Improving Internet access for the blind | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 29.05.2012
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Improving Internet access for the blind

How do disabled people use the Internet? Website programmers have learned to improve access, but many blind people still encounter obstacles on the web.

Matthias Klaus is sitting in front of his monitor. His hands move across the keyboard, looking for an article on a news portal. A voice from the speakers in front of him tells him what is happening on the screen.

Klaus has been a Deutsche Welle music correspondent for several years. He's blind, but he is far from helpless - indeed, he goes on several work trips a year, including an annual visit to the Rudolstadt folk festival, a number of world music festivals throughout Europe, and most recently the Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan.

He's one of nine million people in Germany with a "recognized disability." Most of them use the Internet with the help of special technology and the know-how of programmers.

Unintentional comedy

Like all his colleagues, Klaus does his research on the Internet. So-called "Screenreader" software translates onscreen texts and is read out by a speaking computer, or appears on a Braille pad that sits next to his keyboard. Tiny raised dots move across the line, so Klaus can feel the content of the website with his fingertips.

Matthias Klaus

Matthias Klaus has to choose which websites let him use them

The verbal aspect of Screenreader is more interesting, since this has made huge strides in the past few years. The metallic science-fiction-robot voice is a thing of the past, and been replaced with the voices of real speakers with a natural melody, and who are actually pleasant to listen to.

"My speakers are Steffi and Yannick," say Klaus, and plays a sample. Then he laughs when Yannick misreads "Facebook" as "Fatzeboook," pronouncing it as if it were a German word. "Of course it is just a stupid machine that makes a lot of mistakes, because it can't interpret the texts, it just reads them."

No Flash animations

Klaus says Screenreader is an excellent invention, despite the occasional lapses into nonsense. "You used to have to get people to read books or newspapers to you," he says. "Now you can do all that without help."

Klaus has been using the Internet for 20 years. He says he encountered few problems until the mid-1990s, because in its early days, most of the Web was in text form. "But then the Java scripts arrived," he recalls. "Things appeared on the screen that could not be represented by the reading programs available at the time. And then the next catastrophe was Flash – it took a long time until we could read that." Programmers now have to make sure that their Flash animations have descriptive texts within them, or else they will simply not be there for blind people.

It would make a big difference to the blind if more links, sliders and buttons had text on them. Then they could, for instance, make better use of Youtube, says Klaus. Buttons like "Start," "Stop," and "Pause," would then become visible for him.

"Programmers really shouldn't forget such things, but sometimes they're in a hurry and aren't particularly diligent with adding text," he says. "But a lot of websites do try and pay attention to greater access."

A man sitting at a computer with a braille display below the keyboard

Braille displays translate what's on the screen

"Access for the disabled" is a central term in the German constitution's safeguards for social equality. The appropriate law has now been in force for ten years (since May 1, 2002), and has led to the renovation of a number of public buildings - it also applies to the media, and therefore the Internet.

Inaccessible Facebook

But blind people like Klaus are still prevented from using a number of sites that look very slick, but contain far too many animations and videos. Klaus' says the Google search engine is very good. "With Google you can jump from one search result to another with one button," he says. "That doesn't happen with other search engines, where you have to read every line as well as all this stuff that you're not interested in."

Facebook is another very negative example. The world's biggest social network is barely readable for Klaus, because it contains "too many adverts and other rubbish." According to Klaus, most blind people don't use Facebook. "If I'm on Facebook, then I use the mobile site - the one for smartphones – there's just much less on it."

"Anyway, if someone insists that they want to share a picture with a hundred blind friends," he adds drily, "then they'd be better off telling a story. We don't get shown pictures in real life either."

Instead, Klaus swears by the old-fashioned mailing list. One person writes something, and then everyone else can read it and write a reply, which everyone can read in turn. "That's all that Facebook does anyway, but this way we can actually read it."

Author: Silke Wünsch / bk
Editor: Michael Lawton

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