The combination of the Internet and computer screen reader software means blind people now have more access to written information than ever before. But bad Web design is making accessibility difficult.
Blind people need special software to surf the net
A folded white cane lies next to piles of papers and coffee cups on computer programmer Günter Christmann's desk. He is blind and can't actually see the written text on the computer screen in front of him.
Christmann opens up his Internet browser using the keyboard curser and types in the name of the site he wants to visit -- the tap of his fingers accompanied by a fast-talking robotic voice that fastidiously reads every single character displayed on the screen.
The Internet is a revolution for blind people
Given the amounts of advertisements, pictures, links and headings on a single Internet page, it can sometimes take a while for a blind user to find the actual text that they want. But according to Christmann, even if it does take him longer to find what he wants, it's worth it.
Information on the Net
Previously, if Christmann wanted to read a newspaper, he had to wait for it to be scanned into Braille, which meant the reports were already days old.
"Nowadays, with Internet, I can go to the newspaper or magazine and I can read the newspaper directly," he said.
The Internet has an even more practical side. Before the advent of the Net, Christmann had to wait for someone to scan in his computer manuals so he could do his work.
"Now, I can search with Google and find everything I need," he said. "I can find more information that I ever dreamt of."
There are several types of screen reader software that Europe's 2.7 million blind people can use if they have computer access. Most of these programs can easily switch between the major European languages written in the Roman script.
Louis Braille invented the six dot script for the blind
Sounds good so far, but there are digital roadblocks, such as when German programmers use German expressions to describe drop down boxes and form fields in an English Web site.
This is what Christmann found when he tested the DW-WORLD's English page, a problem he comes across often throughout the Internet. A pure English speaker surfing the page would have been stuck.
New portable software
Christmannn works as a product manager for Baum Retec, a German firm based near the southern German city of Heidelberg specializing in products and services for the blind and visually impaired.
One of the products he supports is MyStick, a screen reader packed into a normal USB stick in U3 technology that is making computers and the Internet even more accessible for the blind.
Because it is portable, MyStick means blind users can log onto any PC running Windows, and start using the programs and surfing the Internet without having to engage in the arduous process of installing software first.
"I can go to a library or an Internet café and plug in MyStick and start using the screen reader," Christmann said. When he's finished, he just takes out the USB stick, and puts it in his pocket.
In addition to the screen reader, another piece of equipment that's essential for blind people who use the computer for work is a Braille display. It's made up of a long row of so-called "soft cells" that are each made up of six to eight tiny metal or nylon pins, which are controlled electronically and move up and down to spell out a line of text in Braille.
A Braille display costs around 12,000 euro
"Just because I can hear the words, doesn't mean I know how to write them," explained Anna Courtpozanis, who has been blind since birth (which hasn't stopped her gaining a degree, having a family, and working full-time).
"If I write texts, I need to see if I have made a mistake," she said, as her fingers flew over the Braille line. "At home, I have a computer without Braille and it's more difficult to work there."
Courtpozanis tests Web sites to see how accessible they are for Web For All, a Heidelberg-based non-profit association aiming to reduce barriers for people using the Internet.
It can take new users a while to learn the numerous keyboard commands that are necessary for using a screen reader or a Braille line. According to Courtpozanis, however, the main barrier to web use is poor Web design.
Descriptive text a must
Pictures are often a barrier because unless a descriptive text is provided, a blind person has no way of knowing whether the image is an unidentified photo or logo, artwork, a link to another page or something else. Videos and animated elements are also problematic for the same reason.
Courtpozanis personally finds online forms particularly annoying simply because they are an unavoidable part of daily existence but often have no description of what particular field is for.
"If I want my daughter's birth certificate but I haven't got time to go to the town where she's born, then I have to do it over the Net, but I can't fill in the forms," she complained.
Courtpozanis and Christmann are both what you would call power Internet users. And both of them are irritated that with all the investment in high-tech software and technology, it's the simple things -- a lack of descriptive words, for instance -- that can render a website meaningless for the blind.