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Web Sites Improve Service for Blind People Google, AOL, Yahoo Retool Pages Boosting Compatibility With Screen-Reading Aids

Thursday, July 27, 2006

  • Jessica Vascellaro
  • Wall Street Journal


Navigating increasingly feature-heavy Web sites, whose messy and complex programming can be difficult for assitive technologies to translate, poses problems for blind Internet users. Aiming to increase use of their popular products even more widely, Internet companies are now launching new -- and tidying up old -- services for easier use by the visually-impaired. The new Web services coincide with a push to revise federal Web accessibility standards and renewed legal efforts to get accessibility guidelines more widely adopted.

Google Inc. has launched Google Accessible Search, a search tool that ranks results based on the simplicity of the site's page layout.

Pages with a large number of headings and that lack extraneous images and text -- factors that make the page easier to read with a screen reader -- will rank higher, saving blind Internet users the time of navigating to results they won't be able to comprehend. The search


AOL will soon update AOL Web mail to make it more screen-reader friendly. The revisions will eliminate the need for users with screen readers to switch to a separate text-only page. While designing its new homepage, Yahoo Inc. considered ways to make it more accessible to blind users. For example, carving the site into a greater number of headings like "Entertainment" and "Sports" makes it easier for a visually impaired browser to navigate the site because the headings serve as built-in hooks.

There are roughly 10 million blind or visually impaired Americans, according to the American Foundation for the Blind, a New-York based advocacy group. The group estimates that roughly 1.5 million people who have difficulty seeing print even with glasses have access to the Internet but only about 200,000 who cannot see print at all have access. The numbers are expected to grow as technology improves and Internet companies offer new services.

Blind Web users have software that offers verbal descriptions of what appears on the screen, and allows them to move from heading to heading with keyboard shortcut keys and arrows. A blind person who visited, for example, would hear the different headings like "News" or "Movies" spoken and could transition to the next heading by hitting the "H" key. Such assistive technology can be pricey. A popular variety, Freedom Scientific Inc.'s JAWS for Windows, costs around $1,000. Another tool, a refreshable Braille display that translates a description of what is on the screen into Braille on a device that resembles a keyboard, can run from $1,400 to $7,000.

Unless accompanied by alternative text, code embedded beneath a graphic, photos and video are incomprehensible to a screen reader and its user. Kathy Brack, a 55-year-old blind Internet user, was recently shopping online at for a bathrobe and slippers but got stuck when she couldn't get any verbal information on the products. To ensure that she had landed on the style and color she wanted, Ms. Brack, of Raleigh, N.C., had to ask someone to describe them. "Online shopping sites are terribly inaccessible," she says. "I often have no idea what the product looks like."

Currently, no federal law requires all Web sites to be accessible to the blind or to those with other physical disabilities. Existing guidelines that apply to technology procured by a federal agency including Web sites under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act are about to undergo revision by a federal advisory committee. The committee is likely to look into issues like establishing new guidelines for Internet-based phone applications, multimedia and Webcasts.


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