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New York Times article on blind users of the Web

(Writer's note: Of the hundreds of stories I have worked on, this is by far my favorite. I had never thought about the blind and how they use computers until one day in 1996 when a colleague mentioned to me that he met a blind man at a dinner party who was a Web consultant. I was fascinated.

I did some reporting and discovered that not only are there blind Web users, but there are also blind webmasters and designers and more.

It's easy to say, "The Internet is changing everything," as we often do. But until you meet a blind Web user whose world has been fully transformed, you have no real idea of the impact of the new technology.

This story ran in several other newspapers subscribing to the NYT wire. I received - and continue to receive feedback from readers about this story, more than five years after it was first published.)

New Software Improves Web Access for the Blind
Monday, December 2, 1996


Cathy Murtha had never used a computer until early last year. As a busy mother of three children, she had not discovered a need for a computer and did not even know how to turn one on.

Now she not only knows how to operate a computer, she runs Magical Mist Creations, a small Internet-based business, with her partner, Tom Baccanti, that designs and evaluates sites on the World Wide Web, the graphics-oriented portion of the Internet.

There would be nothing particularly remarkable about that, except for the fact that both Ms. Murtha and Mr. Baccanti are blind.

"People are shocked I can do this," Ms. Murtha, who lives in Pioneer, Calif., said. "They had never imagined a blind person could find a use for a computer, much less make a business out of it."

Ms. Murtha is one of thousands of blind computer users who surf the Web. The American Foundation for the Blind in New York estimates that of the 12 million Americans with visual impairments of some sort, 900,000 use computers.

"The Internet has changed forever the lives of blind people, mainly because it provides independent access to information," said Larry Scadden, who works on technology issues for the disabled at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va., and is blind.

Kelly Ford of Gresham, Ore., who runs Webwatch, an accessibility discussion group on the Internet, agrees. "Sighted people don't know how difficult it is for a blind person to use services that everyone else takes for granted, like looking up a phone directory," he said. "Now that a lot of this is on line, I feel so liberated."

Richard Ring, who runs the National Federation of the Blind's International Braille and Technology Center in Baltimore, said blind people have reached a crucial crossroads in the way in which they use the Internet. "We have made tremendous strides in getting access to the Internet, but we need to be vigilant in order to keep up," he said.

Ring's center is the world's largest proving ground for products for the blind and has worked to test the accessibility of computer hardware and software. "But more cooperation is required" he said, "if we are to keep up with all the fast-changing technology."

The use of computers by people who are visually impaired depends on two factors: the fact that text can be read aloud by a speech synthesizer with text-to-speech software or output in a Braille format, and the user's ability to navigate the screen with a keyboard.

For years, the blind could use the Internet to send and get e-mail, because it only involved text. Even when the World Wide Web made its debut in the early 1990s, people who were visually impaired had access to most of it through DOS-based, nonvisual browsers like Lynx. But then the Web became increasingly graphics-oriented.

"I felt like road kill on the information superhighway when I first logged on to the Web," said Gregory Rosmaita, then a student at Caldwell College in Caldwell, N.J. His screen reader would identify any graphics as "image" or "link," without descriptions of any sort, leaving him confused and frustrated.

"When blind people use the Internet and come across unfriendly sites, we aren't surfing, we are crawling," he said. "Imagine hearing pages that say, 'Welcome to ... image.' 'This is the home of ... image.' 'Link, link, link.' It is like trying to use Netscape with your monitor off and the mouse unplugged. See how far you'll get."

But with special training and improved screen readers, users like Rosmaita have been able to use the Web more effectively. So effectively, in fact, that he is now the Web master of the Caldwell College site. "I am very proud that no one who has visited the site has ever been able to tell that the person who designed and runs it is blind," he said.

For other users, PW Webspeak, a nonvisual browser, provides a straightforward way to use the Internet. "We wanted to put the Web within the reach of every blind person, not just the ones with advanced computer skills," said Ray Ingram, executive vice president of Productivity Works, which makes PW Webspeak.

Instead of reading aloud what is on a computer screen, Webspeak reads the HTML -- or hypertext markup language, the programming code of the Web page -- and interprets it directly. This format lets people with low vision and dyslexia surf the Web at their own pace.

Tom Dekker, who runs the Visually Impaired Computer Users Group of New York, has used PW Webspeak. "It does make things easier, because the learning curve is higher with screen readers," he said. PW Webspeak now comes with a built-in version of Real Audio, a program made by Progressive Networks Inc. The technology, which allows users to listen to continuous streams of audio broadcasts, is attractive to blind users who depend on aural communication.

Despite the strides made by visually impaired users, big problems loom. Innovations like multiple-page frames and bit-mapped images, which make for easier navigation for sighted users, are part of the hindrances to access. Screen readers get thrown off by these features and confuse the blind user. Also, the tremendous growth in the use of animation and Java, a programming language developed by Sun Microsystems, makes some sites difficult for the blind to use.

There are simple things Web designers can do to make their sites accessible. Providing a text version of each site, using a "no frames" option and providing a description of graphics or photographs can make the experience for visually impaired users less frustrating.

"We accept that there are some things to which we just will not have access, like looking at photographs, for example," said Ted Henter, whose company, Henter-Joyce of St. Petersburg, Fla., is one of the largest makers of screen readers for the blind. "But it is reasonable to ask for a text description of those photos."

The competition between the two leading Internet browsers, Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer and Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator, also affects blind computer users. Explorer allows users to easily substitute keyboard commands for mouse commands, which Netscape does not yet do.

"Our focus has been to make the Internet accessible again," said Alec Saunders, a product manager at Microsoft who is working on accessibility. "It not only makes business sense to aim for accessibility, it is also the right thing to do."

For its part, Netscape contends that it is not ignoring the blind. "Netscape has always been committed to access," Peter Harter, a spokesman for Netscape, said.

There are both commercial and legal reasons why companies are more concerned about access. "We are a viable business opportunity," Ms. Murtha of Magical Mist said, referring to users with disabilities. "We're eager to use the Internet and use our credit cards and spend our money on line. Companies should recognize that."

The legal reason is that both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the recently passed Telecommunications Act of 1996 seek to provide access for the disabled to all telecommunications services, including the Internet.

Ring of the braille center is hopeful that computers will remain accessible to the blind. "I am more concerned about appliances such as microwaves and telephones, which are getting more and more complicated every day," he said. "The computer problem will resolve itself, because they are open systems: You can get in there and change things. But other consumer appliances are closed systems, and you can't fix those."