Blind and online: Progress, not perfection, for visually impaired tech users

Today's digital environment has a lot to offer blind computer users, but the Web remains a minefield of frustration.

Advances in accessible interfaces -- especially by Apple -- have been beneficial for the blind, but the Web remains a minefield of accessibility problems.

Gayle Yarnall of Amesbury, Mass., is blind. Consequently, photography is not a skill she ever anticipated mastering.

"But the iPhone will tell you if the face in the viewfinder is centered, or if [the face] is small or large," notes Yarnall, who runs a lifestyle consulting firm called Gayle Connected. "Otherwise it's dumb luck, but I am getting pretty good at it."

Yarnall is taking advantage of a trend popularized by Apple four years ago. After decades when the industry emphasized graphical interfaces in computing products, effectively marginalizing users with impaired vision, Apple added an optional voice interface to its iOS operating system in 2008.

Other platforms have followed suit, most recently Microsoft's improved Narrator voice interface in the new Windows 8 operating system.

But even the best user interface is of little help to a blind person trying to make sense of a website whose designers have given no thought to accessibility, often leaving important buttons unlabeled so that blind users have no audio cues about how to proceed or interact with the site. (See sidebar, below.)

There is a central authority on the Web that issues guidelines on how to assure accessibility, under the auspices of the World Wide Web Consortium. But so far, the results appear to constitute a drop in a bucket. Accessibility issues are so common that visually impaired users and other experts agree that a blind-friendly commercial site is one that has only a couple of problems per page. Others have hundreds per page.

In one source of good news, though, a blind person today can use technology to instantly acquire a book and load it on a device that will read it aloud, and not have to wait for the bulky Braille version.

"I know blind people with personal libraries of thousands of books; that is a big change," says blind adaptive consultant David Porter, head of Compunique in Chicago.

Design sins: Creating unusable websites for the visually impaired

The following are common sins of omission or commission by website designers that can cause problems for blind users.

Unlabeled images

In HTML, the tags used to control images (IMG and AREA) include the ALT attribute, designating alternate text that is supposed to describe the image if it cannot be shown. Originally ALT text was included because the use of graphical displays could not be assumed, but today screen readers rely on ALT text. They pronounce the ALT text with the expectation that it will replace whatever information the image is supposed to convey. (The screen reader cannot "see" the image, and so without the ALT text whatever is in the image is lost.) However, the page designer must provide the ALT text. If none is present the screen reader will usually pronounce the file name, which is rarely meaningful.

"Using ALT tags for your graphics is half the game," says Darren Burton, project manager for technical evaluation with the American Federation for the Blind out of Huntington, W.V.

Unlabeled Flash animations

Online animations created with Adobe Flash have control buttons that have to be labeled with Flash software rather than HTML -- and this is rarely done, sources agree. Consequently blind users often cannot play Flash animations, although they could typically profit by hearing the audio portion.

"Just being able to press Play would be a big jump forward," says Clara Van Gerven, a National Federation for the Blind technology specialist in Baltimore, indicating that blind users often find value in the audio portion of online videos. The good news, she said, is that "it looks like Flash is on the way out, and HTML5 handles labeling much better."

Inaccessible PDF files

Menus and informational brochures are often posted on the Web in PDF format, but are often just scanned images rather than text. Consequently a screen reader can do little with them. It is possible to add coding to PDF files to make them accessible, but this is rarely done, sources complain.

No heading structure

HTML supplies header tags (H1, H2, etc.) for use in organizing text, and screen readers use the header tags to format the material and facilitate navigation. (Search engines also use header content to assess pages.) But sources complain that, all too often, page designers bypass the official HTML header tags and instead make up their own ad hoc header-like formatting.

"The result is like reading text with all the paragraph markup removed -- a word salad," complains Van Gerven.


A CAPTCHA is a test to ensure that the user is a human being and not a machine before full access to a site is granted. Typically the user is asked to identify distorted letters, effectively excluding blind users.

Sites may offer alternate audio CAPTCHAs, where the listener has to identify spoken letters over background noise. "Ever tried to solve one? The success rate is maybe one in five," says Van Gerven.

Misused tables

The row-and-column Table element in HTML was widely used to control page layouts in the early days of the Web, but today Cascading Style Sheets are a more powerful layout tool. Using Table for that purpose mostly confuses the screen readers, making it difficult for vision-impaired readers to navigate a page built with Table elements rather than Cascading Style Sheets.

No testing

Websites can be compliant and still be unusable -- a fact that would come out if sites were actually tested by blind users. A common problem, sources agree, is the use of small graphical files as spacers to control layout. Compliance implies that they should be labeled with the ALT attribute, and often are labeled "Spacer." But there can be scores of them on a page, leaving the screen reader continuously chirping "spacer." In such cases it is better to put in a blank for the name, says Jim Denham, director of assistive technology at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass.

-- Lamont Wood

Apple changes the game

The rest of the digital world isn't as advanced, however. Since the 1980s the blind have used computers with the help of applications called screen readers, which speak aloud the text on the screen and announce screen events, such as the appearance of dialog boxes. (They may also output to Braille devices for the deaf-blind.) But screen readers have had to be acquired separately, and they can be expensive -- in the range of $800 and up.

Then Apple made its VoiceOver screen reader an integral part of iOS, its operating system for mobile devices.

"Apple built in the same VoiceOver screen reader across iOS devices," says Jim Denham, director of assistive technology at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. "If I touch an icon, it says what I am touching. If I want to invoke it, I double-tap anywhere on the screen. You can just feel around until you find what you want. Every iPhone and iPad and a fair number of apps are accessible, so it has opened a new world for those who are blind."

As for invoking VoiceOver so it can be used, Yarnall says that's a two-step procedure best done by a sighted person, but she has learned how to do it, and can use her (sighted) husband's iPhone when hers is not available. "[Blind] people call me all the time and ask what phone to get, and I can't imagine getting anything but an iPhone," she says. Apps for the blind include color identifiers, OCR-based label readers and currency denomination identifiers, she explains.

VoiceOver is also supported on the Mac under the OS X operating system, using an Apple Multi-Touch trackpad as a stand-in for a touch screen, according to material supplied by Apple.

The iOS's main competitor, the Android operating system, also has a screen reader called TalkBack that is either built into specific phone models or available as a free update, according to Google product literature.

"The Android screen reader is still in its infancy," says Denham. "It's sufficient for using the phone, but not everything is accessible like with the iPhone."

Microsoft's new Narrator

Narrator is Windows' built-in text-to-speech utility. Microsoft spokespeople have blogged about Narrator's improvements (logon required), which work with the touchscreen version of Windows 8.

A user can drag a finger across the screen and Narrator will announce what is under the fingertip. Once found, buttons or icons can be activated by tapping the screen anywhere with a second finger. Microsoft's Windows Store will additionally rate apps for accessibility, the blog announced.

Some blind users remain unimpressed. "The only thing I can do [in Narrator] is turn it off as fast as I can," says Yarnall. "It's horrible."

"Narrator is not robust enough," agrees Darren Burton, project manager for technical evaluation with the American Federation for the Blind out of Huntington, W.V. "It does not have the features that would help me efficiently read a Web page or fill out a Word document."

[Microsoft's] Narrator is not robust enough. Darren Burton, project manager, American Federation for the Blind

Consequently, "The tradition is for very high-priced screen readers in the Windows market, costing more than a laptop," says Denham. The leading PC screen reader, JAWS (Job Access With Speech) from Freedom Scientific in St. Petersburg, Fla., has versions costing $895 and $1,095. They include an OCR facility to read text displayed in Web graphics. Its main competitor is Windows-Eyes from GW Micro of Fort Wayne, Ind., costing $895.

Options are expanding, though. A freeware Windows screen reader called NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access) is gaining in popularity, Denham explains. Produced by a non-profit group in Australia, its default synthetic voice has a noticeable Australian accent. "NVDA does about half what JAWS does," says Denham. "The OCR [in JAWS] is nice, but is it worth $1,100?"

If Microsoft's Narrator could be given power equivalent to NVDA, Windows could be used out of the box by blind office workers, without additional expense or difficulty.

"It is not happening the way we want it," says Burton. "I am getting the latest versions of Windows 8 and they improved Narrator but it is nothing compared to what Apple has done."

But Compunique's Porter says that comparing Apple VoiceOver to Windows Narrator is dangerous as they have different goals: VoiceOver is aimed at stand-alone personal devices, while Narrator is intended for integrated office use.

"There are three areas they did improve with Narrator," he says, based on experience with a Windows 8 production version. It works seamlessly with voice recognition, "so you can dictate a command and it will tell you it's doing it and then ask OK, cancel or modify. Apparently, Microsoft's vision is to get away from the keyboard."

The second area of improvement is cross-pollination, Porter says, "so Narrator can synch with other devices and tell you what they are doing. Third, you have more control over the voice, and can set it to tell you everything that is happening on the screen, or nothing, or something in between."

With Apple VoiceOver, Porter explains, "you can talk of quality and flexibility, but not seamless integration. VoiceOver can't read you an Excel spreadsheet, but I can tell Narrator that I am looking for the formula in cell A16, and it will find it and read it."

Originally, Narrator read only the command line, and blind people could not use the computer with it. "With Windows 8 you have a much better chance," Porter says.

The Web minefield

With a robust screen reader, a device can be perfectly accessible, but that's of no benefit to blind readers if it's used to go to inaccessible websites. While certain end-user devices have gotten friendlier for the blind, the Web as a whole remains a source of frustration.

"Most sites are not completely accessible or [are] completely inaccessible," says Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). "Most you can use, but there may be little hitches, like not being able to find the Submit button."

"Education sites are a train wreck; a lot of content is put up by professors who don't know how to design properly," says Burton. "Travel sites are another bear; I can't name an airline site that isn't horrible. They take so long that I just have a sighted intern book flights. Hotel sites are another problem -- I just call them."

Every blind Web user has a list of pet peeves, and most fall into themes (see the sidebar). But there is a set of rules that a designer could follow to avoid unknowingly sabotaging blind or other disabled users -- the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the Web's ruling body, the World Wide Web Consortium in Cambridge, Mass., does indeed publish such guidelines. The current version is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, finalized in 2008.

There is such a thing as corporate social responsibility. Judy Brewer, director, Web Accessibility Initiative

"We are not a regulatory body and do no enforcement. We do not do certification," says Judy Brewer, director of the WAI. "What we do is address the accessibility of the Web for those with disabilities. Part of that is an effort to develop guidelines for the accessibility of Web content."

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