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Making the Internet Visible for the Blind

Researchers at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute are providing companies and government agencies with fast and free tips to make their Web pages more accessible to those who are blind or live with other disabilities.


Access to information for the blind

Matthias Klaus has been blind since birth. But the Internet has made it possible for him to work as a journalist with much greater ease.

That's not always the case, however. Sometimes the special Screen Reader software installed on his computer conks out – a situation usually caused by Web pages that lack basic text descriptions of images and icons, which are supposed to be a standard component of Web coding.

"Once I was on a site called "Travel for the Disabled," Klaus says. "But it was programmed in a way that you couldn't read it. I even took the trouble to call them up and tell them about the problem, but they still haven't changed the site."

And that irritates Klaus, because surfing is all he wants to do. The Internet is supposed to make everyday life simpler for everyone, but when content providers take short cuts on their coding, it can keep blind users like Klaus in the dark.

Screen Readers for the visually impaired

For several years now, new software programs have made it easier for the blind to surf the Internet. A so-called Screen Reader reads the text of each Web page using a synthesized computer voice.

Sometimes the voice can sound a bit rattling, but the digital reading machines do make it possible for blind people to find their way onto the Internet. Text descriptions embedded into the HTML code of a Web page's features also make it possible for the blind to recognize icons or graphics that would normally appear on screen.

In addition to screen readers, there are also software programs designed to make Internet access easier for people with other disabilities. Some programs make it possible for people who can't, for example, use a mouse to instead work exclusively with a keyboard. For older people with diminished or otherwise impaired vision, software is also available that renders Web pages in large type.

Making the Web safe for the disabled

Yet despite such advances, there is still much work to be done. "It would be nice if I were able to access my bank online so that I wouldn't have to have someone read my bank statements to me anymore," Klaus says. "Then I wouldn't have to feel as naked as I do now."

But banks aren't the only companies whose Web sites tend to be rendered unreadable by software designed for making the Internet accessible to people with vision loss or other impairments. Due to the heavy use of set colors, forms and graphics, the special software is often unable to read pages.

"If a Web designer is set on offering Web content in a specific font or type size, then he's going to have a problem creating barrier-free offerings," says Henrike Gappa of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technologies in St. Augustin. Scientists at the institute are working with companies and the government to help them create Web pages that aren't plagued with access barriers.

In the past, many companies have avoided offering Web pages designed for people with disabilities because they feared that doing so would incur additional development costs.

But that's a prejudice researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute are eager to eliminate. They say it is unnecessary to create special pages for people with disabilities. It suffices to follow the basic rules of good Web design and to create a single type of Web page that is accessible to all. It's simple: Images on Web pages should always use HTML standard descriptor tags, and complicated elements should be avoided if no simpler alternative is made available simultaneously.

"We're trying to train Web designers, companies and government authorities on how they can create pages that are accessible using every type of Internet software," Grappa says. And though private companies can't be forced to do so, Grappa notes, government agencies are required to make their pages accessible to the disabled.

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  • Date 04.09.2002
  • Author Sönje Storm
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2bor
  • Date 04.09.2002
  • Author Sönje Storm
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2bor