Web advances can create obstacles for disabled
Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
WESTFORD, Mass. — Cynthia Ice is blind and lives in the suburbs, so shopping on the Internet can make her routine easier. But it also leads her into odd dead ends — like the time a technical shift in a Web grocery site made its meat department inaccessible to her screen-reading software.
"Everybody could go on the Atkins diet but me," she joked.
Such troubles are especially common for computer users with disabilities as the Web takes on many features that make sites appear more like dynamic programs than static documents.
While that design trend gives many people more engaging Web experiences, good old static documents can be much easier for screen-reading software to decipher and narrate to the blind. Such software has trouble interpreting newer "Web 2.0" features, such as text that pops up without a mouse click, or data that automatically update in real time.
"The new technology being implemented poses even more of a threat to the small accessibility wins we have made," Steven Tyler, who heads disability access services at Britain's Royal National Institute for the Blind, wrote in an e-mail. "Around 80 percent of Web sites we estimate as having accessibility problems, some considerable."
However, progress is being made on programming hooks that would help screen-reading tools grasp the new Web's advanced layers of content.
Web architects at IBM Corp. have been laboring on a system called iAccessible2 that addresses some common scenarios bedeviling screen-reading software.
For example, consider software "trees" where clicking on little plus or minus signs in boxes expands data or rolls it up. To the ears of someone using screen-reading software, the setup can present a hard-to-visualize jumble.
To deal with this, iAccessible2 makes it possible for a blind user to be told where text on the screen lies in the tree. A bit of text might be the second item on a list of five, for example, at a "depth" of two — meaning it required a click to be revealed.
Aspects of iAccessible2 are being integrated into the open-source Firefox Web browser. The technology also is entering IBM's Lotus and Workplace office-productivity programs. Ice, 48, who has been blind for 20 years because of diabetes, helps lead the effort in Lotus.
A longer-term goal is to make it easier for blind people to deal with Web pages that offer complicated stews of changing information.
IBM Web architect Aaron Leventhal pointed to basketball box scores that dynamically update dozens of statistics as a game progresses. A sighted person easily can zero in on the most vital information — the game score — and glance only occasionally at unfolding data of lesser importance, such as free-throw percentages.
But how can a screen-reading program know to utter only certain stats as they are updated and not every single one?
Leventhal and colleagues believe one answer is to encode parts of a Web page — in this case, certain statistics — as "rude," "assertive" and "polite." Screen-reading software could be programmed to vocalize "polite" information anytime and the "assertive" data less frequently.
This concept is still in development, but Leventhal hopes it becomes part of Web production tools so site designers bake it in as they create pages.
"We don't want accessibility to be the thing that limits what people can do on their Web sites," Leventhal said. "We're not trying to slow down the world. We're trying to say, take accessibility into account."
For Web designers, more foresight surrounding inclusiveness could become crucial to their business, as the aging baby boomer population requires more assistance.
Already, Target Corp.'s Web site is the subject of a closely watched federal lawsuit testing whether the Internet falls under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
While much of iAccessible2 is geared toward blind people's navigation of the Web, it also is aimed at desktop software — including open-source programs that are alternatives to Microsoft Corp.'s dominant Windows and Office products.
Because of Microsoft's enormous market share, makers of assistive add-on software have devoted most of their resources to ensuring compatibility with Windows and Office. As a result, software outside that fold is often troublesome for blind people.
Screen-readers' access to Microsoft programs relies on the company's Accessibility Architecture, a programming system invented a decade ago. IAccessible2 is essentially an update of it. Meanwhile, Microsoft has spent the past few years honing a new approach it believes will be more powerful.
Generally, Web sites have had to inform assistive technologies which specific controls or inputs they were using. That's why advanced Web sites with "slider bars" and other dynamic functions can befuddle screen readers — essentially, the assistive programs hadn't been told they might encounter those particular Web environments.
The fix has generally been to constantly update the list of functions that assistive technologies would encounter, and add the necessary programming links. But under Microsoft's new system, known as User Interface Automation, Web and application designers don't have to label the names of each function. Instead they select from a list of 18 criteria to describe what each function does — it pulls down a menu, for example, or it makes text expand.
This way, screen readers react to the behavior of a particular function on the Web and not whatever label it happened to get in the programming code.
"It lets them deal with controls that have yet to be invented," said Rob Sinclair, who heads Microsoft's assistive technologies group. The process no longer has to be "a continual maintenance nightmare."
For now, programmers and assistive technology vendors still have to figure out how to incorporate User Interface Automation with other technologies, including iAccessible2. However, Doug Geoffray, vice president of development of GW Micro Inc., a maker of software for the blind, said his field always expects such complexities.
"It's a never-ending battle," he said.
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