net.wars: Does he take electrons?

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 23 January 2004

"I don't use the Web for more than about an hour at a time," said Steve Bingham. "I find it too tiring."

Wendy M Grossman

Too tiring? I spend whole days on the Web sometimes, and can find it restful and sort of mindless, like wandering endlessly around the radio dial. Read a news story, search eBay for cheap, old autoharps, wander over and look up the price of lightbulbs, read the latest commentary from Jim Hightower or Molly Ivins.

Half an hour later, mired in an endless and confusing mass of undifferentiated links, I see what he means.

Bingham, who works for the Inland Revenue - and has been sent my way by Geoff Ryman, who is setting up a Web accessibility evaluation service - is blind. He navigates the Web by listening to screen reader software. It is not fun, it is not restful, and it is not easy, no matter how much effort sites like Amazon.com have put into making their sites - they think - usable.

Making sites accessible is increasingly important. UK legislation such as the Disabilities Discrimination Act 1995 have made it plain that the prohibition on offering a lesser service to disabled people definitely applies to the Web. Part III of the DDA, which covers this area, comes into force in October 2004. Some similar legislation exists in the US, but we still wait for a court to rule on the issue of whether the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, applies to the Internet.

The thing is, it's so, er, short-sighted to ignore the problems of Web access for the disabled. In the UK, 2 million people have visual impairments. As the population ages, that number will grow substantially. Even if most people's vision never gets bad enough to require a screen reader or a Braille output device (did you know that the last Harry Potter novel was six volumes in Braille?), many of the guidelines for making Web sites accessible benefit the rest of us. Does anyone find it easy to read, say, pale red text on a dark green background? To a colour-blind person, they may be indistinguishable from one another.

I picked Amazon.com because I know it well and because the company has spent a lot of time and money on making its Web site as functional as possible, and avoids gewgaws like JavaScript, Flash, and animated GIFs. A sighted person can load the site, hit the search button, and order the book he finds in a couple of minutes. A blind person waits while JAWS laboriously reads through the menus and then all the text and links on the main page. The software has some ability to distinguish between menus and content, and you can tell it to skip headings that are the same on every page. There are shortcuts, such as using "Find" within a page. Find [date] can help find the latest news.

Even so - and even though I've been buying from Amazon.com regularly since the day it opened - with the monitor off we were both utterly lost within minutes. A sighted person experiences a Web page as a three-dimensional whole (two-dimensional page plus time; good design can make it easy for a sighted person to spot even a small change in a cluttered page). A blind person using JAWS experiences it linearly, as a serial progression of individual pieces can never be assembled into even a two-dimensional mental map. The effect is very like listening to an endless voice menu.

We load our search results. "This page has 173 links," JAWS synthesises. We blanch.

Bingham has this kind of problem even with a weather site. "One hundred and forty-five links," he says, "and all you want is the temperature."

Sometimes, even people who are well-meaning make silly mistakes, such as using the ALT tag which allows you to attach explanatory text to a graphic, to describe the corporate logo ("a giant eagle soars over a hill covered with trees"). At a seminar last fall run by the Nielsen Norman Group, one of their researchers said this was one of the biggest trends in bad design in 2003. It can be worse. Bingham tells me the page text may read, "Click on the green bullet" but on a nearby graphic the ALT-text says, "Click here for more information." Is that the green bullet or not?

Flash used, of course, to be the bane of many visually impaired people's Web use. It's gotten better, as Macromedia has put effort into building in accessibility. But people still do stupid things with it. Like the site that has a Flash movie with no explanation, and every time it starts it throws the cursor back to the beginning of the page in an infinite loop. Little things like this in the way pages are coded can make all the difference.

"It's an immature medium," says Bingham, who has had some success emailing the owners of sites with suggestions for small fixes. "I would like to see greater division between the information and navigation layers." If you're reading something, you shouldn't suddenly be interrupted by a navigation menu, for example. The most common mistake, he says, is not planning for accessibility from the start. "I don't believe it's something you can add at the end, and if you build it in at the beginning, you have a product that's better for everyone to use at the end."

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).