Internet working on accessibility to disabled:
More Web sites finding wayt to prevent blind PC users from being locked out
BY HIAWATHA BRAY GLOBE STAFF, 12/08/96
Most people who design sites on the Internet's World Wide
Web never stop to think they might receive a visit from someone
like Al Gayzagian. Perhaps if they did, they would make him
feel more welcome.
Gayzagian is nothing like the stereotyped image of a twentysomething
hipster hunched over a computer monitor. For one thing, he's
70 years old, a retired insurance company worker living in
Watertown. For another, he's blind.
Despite his disability, Gayzagian is an avid Web surfer. Using
software that reads text aloud from the computer screen, he
makes his way across the Internet, swapping electronic mail
and listening to on-line news reports. Still, Gayzagian realizes
that large portions of the Internet remain closed to him.
``You know you're m issing something,'' he said. ``You just
don't know what you're missing.''
That's because many Internet sites are designed in ways that
make them difficult for blind people to use. The Boston Globe's
own Web site has been found guilty of this offense - one it
is in the process of correcting. But with the growing popularity
of the Internet has come new pressure from disability-rights
advocates to make the Internet a more accessible place.
It's a problem that most people never consider. We applaud
modern computers for their ``easy-to-use'' graphics, but we
forget that the mouse and point-and-click icons are useless
for blind people.
Corporations and government agencies must begin thinking about
this issue, however. There are an estimated 7 million blind
Americans, and millions more with visual impairments. At a
time when computers and the Internet have become vital business
tools, businesses could face legal challenges under the Americans
with Disabilities Act unless they make their inter nal networks
accessible to disabled workers. And World Wide Web sites that
target the general public must ensure that they're not locking
out many potential customers.
Blind people at first benefited dramatically from the invention
of personal computers. The early machines, such as the Apple
II and the original IBM PC, were controlled by typing various
code words. The computer responded by displaying text on
the monitor. Blind people could learn to type with relative
ease, and programs were developed that could read the computer's
responses aloud. So blind people could use PCs almost as easily
as sighted people.
Then came the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows operating
systems. These programs use a graphical user interface, or
GUI. To control the computer, a user aims a pointer at buttons
and menus on the screen. This was a major advance for most
people. But the old screen reader programs didn't work with
the new GUI software. Blind computer users had to stick with
outdated operating systems like MS-DOS until Macintosh- and
Windows-compatible screen readers came along.
The same cycle has occurred on the Internet. Early users relied
on text-only software, so screen readers could be used. But
Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, changed everything.
Today, almost all Web pages are designed to take advantage
of the graphic capabilities of browsers. Once again, blind
computer users have had problems using the new system.
Gayzagian relies on Lynx, an early Internet browser that renders
only the text on a page. He also uses pwWebSpeak, a browser
specially designed for people with vision problems. The software
reads text aloud and displays in extra-large letters on the
monitor. Even so, many Web pages are still closed to Gayzagian.
The reason is that many Web sites use flashy images to convey
information to users who can see. But screen readers can't
understand pretty pictures. Unless a piece of descriptive
text is also included, a blind Web surfer soon becomes lost.
Web designers can easily include these text tags on their
sites, but many don't take the trouble.
Even when information is made available as text, it can sometimes
be difficult to find. The Globe site, Boston.com, contains
a section with no pictures, only text. This text-only section
was a favorite haunt of Tom Wlodkowski, a blind man who works
at the National Center for Accessible Media in Boston. But
the Globe's site designers recently removed the direct link
to the text-only section. That forced Wlodkowski to travel
through the section that contains pictures, making it harder
for him to find particular stories.
``Now what I do is weave through it and get frustrated,''
Scott Kirsner, lead content developer at Boston.com, vows
these flaws will be mended in a major redesign of the site
that is now under way. ``Boston.com wants to be accessible
to everyone,'' Kirsner said.
Web pages also allow special formats screen readers can't
handle. For instance, dividing t he screen into multiple sections
or ``frames'' can be visually appealing, but also causes screen
readers to malfunction.
These problems could be avoided if sites were designed for
easy use by blind people - for instance, by including text
tags with all pictures, or text-only versions of the site.
The Trace Research and Development Center at the University
of Wisconsin has published guidelines for accessible Web-site
design. The National Center for Accessible Media, where Wlodkowski
works, has launched a campaign to persuade site designers
to comply with the Trace standards. ``Most people don't argue
with them at all once they know,'' said center director Larry
Goldberg. ``They say, `Gee, I never thought of that.'''
Site designers who want to check the accessibility of their
work can pay a visit to a Web site called Bobby. The site
features an automatic Web page accessibility test. Just type
in the address of a page, and Bobby will display the page,
highlighting features that would be diffi cult or impossible
for a disabled person to use.
Meanwhile, some people are working to ensure that accessibility
is built into the very fabric of the Internet. Michael Paciello,
a former software engineer at Digital Equipment Corp., now
serves as director of the Yuri Rubinsky Insight Foundation,
an organization that works on Internet accessibility issues.
He's also a volunteer member of the World Wide Web Consortium,
the Cambridge-based organization that oversees all Web design
Paciello is working to get accessibility features built directly
into HTML, the software language used to design Web pages.
These new features would ensure that designers of screen reader
software could easily cope with almost any kind of information
displayed on a Web page.
In addition, Goldberg, Wlodkowski and others want to make
sure future Internet developments don't shut out people with
disabilities. In the future, deaf people may have problems
using full-motion video transmission over the In ternet.
So Goldberg wants to make sure video standards will include
a way to put text captions on the screen along with the images.
It could be years before full-motion video becomes common
on the Internet. But Goldberg figures it makes sense to start
planning for it now, to ensure that millions of handicapped
people won't be locked out.
The Boston Globe Web site can be found at http://www.boston.com.
The Trace Center site is located at http://www.trace.wisc.edu.
The National Center for Accessible Media is at http://www.wgbh.org.
The Bobby Web page test site is at http://www.cast.org/bobby/
. The Yuri Rubinsky Insight Foundation site is at http://
This story ran on page e1 of the Boston Globe on 12/08/96.
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