Originally created 09/13/98

Screen readers help open the Net to the blind



Try using your computer without a monitor.

If you're feeling adventurous, get rid of the mouse, too.

Now you know the first problem that blind Internet users face. The other problem is caused by Web designers.

Trying to make their pages more attractive to sighted Web surfers, designers often create complicated Web pages that confound screen readers used by people who are blind.

"Reading sites on the Internet is the toughest part about learning the computer," said Donna Adams, a vocational rehabilitation teacher with the Connecticut Board of Education's services for the blind, who is blind herself.

People who are blind use computers and the Internet the same way sighted people do, but they are unable to use the visual parts of a computer, such as a monitor and a mouse. While special software helps, they still have to struggle to navigate online.

A screen reader is software used by the computer to read the text of a Web page aloud. People who are blind can't read a Web page directly, but they can have their computer read it to them.

Most blind users have normal, off-the-shelf computers. When a blind computer user turns on the computer, the screen reader will, on command, read off the names of the available files and programs.

A Web browser can be started by using keyboard commands. Most computers can be run entirely from the keyboard. To print, for example, one could press the control and P buttons.

Once the Web browser is running, the screen reader will read the text of the page aloud. A link, which sends the browser to another Web page, usually is underlined and in a different color from the rest of the text. Because a blind person cannot see a link, a screen reader will identify the links by saying where they begin and end when reading the text.

Pressing the tab button selects links and jumps from link to link. After selecting a link, some blind computer users listen for the sound of the hard drive spinning to find out if the page is loading.

Most screen-reading software also can read the name of the Web page or file that's open and any dialogue boxes that pop up, so a blind computer user does not get lost.

One of the more popular screen readers is called JAWS, and its maker, a company called Henter Joyce, says about 20,000 copies have been sold.

But screen readers do have some limitations, especially on the Web.

"The toughest thing that I've run into is Web sites that are almost all graphics," said Steve Kellar, a legally blind radio broadcaster.

Of course, people who are blind can't see pictures on Internet pages, so they can't access any of the information the pictures contain.

"I tried to look up the weather on a Tampa Bay TV station's Web site, and the forecasts were all in satellite images," Adams said. "I couldn't read any of it."

The latest version of HTML, the language used to build Web pages, includes a few features that should make life easier for blind Web surfers. The most important is "cascading style sheets," a feature that allows Web designers to make text look exactly the way they want it to. A company's logo, for example, has to look a certain way, be a certain color, in a certain typeface, spaced a certain way.

Previously, designers would put the text in an image file to control how text looked. But screen readers can't "read" the shapes in these pictures, even if they resemble letters. Now designers do not have to use images to manipulate text; they can use style sheets.

And screen readers can read text in a style sheet, so people who are blind can access the page.

Of course, style sheets only address graphics. And they are so new that they are not in common use yet. For everything else, there is Bobby.

"Bobby" (think British police) is free software available on the Internet that will scan a Web page to find out how friendly the page is to people with disabilities. It then rates the page using a five-star system.

David Clark, a member of the team that designed the Bobby software, said "Bobby is there to provide a sort of consultation on Web design" for the blind and handicapped.

If the software gives the page a good rating, that site can display a "Bobby Approved" logo. Clark says about 3 million pages are reviewed by Bobby each month, and about 650 sites carry the logo.

The software, and an online version, is available free at http:www.cast.org/bobby.

Even if they don't use Bobby or the new revision of the HTML language, Web designers can still make their pages more accessible to people who are blind by doing a few small things.

Including short descriptions of images allows screen readers to describe them to blind Web surfers. Web designers use ALT tags to include this information, but many designers are unaware of the tags or don't take the time to fill them out.

Simple page layouts, avoiding tables, will ensure that all screen readers can actually read a Web page. Tables are another kind of HTML tag that allows several columns of text or pictures to be arranged on a Web page. Because screen readers read from left to right across the entire screen, they skip from column to column, reading the lines of text out of order.

Web designers, however, say they need some complexity to make pages look good.

"You can't design any kind of an elegant Web page without tables," said Kevin Saundry, director of sales and marketing for NetaWeb Internet, a Connecticut Web design and hosting company. "It would be like trying to design a newspaper without columns."

Saundry said he supports accessibility for the blind but has seen very little written about it.

"I think sometimes Web designers want to show off," said Chauncy Rucker, director of the A.J. Pappanikou Center's technology lab. The lab, situated at the University of Connecticut, provides technology for the disabled, including the blind. "They want to have all of the bells and whistles.

"Good Web design may not be the most glitzy," Rucker said. "Good Web design gets the message across. You can have a very simple page that gets the message across."

(Optional add end)

Although designers can create a second, less visually complicated version of their page specifically for visually impaired or handicapped Web surfers, that rarely happens.

"It's an issue of expense," said Matt Straznitskas, president of BrainBug, a Hartford, Conn., Web design and marketing company. "Most clients are not likely to want to pay to build a site for the blind."

Brian Sigman, with the Connecticut Board of Education's services for the blind, said Internet use by people who are blind has increased recently. "In the last year or so, there has been an explosion, I'd say about threefold, of blind people using the Web. I think that as the general population discovered the Internet, so did the blind community."