[guispeak] Fw: Internet tasks confound blind users, study finds

  • From: "david poehlman" <david.poehlman@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "GUISPEAK List" <guispeak@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 14 Apr 2005 14:33:15 -0400

Fort Wayne Journal Gazette - Fort Wayne,IN,USA
Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Internet tasks confound blind users, study finds

By Abigail Tucker, Baltimore Sun

Ellen Ringlein of Baltimore clicks efficiently with a cane through
strange hallways. She tours alien cities without the help of a guide dog
or anyone else.  And, yet, in the comfort of her own office, Amazon.com
seems impossible to navigate. Earlier this month, Ringlein spent a
half-hour on the Web site trying to locate the audio version of the book
her church club was
reading, but the speech-synthesizing machine she and other blind people
use to surf the Net just rattled minutes of gibberish.

"Imagemaplinkrefequals!" it barked.

And, "blankblankblank!"

The Web site offered no easy way to avoid this nonsensical spiel, which
was mostly a narration of the links at the top of the page, Ringlein
said. And even when she finally  discovered where to type in the title
she wanted, the results were hard to decipher.

"OK, now they're talking about delighting your valentine," she said, as
the computer spat out an advertisement. "I just want to know how much
the audio book is. I know it's here, but I can't find it."

Actually, the screen wasn't even displaying the correct page.

Frustrating experiences like this are why one Towson University
professor recently partnered with the Baltimore-based National
Federation of the Blind to map the struggles of the blind online.
Jonathan Lazar is studying how the Internet fails blind users and will
share his findings in the summer with webmasters and software designers
who aren't legally compelled to make their products accessible, but
could change lives by doing so.

The study follows 100 or so users in Baltimore and elsewhere as they
perform everyday functions online: buying additional cell phone minutes,
checking e-mail, browsing CNN.com, downloading music, researching
medical problems, looking for Delta Air Lines tickets - basically, stuff
that everyone else does on the Net.

But navigational problems eat huge chunks of blind people's time, Lazar
is finding, and technical nuisances like spam, pop-up advertisements and
security checks hinder searches.

"What is annoying to a visual user becomes impossible for a blind user,"
said Lazar, the head of Towson's Computer Information Systems
Undergraduate Program.

David Nelson, president and chief executive officer of the League for
the Blind and Disabled in Fort Wayne, is pleased to know someone is
looking into ways to make the Internet more user-friendly for the blind.

"The Internet has opened a whole new world for not only people who are
blind, but for all people with disabilities," he said.

"It's a great source of information."

But a common problem facing people he works with who are blind is
pictures, graphics and charts that have no captions or explanations.
Although a person who sees might not read this information, it is
necessary for someone who cannot see the visual elements of a Web site,
Nelson said. "It's something most people don't think of and probably
don't have an occasion to think of."

He estimates about 1 percent of northeast Indiana's population is blind
or has serious vision problems.Most of these obstacles, however, can be
overcome, Lazar said.

"It's not the disability that causes the hardship," he said. "It's the
way the technology is designed."

His study identifies precisely when Web sites fall apart for blind users
and how much time and energy they waste figuring out problems.

Because the Internet allows for electronic commuting, communication and
commerce, it has opened doors for most people with disabilities, but
threatens to close some for the blind.

"The Internet is designed for visual people, fundamentally," said Betsy
Zaborowski, who runs the NFB's research and technology training

Only about a quarter of the 1.1 million blind Americans use computers,
and of these many experiment with the Internet only in limited ways,
Zaborowski said. Partly this is because blind people are often older and
not techno-savvy, but it's also because the graphic-centric Internet is
not designed for them.

And yet it's vital that everyone have access, she said. Already there is
a 74 percent unemployment rate among blind adults. If the blind don't
adapt to the Internet, they'll lack vital job skills.

But first the Internet must adapt to them. Yet accommodating blind users
is neither expensive nor difficult, Lazar said, especially if provisions
are made in the first stages of Web site design.

"You don't have to sacrifice your Web page for accessibility," Nelson

"You can have both."

He suggests Web designers run their sites through a free service
-http://bobby.watchfire.com/bobby/html/en/index.jsp - that the league
uses to make sure its Web site is accessible.

"This is a neat little thing people can do . to check their own Web
site," he said, "if you want to open your beautifully designed Web site
to people who can't see it."

To navigate the Internet, blind people use screen readers -
speech-synthesizing machines that narrate text at auctioneer-speed - or
Braille keyboards, which transfer information into bumps that rise and
fall beneath the user's fingertips.

Although useful, these devices have limitations.They can't interpret
graphics like pictures and logos, and they can't scan. Instead they read
every word of text, rattling off links that a sighted user could dismiss
with a glance.

But site designers can layer captions beneath pictures and add shortcuts
that bypass superfluous links. These sanity-saving adjustments are
usually encoded "behind the scenes" and don't change the Web site's
look, Lazar said.

In the private sector, though, it's usually up to individual webmasters
to embrace the accessibility guidelines, because federal courts haven't
ruled definitively on whether the Internet is a public space that must
be available to everyone, said Daniel Goldstein, a lawyer for NFB.

Some companies, including Amazon.com, offer alternative versions that
are streamlined for the visually impaired, although many blind users -
Ellen Ringlein, for instance - don't know they exist. Other companies
have applied accessibility guidelines to their main sites.

But across-the-board accessibility is necessary, according to James
Gashel, the NFB's executive director for strategic initiatives.

"The electronic infrastructure is being built today," he said. "If we
miss this, we won't have jobs, we won't have opportunities, we won't
have normal lives."

Rhea Edmonds of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.

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