impaired users
"We accept that there are some things to which we just will
not have access, like looking at photographs, for example," said
Ted Henter, whose company, Henter-Joyce of St. Petersburg, Fla.,
is one of the largest makers of screen readers for the blind.
"But it is reasonable to ask for a text description of those
The competition between the two leading Internet browsers,
Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer and Netscape Communications
Corp.'s Navigator, also affects blind computer users. Explorer
allows users to easily substitute keyboard commands for mouse
commands, which Netscape does not yet do.
"Our focus has been to make the Internet accessible again,"
said Alec Saunders, a product manager at Microsoft who is working
on accessibility. "It not only makes business sense to aim for
accessibility, it is also the right thing to do."
For its part, Netscape contends that it is not ignoring the
blind. "Netscape has always been committed to access," Peter
Harter, a spokesman for Netscape, said.
There are both commercial and legal reasons why companies are
more concerned about access. "We are a viable business
opportunity," Ms. Murtha of Magical Mist said, referring to users
with disabilities. "We're eager to use the Internet and use our
credit cards and spend our money on line. Companies should
The legal reason is that both the Americans with Disabilities
Act and the recently passed Telecommunications Act of 1996 seek
to provide access for the disabled to all telecommunications
services, including the Internet.
Ring of the braille center is hopeful that computers will
remain accessible to the blind. "I am more concerned about
appliances such as microwaves and telephones, which are getting
more and more complicated every day," he said. "The computer
problem will resolve itself, because they are open systems: You
can get in there and change things. But other consumer appliances
are closed systems, and you can't fix those."
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