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.