The sad state of accessibility for the blind

There is nothing like serving one of your own to draw attention to a neglected issue. I have spent a lot of frustrating time in the last few weeks investigating accessibility in news web sites for our school counselor, who cannot see. George is a whiz with email, but he has never surfed the web due to the frustrations of getting around. What sighted people take for granted — quickly scanning a page for important visual items — is a completely different experience with a screen reader. George’s program, JAWS, works sequentially from the top-left of a page, which means that it often gets stuck in dozens of links on a page before reaching any useful content at all.

The technology needed to make web sites accessible to George is extremely easy to implement. Simple alt key shortcuts can be implemented on any link. Although the W3C standards include detailed provisions for accessibility, they do not mandate the use of alt key shortcuts, perhaps because they were not in regular use when the standards were first written. In the absence of clear standards, a number of universities in the U.K. publish accessibility guides for their sites, in which they list the alt key shortcuts they have decided to use. No so for U.S. news sites.

One theory out there is that web site developers have been quick to hop on new technologies, such as popup menus, Flash content, and AJAX layers. However, there seems to be a pretty high level of disinterest at play when the New York Times web site does not publish an easy-to-find accessibility guide or use alt key shortcuts. Making sites accessible to the vision impaired does not seem to make the feature list for most major sites.

Yahoo! news for PDA
Yahoo! News for PDA

Fortunately, my search for accessible online news sites ended with a small silver lining. I recall learning a little bit about PDA formatted web sites a few years ago, so I tried to search for PDA versions of popular web sites. These days, these sites are pretty well-hidden from the regular web browser. The Blackberry site does not return a HTTP response. The New York Times site requires TimesSelect login. Fortunately, both Yahoo! and Google news sites work. The Yahoo! site seems the better of the two, storing articles within the site and presenting numbered alt keys that are easy to use.

Another upshot of this experience is that I am going to ensure the accessibility of our Catlin Gabel web site when we redesign its architecture and technology this summer. When you store all your content within a database, it is simple and imperative to provide an accessible formatting option. Even better than allowing visually impaired users to jump over the navigation, why not present a text-only layout with most of the navigation at the bottom. Other options exist as well, such as using div tags to change the order in which screen elements are read. We will learn more about these when we reach the development phase of this project.

Related articles:

Blind Surfers Sue For Accessibility (Oct 2006)

Web News Still Fails Blind Users (Sep 2001)

One comment

  1. Patrick Wendell says:

    A blind Google employee created <a href="…">this search</a> as a pet project. Last summer Google launched it to the public. It uses a number of factors to rank pages "accessibility".