IBM software enhances Web accessibility for the blind

IBM launched on Tuesday an application that seeks to harness the power and time of Internet users around the globe to make the Web more accessible to the visually impaired.

Many blind or partially sighted users run screen reading software that describes the content of a Web page but often encounter problems. The screen readers rely on text or descriptive tags to explain the items on a page but these are often added as an after thought or are incomplete.

Using the new IBM software users can report these problems to a central database and ask for additional descriptive text to be added to a site. Other Internet users that want to contribute can then check the database, select one of the submitted problems and “start fixing it” by added text labels. The additional information isn’t incorporated into the original site’s HTML code but into a metadata file that is loaded each time a visually impaired user subsequently visits the site.

“This idea came from my own experience with inaccessible Web sites,” said Chieko Asakawa, a researcher at IBM in Tokyo who led a six-person team on development of the software. Asakawa is blind herself so knows well the problems of navigating the Web and its increasing rich multimedia pages.

“As users we face a lot of problems everyday but currently we don’t have any mechanism to report what we have found. Every day we find images without alternative text (the text description of an image that usually accompanies it in the HTML code) but there is no way for me to say ‘I want to have a description for this image.’ It’s a simple motivation but if we can report this kind of problem without difficulty and have it easily understood by sighted people I think it’s going to be great.”

IBM began offering the software from Tuesday as a beta release through its AlphaWorks Web site.

The software for blind or partially sighted users runs with Internet Explorer and the “Jaws” screen reader while the software for supporters of the project is available as a plug-in for Firefox. It runs in English or Japanese.

Demonstrating the system, Asakawa typed in the address for the White House Web site and soon found problems. While the site appears to have been designed with accessibility in mind, the headings at the top of the three main columns had no data attached that would allow her screen-reading software to make sense of what they were.

A couple of key presses brought up a box into which Asakawa typed her request for headings, which was then entered into the database. Upon finding the request, a user could enter the desired headings quickly and, later when checked again, the navigation was made a little easier with the additional metadata.

Looking ahead, Asakawa said she hopes the project will be expanded to help users with other disabilities including those who are deaf, hard of hearing or have motor disabilities.

“We started from a small group but to make this project successful and to make information accessible we really need to collaborate with the community,” she said. “Our goal is to expand the applicability of this project.”

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