Web Access Questions and My Current Ennui

Previously in Blind Confidential, I have discussed the differences in opinion between those of us who lost our vision later in life and those who have been blind since birth.  People around my age (mid-40s), who lost their vision in the past decade, like me, struggle with the things we lost while those blind from birth see the tremendous advancements over the past 25 years and tend toward a more optimistic view of technical progress.

I spend a lot of time reading about new technologies and inventions of all sorts.  My sources range from the densely academic to the industry rags and newspapers written for the not so technically inclined.  Yesterday afternoon, I spoke with a blind friend and the topic of our conversation came to my personal frustration, anger and depression.  Often, readers of BC point out that a piece I wrote sounded especially angry, hopeless or sad.  Without going into the cognitive psychological or sociological framework for why I feel the way I do sometimes, I’ll leave the staff of mental health professionals I keep around me to help me remain relatively sane out of this conversation and jump straight to what I believe to be the source of my frequent negativity.  Specifically, I know and understand enough about current technology and about audio and tactile user interfaces to know what, using technology that one can find in Radio Shack, Circuit City, Best Buy, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and other very mainstream stores, could become possible for people with vision impairments.

Since the day I joined Henter-Joyce, a little over eight years ago, I have taken it upon myself to learn as much as possible about this subject and to try to bring it to market.  Today, feeling particularly sad about things, I feel that my personal mission will never succeed.  The reality is that the technology exists today but I, along with my revolutionary comrades, cannot even scratch the surface of all that can and should be done as we are simply too few and too poorly funded.  To make matters worse, the more well funded refuse to make the investments necessary to really exploit the current technology, let alone start looking closely at the inventions currently still in the laboratory and discover how they might be used to improve technology for people with vision impairment.  

When I walk through a consumer electronics store, I hear a ton of gadgets that I know can be used in ways to further the state of the art of technology for people like us – I also know that no one is willing to invest the dollars into technology transfer to do more than scratch the surface.  We blinks are simply not the profit center that the super hip kids who buy portable media players are.  Their frivolous technology contains the components which can provide blinks with major advances but, alas, they will reside in the iPod and not in the BrailleNote or PAC Mate.

Web accessibility, in general, can be described as virtually done science.  The WAI guidelines are a number of years old, JAWS, Window-Eyes and Freedom Box, System Access and every other screen reader I can think of does a relatively good job of delivering reasonably accessible content.  Why then are we still asking the question about whether or not blind people have the “right” to an accessible web?  As I see things, inaccessible web sites are the “whites only” signs of the 21st century and, having had heated debates with sighted webmasters about their refusal to make their site accessible and watching the Bush administration discrimination division of Senor “Torture Memo” Gonzalez’s Attorney General’s office remain silent on the matter, I feel even more like we, as people with disabilities, don’t receive our due process under the law.  If Justice is blind, she probably doesn’t care much about web surfing.

Yesterday, I received from Blind News, a story from the New York Times titled, “Do the Rights of the Disabled Extend to the Blind on the Web?”  The insult to our population is contained in the headline; it is in the interrogative form, thus, the New York Times, our nation’s bird cage liner of record, still considers this issue to be a question.  So much for the liberal media loving us minorities.

“The National Federation of the Blind sued Target, contending that the company’s inaction violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because the Web site is essentially an extension of its other public accommodations, and as such, should be easily accessible to people with disabilities,” says the article.  As often is the case, I’m happy to see the NFB taking the lead on such an important matter.

Of course, “A Target spokeswoman would not comment on those assertions, but in court the company offered testimony from three blind users rebutting the federation’s arguments.”  Who are these house blinks?  Were they the  three blind mice of the famous song?   Are these people simply self hating or did they get paid for their sell out of our rights?

The article continues, “On Sept. 6, a federal judge in California held, in a preliminary ruling on the suit, that in some instances, Web sites must cater to disabled people.”  Which instances does the judge include in the definition of some?  The ADA is specific that it applies to all places of public accommodation so what part of “all” does this judge seem to believe actually means some?  Law is a system of language and linguists and lawyers often have very interesting conversations; I am quite confident, however, that both groups accept the relatively obvious differences between some and all.  This judge must be a bit deficient in her vocabulary if he fails to distinguish between two words that chimpanzees use in sign language.

Ah, the article offers a bit of explanation, “In denying Target’s motion to dismiss the suit two months ago, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel of United States District Court in San Francisco held that the law’s accessibility requirements applied to all services offered by a place of public accommodation. Since Target’s physical stores are places of public accommodation, the ruling said, its online store must also be accessible or the company must offer equally effective alternatives.”  Why isn’t a web site itself a “place of public accommodation,” I wonder?

The article discusses amazon.com and other companies with a web only presence but suggests that no one actually knows the answer.  It also asks whether or not a telephone customer service center is a reasonably replacement for a web site.  Of course, if I called Amazon to find a copy of Chomsky’s latest book and asked, “I’m looking for a book by that radical MIT professor who teaches about language but writes about politics, do you have it?”  The minimum wage lunkhead answering the phone would say, “Huh?” while a search including some of the terms in that question would lead me to Professor Chomsky and his book “Failed States.”

The article also mentions the pathetic attempt Amazon made at a text only site for people with disabilities.  I will remind Amazon of Thurgood Marshall’s statement that “separate but equal isn’t.”  The text only version of the site is missing many features of the main site and is slower to use with a screen reader than is their reasonably accessible main site.  A text only site with limited functionality is not an accessible solution but, rather, a ghetto into which we can be driven.

Without a footnote, the article says, “Most online stores go to great lengths to make sure that their sites are accessible to people with disabilities, simply because it is good business to allow as many people as possible to shop. And online-shopping technology specialists say it is not so difficult or costly a task.”  While I agree that many sites have improved quite a bit in the past few years, I wouldn’t go so far as to say “most” sites have made said improvements.  I would point to the study performed earlier this year by the British that said that 90% of all English language web sites contained one to many accessibility problems.  Thus, if nine out of ten have “some to many” issues, I think the Times has an odd definition of the word most.

The article continues with a quote, “’It’s very straightforward to make a site accessible,’ said Dayna Bateman, senior information architect at Fry Inc., which operates e-commerce Web sites on behalf of large retailers including Brookstone, Eddie Bauer and Spiegel.

“Ms. Bateman said that the more software coding a Web site could offer to help screen readers and other technologies navigate a site, the more likely it was that the Web site would show up on search engine results, because Google, Yahoo and others looked to the same coding for clues about the Web page’s content.”  While I didn’t know this about search engines, it certainly makes sense and is yet another reason we can give webmasters who don’t want to make their sites compliant to do so.

The article, which I recommend you read in its entirety, concludes with a few paragraphs about online education which, because it now can get Federal funds, must comply with both ADA and 508, need desperately to become accessible.  Oddly, though, it says that screen readers don’t work well with chat programs which is a myth.  Maybe five or six year old screen readers don’t work well with some chat programs and maybe some current chat programs are inaccessible but, like text only sites, dumbing down the technology is not the appropriate solution to accessibility problems.

The solution, as I started today’s article, is innovation and technology transfer.  There are literally thousands of useful inventions that with a reasonable investment can be turned into access tools.  There is no reason that any web site or technology remains inaccessible today other than a lack of will on the part of the people with the cash to pay people to do the work.  Give me four days of the war budget and I’ll give millions of blind people access that they can’t even imagine today.



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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

5 thoughts on “Web Access Questions and My Current Ennui”

  1. I agree. With today’s technology the way it is, I think we are going to see a future full of great advances. JAWS, for example, has really seen wonderful progress over the years. I’ve been keeping my ears (and eyes) peeled for version 8.0 . BTW, I did something this morning which I had never done before in all my years of voting. I voted with an audio ballot and it felt really great! However, there was only one like it in the whole polling place. This machine had Braille on it too which I found very helpful. Before I go I want to mention one other thing. If audio and Braille ballots and ATM’s are becoming more and more popular these days, then why aren’t accessible pedestrian signals and truncated domes? I guess that question is best answered by a certain organization that embraces the myth that we who take advantage of such accommodations are only hurting ourselves. My question is this. How exactly are we hurting ourselves? I don’t get it.

  2. Great post — I’m the Sr Info Architect who was quoted in the piece and I did take exception to the statement that the article made that “most online stores go out of their way to make sure their sites are accessible” — frankly, in my experience, they don’t. And it’s a shame, because so many of the tactics required to make screen reading easier are simple to implement if they’re considered during production. (Not to mention a dozen other techniques designed to accommodate other disabilities.)

    Re the Market advantages: Google favors pages that carry highly relevant keywords — and in tests that we’ve run we’ve seen that the alt tags that screen readers rely on also count toward those keywords — although this could change at a moment’s notice, of course, because Google changes their search algorithm at their whim — but for now it works.

    For what it’s worth, many usability professionals are sympathetic to accessibility concerns and are promoting Section 508 and WAI guidelines at a grassroots level — we can only hope that the Target lawsuit will make more senior executives (who control the purse strings) sensitive to this topic as well.

    Thanks for posting — keep on keepin’ on.

  3. Hey BC:

    We are all tired of banging our heads against the wall. I do believe however you are kinda looking at the glass as half empty. Yes, we still have a long way to go before we live in an accessible world, however, We have come a long way as well.

    We are a minority but, this is about to change in the next few years as the world grows older and people continue to put crap in our bodies making us sick. That sickness will translate in to the largest number of blind people ever to hit the world at one time. I like you think the world should be a more accessible place and I don’t believe companies need to brake the bank to do it. What I do believe is that we as blind people need to get up off our buts, open our mouths, email clients, note takers, what ever, and say “NO! We will not buy this or that if you do not make your product or service accessible.

    We as a community are just use to having stuff done for us. That needs to end! We need to understand that if we want to be heard we need to speak out. Accessibility makes business sense. I get so angry when ever I hear about a company that has included accessibility because some leader or relative of that leader, in the company, has become blind. Now reality strikes close to home. Well I have news for every single sighted person that comes upon this blog while Googling or what ever way you got here. You have a 33% chance of becoming totally blind if you live past the age of 60. You better fix the problem now while you have sight. Even with all the advances in medical technology, will you be able to pay for that opperation?

    Now back to our community. We need to stand up. There are several people in our community that stand up and speak what’s really going on. We have seen that speaking out taking root and resulting in many changes. Companies like Freedom Scientific and GW Micro, that have spent thousands of man-hours and dollars to educate mainstream companies. Hundreds of public not for profit organizations that were created to educate. This is all important. But, the bottom line and the only language a business understands is the bottom line. We need to start making cases about business sense of accessibility. We need to prove that we as a group can make a difference in the numbers of a mainstream company if we use a particular service. We need to post a way of letting the community and the companies that what our business, whom we like and don’t like. Not just for blind people but people with many different types of disabilities. Remember many of the accessibility features we need to have to be able to work are just better for the mainstream. I mean how many devices don’t talk now a days?

    BC money talks and the rest walks! Right? Let’s stop asking for accessibility because it’s the right thing to do or the dam law. When was the last time that the law helped you? The bottom line is that we are a minority. Get use to it Blind Person. So what! I am blind and Cuban that’s a double minority. That’s totally okay. Because I know that minorities that stand up for themselves in this country are heard. I just haven’t seen any minority make it that has stood on the normal 20% of the people do 80% of the work. It needs to be 100% of the people. Those of us that can’t use the web to have our voices heard need to find a blind person that will write in our name for us.

    Yes the cost of AT needs to come down but Serotek and IBM and others before us have provided low cost AT. If no one uses the AT then what good is it even if it’s free. Blind folks need to stop the pitty party and use the tools available to them to move ahead as a functional community that contributes to the world not only takes from it. We need to educate by example.

    We need more blind owned businesses. We need to stop brown nosing for entry level mainstream jobs with no upside. We need blind business owners that then employ blind people. Serotek is one of the only blind owned and run companies left in this industry. What’s up with that people? Don’t blame it on Ted Henter and others that have moved on, and say they abanded us. They are not our savier. They spent years in the foxholes fighting for our cause. They did their part and they got their pay day, but, where are all the current blind innovators? I know so many blind folks that would be rolling in money if they simply stopped griping and started working. Speaking the problem and not even lifting a finger to provide a solution is just bitching! This doesn’t include you BC because we are all aware of your current situation. Now before you get angry at me for writing this stuff let me just say that I know that many that red this blog don’t fall in to this catagory. So if the shoe fits then put it on and if it doesn’t help me spread the wakeup call to our other brothers and sisters in the community.

    I am not a programmer. I am a drop out of high school with a less than perfect background. Yet Serotek is one of the leading companies in this industry. Not because I am so dam smart but because I woke up one day pissed off about my situation as a blind person and instead of continuing down the self destructive path I was on, I decided to do something about it. I started this company with lots of dreams, prayers, and about $20 to host a website I built using one of those stupid website wizards. I then started looking around for others I could convince to go down my yellow brick road. We will be 5 years old in February. I love what I do and I see where we are making a difference in people’s lives. You know what BC? I am actually making money and feeding my 5 kids!

    The answer is oh so simple. Let’s get up off our collective buts! Let’s do for ourselves! Let’s tell those that don’t want our business that we’ll go elsewhere. I recently purchased a Pioneer amplifier for my home theater system. I was quite upset that I wasn’t able to find a PDF version of the manual. Pioneer wrote me an email stating that a paper manual was the only thing available for this product. Below is my answer.

    Mike Calvo
    Re: Hook up and Operation|A00001|3219473300 [#1068056]
    Hello Lisa:
    Thanks for getting back to me. I must say I am quite upset with your answer. I have the paper manual and can’t read it because I am blind. I find it quite irresponsible of Pioneer to not provide an electronic version of the manual. I am blind and have no way of reading the paper manual. Why is it that a PDF is not available of this manual? Other of your products have PDF manuals. What set this unit apart? In the future when purchasing any Pioneer product I will first look if a PDF version of the manual is available. If not then I Will look for a company that wants my business and will produce such a manual. I will also post my findings in as many blindness related web forums on accessibility I can find. There is simply no excuse to not provide this manual in a PDF. I know that it wasn’t produced on a typewriter so an electronic version must be in someone’s computer. Again shame on Pioneer!

    Mike calvo

    RE:Hook up and Operation|A00001|3219473300 [#1068056]
    Thank you Mike Calvo for contacting Pioneer Electronics Service, Inc. We do not have a pdf file to download these manual. Paper only. The part number(s) you requested are as follows:
    Parts No Description Unit Cost(plus s/h)
    ARB7288 OWNERS MANUAL $ 6.57
    VRB1313 OWNERS MANUAL $ 7.27
    The price(s) quoted above are valid for 30 days.
    You may order on-line at http://parts.pioneerelectronics.com
    You may place an order with a Visa or Master Card by calling our Parts Department at 1(800) 228-7221. Please reference the part number(s) provided above when calling.
    Our Parts Department is open Monday through Friday between the hours of 6:00am and 4:30pm PST.
    Thank You,
    Parts Sales Representative
    –Original Message–
    Date: 11/04/06
    To: customer.support@pioneerservice.com
    Subject: Hook up and Operation|A00001|3219473300[#1068056]

    Inquiry Type:Hook up and Operation
    I am blind and I am trying to set up a EX-500. I can’t find a copy of the manual online. Can you send me one or point me at the download? The main thing I am looking for is the layout of the speaker inputs.

    I don’t post this to impress people as to what a hardass I am on product and service providers but to show how enough of emails, letters, and phone calls like this will make a difference. Not like Amazon that simply took a PDA site, put the word blind on it, and tried to sell it as accessible. But, a company that has really understood that we are a market. After the email to customer service I actually got every document that accompanies my amp in a PDF format within 24 hours. Saying our market is small and doesn’t matter is just not true. There are millions of us. How many people reading this blog wouldn’t like to sell one of anything to every member of the blind community. Not just here in the US but all over the world! That’s just today. In the next few years, as the world gets older, millions more blind people will come on to the seen.

    So in closing: BC I agree that the world wasn’t made for us and it’s a real problem. But, people like you and others that have taken up the cry will prevail. Keep up the fight dude!


  4. I have also experienced many website owners who care and who just want to do the right thing for their customers with print disabilities. Let me give just a few examples. First off, there is the online grocery service known as Peapod. When I first moved into this apartment I was contacted by somebody at Peapod wanting to know how they could go about making their website accessible to screen readers such as myself. This person had been given my name by the exec director of an organization which I will get to in a moment. He asked me to come out to Peapod HQ to meet with him. So I went out there with a life-skills tutor who was working with me at the time. The guy from Peapod had a version of JFW running on his computer, and he got it going and we talked. I took him through several drills, and I explained to him what in essence makes a website screen reader friendly. My tutor had never seen JAWS on the web so she was very interested too. I am happy to report that the Peapod website is now much more accessible than it originally was. There’s still work to be done but I think my in-person and email correspondences helped. I haven’t used Peapod for my grocery shopping in a while though, because my roommate tried to set up his own account and it screwed things up. We were told by various Peapod representatives that there can only be one account per household. Something sounds rather strange there, but we’re moving on. The website is http://www.peapod.com if anyone wishes to check it out though. The next example I have is http://www.independentfutures.com . This is the website of Center for Independent Futures, a nonprofit organization that assists in finding living options for people with disabilities. Not too long ago a former staff member of this organization contacted me and wanted to know what to do to make their website screen reader friendly. So I had her over to my apartment and I showed her several websites, some which work well with JAWS and some that do not. I explained to her what needed to be done, and she took down the information and gave it to their webmaster. A little while later she emailed me back and asked me to go to their website and see what I thought. This website does contain several pdf documents, and at the time I was having trouble setting them up to work with JAWS. I know how to do it now and those documents work very well with JAWS. The website for Center for Independent Futures is now a lot more accessible. As with Peapod.com there is still work to be done, but I’m glad I was able to help. I also helped to make http://www.naturalties.org more accessible, and I have been in contact with a few other people who want to know the ins and outs of JAWS. http://www.naturalties.org was taken down though because the organization went belly-up.

  5. Howdy comrades!
    Last Resort Rehab Center sponsored an outing to Sixth Street last night, and I took the liberty of sneaking home to check BC. Don’t forget Malist principle # 123: power comes from the pointer of a mouse or the equivalent keyboard command. Consequently, BC is not powerless. We are changing what it means to be blind in ways never dreamed of by our predecessors. Just check out some of what’s going on at the Jernigan Institute in Baltimore. Furthermore, baby boomers stand to inherit some two trillion bucks in the next couple of decades, and the demand for inclusive tech will be vastly more attractive to nimble post-capitalist companies who recognize the need and realize the market is enormous in scale. Don’t give up, BC: We’ve turned a big corner tonight by removing the bloated Republicans from their legislative monopoly. We are poised to achieve the blind revolution, and I guarantee it will happen far sooner than you expect at the moment. Regards, Chairman Mal: Power to the peeps!
    PS: Please don’t mention the trillions of bucks we boomers will soon acquire to the Comrade Mother and colonel No. They get touchy about this subject.

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