Web accessibility still lags

by Beacon Staff • December 12, 2007

In the information age, such gadgets are indispensable, and being connected is essential to success.,If a college student were asked to pack all his or her essentials into a single bag before moving to a deserted island, it would not be surprising to find a laptop or a cell phone nestled cozily between pajamas and a favorite sweatshirt.

In the information age, such gadgets are indispensable, and being connected is essential to success.

The Internet realm continues to lag behind on accessibility to the disabled, despite vast improvements in other facets of society in the past two decades. This remains detrimental to several groups, including the visually impaired.

Two popular social networking sites, Facebook and MySpace, are particularly difficult for the blind to navigate. Registering with these sites without sighted assistance is virtually impossible.

At the end of the registration process, the sites display CAPTCHAs: blurry, distorted graphics of letters and numbers designed to prevent automated registration and to ensure the person signing up is in fact a human. Users are asked to decode a sequence from the graphics and type it into a textbox.

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, sites like Google and AOL provide audio verification as an alternative to the visual CAPTCHA. The audio alternative still fulfills the functional purpose of these measures: preventing machines from registering to a Web site.

But problems persist beyond registration. In February 2006, The National Federation of the Blind sued Target Corp., claiming the retailer's Web site was incompatible with screen-reading software. The court ruled in favor of the NFB in October, based on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires retailers to make their services completely accessible.

Target reportedly made alterations to its Web pages which now allow the blind to make use of it independently. As reported in USA Today, NFB president Marc Maurer said he hopes this ruling will serve as a "wake-up call for other retailers" so they can make their sites more user-friendly for the 1.5 million American computer users who are blind.

Other disabled Internet users, such as those who are paralyzed or have muscular dystrophy, also have an interest in the issue. Most sites require the use of a mouse, and are unnavigable with alternative devices like a Head Stick or speech-recognition technology. The use of pop-up ads and MacroMedia Flash technology can make navigation of Web pages even more laborious for these users.

The owners of these sites are not only acting against the rights of disabled Americans, but are also alienating patrons through calloused lack of concern.

By making their domains accessible, they gain as much as their disabled viewers. According to the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Guidelines, making a site accessible is relatively inexpensive. There are several simple software packages that can be obtained by Web masters to check for inaccessibility and make the necessary repairs to a Web page when possible, according to the consortium.

The National Association of Blind Students has offered the designers of Facebook and MySpace advice on how to make their sites easier to use by the disabled.

The sites, however, have not taken the offer, according to transcripts of the NABS listserv from 2006. Perhaps designers want their pages to be aesthetically appealing, but they should also be inclusive.

Anyone, regardless of disability, has the right to use the Internet. Access to information and communication is too essential to exclude from segments of the population.

A simple way to ensure universal Internet access is to remove clutter by labeling links without fancy graphics offering alternative versions of Web pages without these visuals. And, when a secured registration system is needed, sites should enable an audio alternative to CAPTCHAs.

In a world that relies heavily on the Internet for everything from social networking to academic research to shopping, the disabled are being marginalized. They simply strive to function normally in modern society.

Unlike the struggles of oppressed groups in America's less progressive past, this right should be granted without a momentous fight.