Surfing sites unseen

The majority of Canadians have never heard of programs like InLARGE, Window-Eyes, JAWS or ZoomText but for the thousands of Canadians who are blind or visually impaired these are important programs that allow them to use computers and the Internet in much the way a sighted person does.

Recently the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) held a technology day at its Toronto headquarters. The event allowed users to check out the latest technology and give it the proverbial test drive.

Though things are much improved today, the road to success for the producers and users of this technology has not been a particularly easy one.

According to Dan Riff, vice-president of marketing for Manchester Center. Vt.-based Ai Squared Inc., the makers of ZoomText, the move from DOS to Windows was a particularly difficult one. He said some visually-impaired people lost their jobs because they could no longer use certain low-vision software. It was not compatible with Windows.

“Up until Windows 95 we had to wait until [an operating system] came out to see if [our software was compatible]” he said. Riff added that it could take their designers up to a year to catch up. But Riff said Microsoft has changed its ways and is much more active in designing its technology with the disabled in mind and publishing its standards to help assistive technology developers ensure compatibility with Windows upgrades.

“We will be ready to go when the new operating system comes out,” he said.

For Paul Loba, assistive devices technician at the CNIB in Toronto, companies could certainly be more proactive than they currently are.

“The ideal situation would be for the experts of adaptive technology to know what would happen with, for example, Microsoft products ahead of time, then they could work together,” he explained.

“It would be best if they would come to us and ask what we think about a certain product ahead of time so we can make some suggestions. This would reduce the time it takes to get a product to market.”

Web sites need work

For the most part, Web sites are relatively well designed and accessible, Loba said, but there are some simple changes that would make life easier for a blind person surfing the Internet.

The big one according to Loba is proper HTML coding.

Since an entire Web page is read back to a blind person using a wide array of text to speech technology, including HTML information on graphics, it is important the coding is specific enough to tell them what is on the page. When a graphic tag has only “graphic” in the HTML code it tells a blind person nothing. But if it says “Vince Carter soaring for a windmill slam during the All-Star Game” the visitor can understand the information.

There is a limit, though. For graphics that are only part of a Web page’s design, too much information can be a bad thing.

“I am not interested that there is a blue line going across a document 500 times; each time [the text to speech technology] would say ‘There is a blue line.’ I don’t need it,” Loba said.

Improperly descriptive links are another thorny issue. The next time you visit your corporate Web site take a look at how links are named. Do they tell you exactly where you are going or are they fragments of a sentence or, even worse, numbered? The sighted can make inferences based on link placement and design to understand relevance. For the blind, an un-descriptive link is of no use.

Loba was kind enough not to slag any particular sites for their design flaws. “As soon as I find a Web site [that is badly designed for a blind person] I just forget about it and never go back.

“If a site is terrible for the sighted person it would probably be terrible for us as well.”

The makers of everything from microwaves to cell phones to VCRs could also be more active in providing solutions.

“The technology is there. You would be surprised how cheap it is to get, for example, a computer chip to produce a synthesized voice,” Loba said. “It is just US$29 and can be incorporated into any device that has a digital display.”