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Last Updated: 11/20/2017
 

 Article of Interest - Assistive Technology

Internet Means Possibilities, Frustration for Blind Surfers
by Stephanie Miles, Wall Street Journal Online

For more articles visit www.bridges4kids.org

 

Amy Green is trying to open her Yahoo e-mail account.


Ms. Green, a 19-year old student at the School for the Blind in Fremont, Calif., has low vision, which means that her sight can't be corrected to any level approaching normal. With painstaking patience, she moves the cursor slowly around the Yahoo Inc. home page, which has been magnified to five times its usual size using ZoomText, a special program for the vision-impaired.  Because of the magnification, only a tiny portion of the window can be displayed at one time.

 

Even so, she has her nose pressed up against the monitor, doggedly working to locate the link that will open the right page. "This is kind of starting to annoy me," she says, almost under her breath. After several minutes of trying, Ms. Green finds the link and clicks on it. Now the process starts all over again, as she attempts to locate the windows where she must type in her name and password.

 

Ms. Green isn't alone. Twenty percent of the 93.5 million adults who access the Internet in the U.S. say they have vision problems, according to ComScore Media Metrix, which tracks Internet usage. The Internet is giving the visually impaired access to the same information at the same time as the rest of the world, "for the first time since the end of the oral tradition and the beginning of the printed word," says Stuart Wittenstein, superintendent at the School for the Blind, which focuses on teaching blind children and young adults life skills to help them succeed in mainstream society.

 

But if the Internet has leveled the playing field, it is also an exercise in frustration for thousands of people every day. At the School for the Blind *which offers its students, teachers, and administrators some of the most sophisticated assistive technology around-the Web seems to cause as many problems as it solves.

 

Off Limits Completely blind people use the Internet with the help of screen-reading software, which literally voices every graphic, link, and piece of text that appears onscreen. Instead of using the mouse, special keyboard commands are used to select links and move from window to window. Those with some vision can also use screen magnifiers, which enlarge a portion of the screen between two and 10 times its regular size.

 

GADGETS LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
 

New gadgets help people with weak eyesight, poor mobility and fading hearing take full advantage of popular technologies like the Web. Read the article.  Because blind people are dependent either on audio text-readers or screen magnifiers, much of the Internet is effectively off limits to them. Popular children's sites like Disney.com are hard for blind kids to navigate because of the graphic-heavy design, along with ad-heavy portals like Yahoo and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN. And while pop-up windows and glitchy antivirus software are mere annoyances for the sighted, they are even more vexing for blind surfers, because they wreak havoc with assistive software. Disabled-rights advocates have long pushed for the Web to be more accessible to the blind, with mixed results. Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that the Americans With Disabilities Act doesn't cover virtual space, dismissing a suit demanding that the Web site for Southwest Airlines be altered to work better with text-readers. In 2000, America Online, now a division of AOL Time Warner Inc., avoided a lawsuit filed by the National Federation for the Blind by agreeing to make its Internet software more compatible with text-readers. Internet companies say they don't have the resources to make their sites disabled-accessible. "We have such a huge range of users," says a spokeswoman for Yahoo, declining to comment specifically on what the company has done to make its site usable for blind users. "We have worked with outside organizations to help our people understand the needs of people with all types of disabilities," says a spokeswoman for the Disney Internet Group, while conceding that some of Disney.com's multimedia features "might pose some difficulties" for blind users.

 

Advocates say that Web developers who ignore the blind users in their audience are missing a potentially huge market. The disabled community has $175 billion in discretionary spending and $1 trillion in income, according to management-consulting firm Booz, Allen & Hamilton in Washington, D.C. That community includes 10 million blind Americans, according to the American Foundation for the Blind ( www.afb.org).


Blind students and teachers at the School for the Blind say that it is clear that most Web designers don't take visually disabled users into account, forcing them to navigate unmarked links, mysterious unlabeled graphics, and framed Web sites that don't work with many assistive software programs. "It all depends on the Web designer," says Joan Anderson, who runs the computer lab at the School For the Blind. "The Internet is a great thing, but it's also the most frustrating."

 

For many in the blind community, the Internet is a lifeline to the outside world, Ms. Anderson says. Like many other teenagers, her kids enjoy burning CDs and listening to music on the computer, but by far the most popular activity is e-mail. "E-mail-they love e-mail," she says. "E-mail, e-mail,  e-mail." In their enthusiasm for communicating with friends and family, the students willingly put up with the frustrating design of sites like Microsoft's Hotmail.com and Yahoo Mail, she says, pointing out that neither site works well with the special keyboard commands. This means students like Ms. Green must slowly scroll around a magnified version of the screen, searching for the right link. While Ms. Green is willing to patiently scrutinize the magnetized computer screen, searching slowly for the right link to click, some say it is just too much hassle.

 

"I rarely use it, because it's so frustrating," says Marcus Graves, the school's receptionist, who is blind himself, pointing to the computer sitting in front of him on his desk. Mr. Graves uses the phone and fax machine in the reception area with few problems, but is thwarted when he tries to log on to look up the day's stock information. "When I try to find something, I cannot," he says. "The sites are designed poorly."

 

June Waugh, an administrator at the school with severely impaired vision, says she will use the Web for some important tasks at work-like e-mail, and even occasionally buying airline tickets-but not for entertainment purposes because it is so difficult and time-consuming for her to get around online. Ms. Waugh pushes her computer monitor to the very edge of her desk, and reads text at 200% its normal size. "If it was easy, I'd do it," she says. "The Internet isn't particularly fun for me."

 

The phenomenon of pop-up and pop-under ads also causes problems. JAWS, (which stands for Job Access With Speech) a popular text-to-speech software program made by Freedom Scientific Inc., in St. Petersburg, Fla., often gets confused by the proliferation of browser windows. "When they pop up, JAWS tries to read it to you," Ms. Anderson says, explaining that it can be difficult to navigate via the text-to-speech software back to the correct window. The school doesn't use any kind of ad-suppressing software. "They end up blocking everything," she says. "I haven't found one we can use."


Although JAWS gives completely blind users-for whom screen magnification won't help-access to computers and the Web, the software has its own share of obstacles. JAWS doesn't recognize unusual fonts, for example, which crop up on many Web sites. Web sites that are continually updated, such as sports and news sites, sometimes trick the software into thinking a new page has loaded. JAWS's humanistic voice hiccups every time the antivirus software runs, and some students like Amy Green can't stand the robotic voice at all. "It is just too annoying," she says, preferring to magnify her screen instead. Eric Damery, product manager for JAWS, says that the program, which was initially designed as a text reader for DOS systems in 1988, has been morphed over the years to keep up with the evolution of the Internet. JAWS now has an installed user base of 70,000 users, with an additional 1,000 users every month, he says. Although many commercial sites are difficult for JAWS readers to use, the majority of federal, state, and educational Web sites are designed to be blind-accessible, and Web standards for accessibility like those from the World Wide Web Consortium www.w3c.org also help, Mr. Damery says.

 

"It's come a long way, but we're not there yet," he says. "It's a big challenge for us as an industry." Google Clicks Although Ms. Anderson steers new students away from complex sites like Yahoo and Disney until they get more experience, at least one heavily trafficked site is also popular with the blind: Google. "Google is our  favorite," she says, both in terms of its clean and text-reader-friendly design, as well as the accuracy of the links, which help save blind users the tedium of finding and clicking extraneous links before hitting the right one. "It's great for sighted kids and its great for blind kids," Ms. Anderson says. Google was designed with an eye on making the site accessible to a wide range of users, including those with disabilities, according to Craig Silverstein, director of technology for Google Inc., in Mountain View, Calif. "If you start from the assumption that you need to make things simple and easy to use, then I think a lot of these things fall into place," he says.

 

Some tasks have become easier with the advent of the Internet, like reading a Braille version of a book. Because Braille takes up significantly more space than regular text, Braille versions of popular books can require several volumes, Ms. Anderson says, and are frequently too heavy for kids to carry around or take with them on trips. The Braille version of the latest Harry Potter is three volumes alone, each over 200 pages long, she points out. Now, students can find the Braille version of most books online for free at www.handiworks.com, then download the text to a memory card, which can be inserted into a portable braille reading device. "There's so many options they didn't have before," she says. But all this technology doesn't come cheap. In addition to rows of new Compaq computers with 21-inch displays and Microsoft software, the computers in the technology lab are outfitted with JAWS, which, for individual users,  costs about $850 per copy. The portable Braille readers start at $3,600, according to Ms. Anderson. The school's technology lab has 17 readers, which can be checked out by students. The new version of the Braille reader that Ms. Anderson wants, which includes a network card, browser interface, and a Global Positioning System to help blind pedestrians find their way to the nearest Starbucks, costs $5,700, she says. "It's not cheap, but it's a lifesaver," she says. And many say they're more than willing to put up with all the hassles and the expense. Wayne Siligo, a music teacher at the school who is totally blind, uses JAWS and his Internet connection to communicate with parents, students, and even collaborate on new music compositions- activities he says would be nearly impossible without the Web. "It's like if you've been riding a horse your whole life and then they give you a Ferrari. Even if it's in the shop all the time, those three days where you

can drive it are great."

 

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