The Internet is maddening for the blind

There's a fascinating article over at Computer World about the difficulty the blind have using the Internet as web site design becomes increasingly sophisticated and image based. This is certainly enough to make me feel guilty about never bothering to fill in my ALT tags:
"It can take a while to wade through a strange site -- it can be maddening," complained Jay Leventhal, who is blind and serves as editor of AccessWorld Magazine, produced by the American Foundation for the Blind in New York. "Sometimes you find what you want to buy, but then you can't find the submit button. It seems to literally not be there. A skilled [blind] user can navigate a majority of the sites on the Web these days, but you have to master certain tricks, like jumping from header to header in order to skip over a lot of junk, and use the search function to get the information you want. An average user can struggle for a long time looking for something and will even struggle on a familiar site."
Staying offline is just as bad, with most blind computer users looking wistfully back to the days of DOS, when information was presented more simply: more textual than symbolic. Blind users still struggle with 'maddening' computing obstacles [Computer World]
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13 Responses to The Internet is maddening for the blind

  1. mujadaddy says:

    I’d love to fill in my alt tags. My marketing team, however, doesn’t provide them (or understand what they are, really).

  2. KurtMac says:

    @11: Thanks for the update. By the time anything anything happens in the suit, Target will probably have redesigned their site three more times.

    If anything does come of suits like this, we may be looking at amendments to the Disabilities Act to include public digital spaces as well. Brick & Mortar stores are required to provide wheelchair accessible entrances, why not their web counterparts too?

    A lot, I think, has to do with the lack of education of accessible web development to students in colleges and design schools. All of the colleges and universities I’ve attended or researched had “web design” courses, but they mentioned nothing of semantics and accessibility. Heck, most of them still taught Dreamweaver and ImageReady WYSIWYG design.

  3. KurtMac says:

    In February 2006 blind users sued Target for site inaccessibility. They wanted to buy stuff from the site, but couldn’t because it is completely image based and their screen-readers can’t help them find anything. I’m not sure the outcome of that suit, but it certainly shows how this is getting to be a bigger issue.

    Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, “accessibility” and “semantics” in HTML web design have been very hot topics. Unfortunately, there are still a lot, a majority it seems, of designers creating non-accessible sites, and the clients who the sites are built for don’t know any better.

  4. Nelson.C says:

    You know, I don’t think there is a nice way to read that, Knifie.

  5. technogeek says:

    The original intent of HTML was that people would do semantically meaningful markup, and all the prettifying would be done at the time the page was rendered… with the user selecting the rendering that suited their needs.

    Then people started making their websites pretty at the expense of meaningful, and this ideal was lost. Then Flash and the like came along and trashed the idea completely.

    I’m still a firm believe that a general-access website starts with meaningful text, with the rendering left as free as possible. If it doesn’t go through BOBBY or another accessibility checker without complaints, it’s wrong. If it doesn’t display usably in a VGA-or-smaller window, it’s wrong. Keep the markup simple and meaningful, and offer users the _option_ of styling it into something fancier if they so choose.

  6. Chancey says:

    @12: That’s a good observation. The Americans with Disabilities Act, for one, came into being in 1992. It’s got a lot of vague language even before one considers how little anyone was thinking about Internet “storefronts” at the time. Whether or not it covers virtual spaces under its requirement that public accomodations be made accessible is a question left to judges until precedent has been set; and, unfortunately in this category of complaint as with many others pursuant to the ADA, judges have tended to go with narrow interpretations that find for defendants.

    I think California has some consumer protection that specifically covers accessibility of online businesses; anyone know more about this?

  7. Rocketpilot says:

    Chris@6, well, a lot of things that people think are good for ALT text actually aren’t. I’d say your boss actually made the right call in the specific example of the logo.

    Also,images that are purely decorative and have no inherent semantic meaning – which means 90% of most corporate websites’ photography – should be represented with an empty ALT attribute.

    People like Knifie are pretty good evidence that there needs to be stronger legislation to improve accessibility.

    You know what, Knifie? Your own pure self interest should direct you to building websites that support blind users. After all, from a website’s point of view (so to speak), what is a search engine other than a blind user? Enjoy your lost revenue from blocking out Google, loser.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Um, I started complaining about this when the web (in the form of the Mosaic browser) began to invade liquid gopherspace. You young whippersnappers might have to do some archeology to figure out when that was.

    Up till that point blind folks were being *empowered* by the Internet, their handicaps were not relevant to the character-cell worlds of programming and science; (expensive) braille displays were the only tool they needed.

    When I discovered that HP had made their web site completely unusable to the blind, I wrote them a great many (progressively nastier) emails. But eventually I gave up and stopped bashing my head against that particular wall. Their replies were mind-numbingly clueless as I recall, I wish I could find some to post.

    My experience has been that people who make the kind of websites that the blind can’t use are too morally incoherent to understand what they need to do. Really, their thought processes are about as linear as a house cat’s. You can’t persuade them.

    Too bad. The blind have a tremendous amount to contribute and they don’t need extra obstacles in their path.


  9. karsh says:

    First off, alt text is an attribute, not a tag. (Not to be overly semantic about it, but I get it hammered into me at work every day). I work as a web designer and we use alt and title text in all our images and title text for our Flash pieces. There are even Dreamweaver extensions available on the web to nag you about adding alt text to images. Once you get into the swing of it, it’s really not *that* much extra to do when designing a site.

  10. seaanemoneman says:

    @2, looks like the case has just become class-certified. The molasses wheels of justice.

  11. luketheobscure says:

    If any of you interweb developers read this, here’s an easy way to make sure your page won’t make the blind want to kill you:

    Using the web developers toolbar for Firefox turn off all CSS, all javascript, all images, and turn on the “Display Alt Attributes”. You are now looking at how a screen reader reads your page.

    If your page no longer makes sense, go back to the drawing board!

  12. Chris Furniss says:

    I’m a big advocate of accessibility on the web, but for the most part big websites just don’t care. It’s not financially viable, in their opinions, to cater to the small percentage of blind or low-sighted people online. With some skillful css, however, you can make your site super easy to read for anyone.

    I can’t tell you how many times I argued with my last boss about this kind of stuff. They wouldn’t let me do accessible ALT tags. For logos they’d make me put the name of the company and a little tagline instead of “Company name [logo]”, for example.

  13. knifie_sp00nie says:

    I mean this in the nicest possible way, but fuck the blind. I won’t go out of my way to make a site inaccessible and when it comes to butting heads with the marketers over flash vs. substance I’m for substance every time. BUT, the blind are such a small portion of the population they aren’t worth catering to exclusively. If a business wants to miss out on any possible income from the blind, that’s their problem.

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