Traditionally, blind people have had only limited means of accessing printed material. Braille is the most famous access method, but only a tiny proportion of blind people can read Braille – some 2% in the UK. Recent years have seen the wider adoption of audio recordings, but like Braille these suffer from a lack of immediacy – you want the news today, not to wait a week for it to be translated – and a blind user is usually reliant on sighted people, often volunteers, to produce the material. This reliance and the higher costs of producing alternative format materials such as audiotapes necessarily reduce the material available. This is a poor comparison with what is available to sighted users and their choice of material.
Imagine not being able to use a mouse to open a web browser or a keyboard to type an email. What if you couldn’t distinguish colours on a computer screen or type the distorted letters in order to buy tickets or enroll in a class?
Despite technological advances aimed at making the internet easy to use, the world wide web is not wide open for many people. But as the number of people with disabilities grows and more of everything is done online, companies are finding it makes good business sense to make their sites more accessible and are hiring consultants and training programmers to make it happen.
The World Wide Web Consortium, which develops standards for the web, has issued guidelines for designers to help them create more accessible sites. They include providing text labels for images, captions on audio and video and making keyboard shortcuts for people who can’t use a mouse.
Jim Thatcher developed the IBM screen reader, which blind people use to read online.
At Yahoo Inc headquarters in Silicon Valley, an “Accessibility Lab” allows developers to try various assistive technology. The lab’s directors show visitors how screen reader software works, and make them try Braille keyboards, a head-controlled mouse, joysticks, trackballs and other tools employed by disabled users to navigate the web.
Experts say accessibility features make a better internet for all. For example, the ability to zoom in on a map or magnify font was conceived for people with low vision but it’s helpful for anyone.