SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

Tangles in the Web

How do the visually impaired access a
medium designed to keep them out?


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Dorrie Rush reached for the computer mouse with a delicate hand and shook it hard, as if to wake the inert plastic from a deep sleep. She turned her head away from the glowing monitor and opened a Web browser. As she typed an address, a synthesized female voice came out of her computer's speakers: "A-m-a-z-o-n-dot-c-o-m," the voice read. Amazon's Web site appeared and Rush rapidly flicked her mouse to expand and shrink the page on the screen to show only a small portion of the text at a time, but greatly enlarged.

Listen to a Screen Reader

Stargardt's Disease, a form of macular degeneration, has left Rush with minimal central vision. A fashion industry veteran, she now works as the marketing director for assistive technology at Lighthouse International, a center for the visually impaired. In her Manhattan office, slivers of light snuck through the blinds she always keeps closed. Rush said the darkness minimizes glare. With peripheral vision, she can still see a bit: she examined me out of the corner of her eye, pointing out my glasses and bangs. To read a Web site, she uses a similar technique, turning her head away to peer at the screen sideways and setting the screen's magnifier to enlarge the pages eight times their default size. "If you make it big enough you're not really getting the sharp edges, but you're seeing it better because it spills over. And it's the same thing when you get close to something," she said. Yet, with her magnification settings, she sees only one-eighth of the page at a time. So, to fit together the pieces of the puzzle, she zooms in and out across the whole window at a dizzying speed. This difficulty is compounded when key elements of the site, such as navigation buttons or text fields, don't appear because they are incompatible with her special software.

Dorrie Rush (Source: Dorrie Rush)
Dorrie Rush
(Source: Dorrie Rush)

Because Rush has remaining sight, she can use the mouse. But for those who cannot see the screen at all, they use the keyboard to command a screen reader, or software that translates a Web site's HTML code into artificial speech. The most common program, JAWS, sells for over a thousand dollars—more than the cost of a MacBook—and can take thirty weeks to learn. "You operate the computer totally differently than the way that it is natural, if you have ever operated it with sight. It's all about the keyboard," Rush said. And while a sighted user can scan a page, perhaps spotting an interesting image in the corner, the visually impaired user must patiently listen to an onslaught of nonsense verbiage, sometimes line by line. Accessing a Web site this way can become even more difficult—or impossible—if a Web designer has not considered the special needs of these users.

"When I talk about the things that I need to function they're not so different from everybody else, just that my needs are greater, but it's kind of like we're all experiencing the same thing to some degree."

For those among the fifteen million visually impaired Americans navigating the Web with assistive software, their travail typically unfolds behind closed doors, in private. Since 1999, blind advocacy groups have been taking companies or universities to court over the inaccessibility of their Web sites. But, U.S. discrimination laws have not kept pace with technological innovations. With the exponential growth of the Internet's importance in daily life, Braille elevator buttons and talking ATMs are no longer enough to ensure access to vital services today.

Most companies with an online presence have ignored the needs of visually impaired people, considering them to be too small a population to warrant special consideration. But as computer-savvy baby boomers age and their vision deteriorates, this resistance from businesses is likely to fade, especially if the Department of Justice adopts Web-specific regulations that are now under hesitant consideration.

As Rush explained, by 2020, more than fifty percent of the U.S. population will be over the age of forty-five, the point when vision problems often begin. "When I talk about the things that I need to function," she said, "they're not so different from everybody else, just that my needs are greater, but it's kind of like we're all experiencing the same thing to some degree."

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On 23rd Street in New York City, between Sixth and Seventh avenues is the drab building that houses Visions, a rehabilitation service for the sight impaired. Out front on a recent weekday, passengers trickled out of Access-A-Ride taxis. One woman politely declined help from the driver as she assembled her white cane. She approached the building's entrance and rhythmically tossed her cane back and forth, so that against the shadowed sidewalk, the thin white streak glowed like the needle of a metronome. Inside, the lobby was noisy; the harsh fluorescent light left the corners dim and cast a gray pallor. Down a long corridor, branching off from the lobby, a tap-tap-tapping on keyboards echoed through the quiet space.

In small rooms, teenagers and seniors were at the computers, some typing hunt-and-peck, others more fluently. They all wore headphones to hear the speech output; the screens were black; every mouse was pushed to the side. Tucked in the back of one of these computer labs is an unlabeled office. Behind a metal door, painted robin's egg blue, sat Dawn Suvino, the director of workforce development and training for the center.

Her frisky, seeing eye dog, Valla, a two-year-old yellow Labrador, welcomed me with her rough, pink tongue. Suvino placated the dog with a chew toy and extended her own hand in the direction of my laughter. She was dressed in jeans and sneakers and a pale blue turtleneck, set off by brown-flecked turquoise earrings that framed her short, light gray hair.

Suvino oversees Vision's job placement service, computer training, pre-vocational training, and other programs for young adults with impaired vision. This is the center's effort to address the disproportionately high rate of unemployment in this population. In 2009, the unemployment rate among Americans reporting vision disabilities was nearly fifty-three percent, about six times higher than that year's nationwide unemployment rate of nine percent. [1][2]

Beset by widespread joblessness, the sight-impaired often lack the disposable income to spend on personal computers and the costly assistive software, which has not become cheaper, even after ten years. The only other method for visually impaired employees is to enlist the help of sighted readers to accomplish tasks such as sorting through mail, documents, and books. Since most documents, and even books and mail, are being transmitted electronically, the synthesized voice of the screen reader allows the employees to read—well, hear—the material on their own. For those without personal access to specialized equipment, they can take advantage of the computer access and training provided by centers like Visions. As access to this technology and education spreads, the hope is it will help reduce the employment gap further.

But the technology becomes useless if the document is received as a scan, rather than as text. These types of PDFs are essentially images, which screen readers cannot decipher. For example, a shopping catalogue of hundreds of pages typically translates into a single phrase: "Empty document." As a solution, Suvino will print the document, re-scan it, and run it through more special software that converts an image into text, called an optical character recognition program. It's a major time sink but at least it gives her independent access to the material.

The Internet has also made it easier for the visually impaired to search for jobs. Major career search engines, such as and, are well enough designed so that people who use screen readers or screen magnifiers can navigate them effectively. Suvino's instructors teach pupils how to research a company, submit an application, and view cover letter templates. "Years ago when I was first out of graduate school," Suvino recalled, "I had to meet with somebody a couple of times a week to go through the want ads and look at job listings. There was no Internet. And even though I had a computer I still needed assistance in preparing cover letters and resumes because it just wasn't as robust as it is now." Although many who attend Suvino's classes expect someone to find them a job, she stressed in her gravelly voice, "We're going to help you figure out how to find a job."

Suvino, whose tone vacillates between stern and forgiving, depending on the topic, holds her students to high standards. "I lost my sight at fifteen, and for a long time I thought the thing that separated successful blind people from those who weren't was the difference between being born blind and not," she said. "Later I came to realize that it wasn't the difference between being born blind and being born sighted—it was just what kind of expectations were placed on you as a kid, and very often disabled kids are just not held to the same standards."

At fifteen, Suvino contracted a rare form of meningitis. The membranes protecting the brain and spinal cord became inflamed and she went into a coma for two months, from which she emerged blind and paralyzed. Seven months later, she left the hospital. She eventually recovered her full mobility, but not her vision.

She tried learning Braille four times, but because of permanent neural damage she cannot feel the raised dots with her fingertips. So, she can write it, but not read it. To advance from high school to college, she listened to audio cassettes and worked with sighted readers. At New York University, she received bachelor's and master's degrees in French, a language she had started studying in middle school, three years before losing her sight. While at university, she would record a professor's lectures. When she returned home, she would listen to the lecture again, stopping the tape and recording her notes on another cassette. The night before an exam, she would listen to her notes. "It would be enough. It saved me time in the end," Suvino said.

She got her first computer when she entered the linguistics post-graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania in 1988. And for the first time since she had lost her sight, she was able to read, write, and edit independently. "Now, I can't imagine not having a computer to do all the work I do," she said.

Not only has the computer made certain tasks easier, it has allowed her to access information as quickly as her sighted peers, which wasn't always the case. Until the mid-1990s, visually impaired readers had to wait for an audible version of the book to be delivered from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. A request for, say, a bestseller, would enter the queue and could take two years to be translated. "The joke was there's always eight thousand versions of the Bible from the library service, but you can't get a bestseller," Suvino said. That has vastly improved since the late 1990s, with the rise of mainstream talking book companies such as The visually impaired can now get most of the books they want to hear on demand.

Dawn Suvino with Valla (Source: Dawn Suvino)
Click to enlarge
Dawn Suvino with Valla (Source: Dawn Suvino)

To navigate the Web on her PC, Suvino sets her JAWS screen reader to a slower rate than is typical, although the speech still sounds unintelligible to the naïve ear. Image file names and link text gets tossed together with vital titles and content. Although most people turn off the punctuation, Suvino keeps it on, so that every comma and period is spoken. "When I'm reading something, whether it's through the computer or a human voice, it's like I literally picture the letters and punctuation marks going by in my head," she said. "Or, if I'm writing something on the computer, I'm still seeing it in my head as actual Roman letters, as opposed to just listening to it."

For new users of screen readers, Web sites can sound as if they are being spoken in a different language, especially if buttons and images are not labeled. But, that doesn't mean they're inaccessible—they're just not user-friendly. Suvino rarely finds an inaccessible Web site, or a page "where you get there and you're like, 'What?!'" She stresses persistence: "Your ear becomes as acute as your eye in identifying what is and isn't useful information."

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Eventually, this patience yields access to a plethora of resources. Six years ago, Suvino was able to go Christmas shopping alone for the first time since she lost her sight, granted it was online. More recently, she bought her partner a watch through Although she couldn't see the watch, the customer reviews were reassuring. Her partner was thrilled with the gift and Suvino continues shopping online. She also plays multi-player online games and brain teasers with other blind users at All In

Suvino also has a Facebook account, although she never logs on. She has given up on using it, frustrated by its ever-changing interface, which she must re-learn with each update. As much as the Web has become friendlier to the visually impaired, a fundamental digital divide remains. "Visually impaired people are always, always, always, going to be playing catch up with this stuff because," she said, "as soon as the assistive technology is designed to access the information, it changes."

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Approaching the end of Light Street in south Baltimore, just past Jack's Food, Bill's Lighthouse Inn, and Leon's Bar, the rumbling of traffic on Interstate 95 grows louder. Against the backdrop of low-rise apartments and factories, a modern brick complex with emerald-colored windows emerges. This gleaming building is the headquarters for the National Federation of the Blind, the oldest and largest organization of its kind in the country.

"Visually impaired people are always, always, always, going to be playing catch up with this stuff because as soon as the assistive technology is designed to access the information, it changes."

The interior of the building is a labyrinth. To get to the offices requires taking an elevator to the lobby on the fourth floor and then a different elevator past the cafeteria and down a grand hallway. Fortunately, Tony Olivero, who is an "access technology Web specialist" for the federation, was there to guide me. He had combed his short brown hair to the side and was wearing a schoolboy cut navy blazer. With his white cane, he led the way, suddenly turning corners, then directing me to a wood-paneled conference room. Across the hall was the International Braille and Technology Center, a large room that houses more than two million dollars worth of assistive technology, from notetakers to a Braille printing press. Anne Taylor, the director of the Web accessibility team, and Clara Van Gerven, another specialist, soon joined us.

This small group of technology experts works with companies to ensure that Web sites, along with products and technologies, are accessible to the visually impaired. The group, all of whom are visually impaired themselves, test Web sites with their screen access software, ensuring that other visually impaired users can get to all of the content. Although automated tools can check a Web site's accessibility, "most things require a more in-depth human interpretation," Taylor explained. For example, Web designers can add alternate text for photos, or captions embedded in the hidden code, but the description can be irrelevant or useless. Or, linked text may not make sense out of context, such as in cases where it reads, "Click here" or "Read more." In both of these examples, the Web developer only needs to spend an extra minute including a more detailed description.

Forms, which are commonly used on shopping Web sites, present another accessibility issue. A field or box that instructs users to enter text may not be labeled. And once a user gets through a challenging transaction process, there is no guarantee that the button instructing the customer to "Submit" will be labeled either. Imagine the user frustration after entering a shipping address and billing information, only to end up at a dead end.

An even more common and troublesome barrier is what are called captchas, or the scrambled text that verifies that a user is a human being and not a spam bot. Since these are unlabelled graphics, screen readers can neither detect nor translate them. Google has created an audio alternative, yet, just as sighted users struggle with deciphering the visual captcha, sightless users struggle with the audio version. The distorted sound byte becomes even harder to decode when the screen reader gives keyboard feedback, creating an echo effect. By failing to solve a captcha, in essence people are prevented from getting through the Web site's front door.

Some companies like Amazon and Google, have been progress in addressing the issues of the sight-impaired by creating accessible versions of their sites. But the federation's Access Team, as well as many other Web accessibility advocates, do not endorse their practice of building parallel sites to serve this population—separate does not always mean equal. "We have noticed that once the main site gets updated to the new version, other sub-sites or other mobile sites that are associated with that site, generally get left out," said Anne Taylor. And then some valued features are left out. For instance, on Facebook's mobile Web site, which doubles as its accessible site, users cannot chat or access privacy settings. This accessibility 'solution' is also not smart for businesses. As Van Gerven is quick to point out, maintaining more than one site can be cost-prohibitive.

As of now, the law does not mandate Web sites to be accessible except those the federal government or its contractors maintain. Some states have similar provisions. Disability advocates, however, are fighting to extend these requirements further. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act, landmark legislation that was signed in 1990, requires that public spaces be inclusive, its requirements stop at brick-and-mortar buildings because the law was drafted in the 1980s when no one yet foresaw the Web's vast potential.

Part of the problem is that there is not one single standard for determining what accessibility means in the case of a Web site. The federal government has its own standard, created by the the Rehabilitation Act's Section 508. While this law is pushing the government and the businesses it contracts to improve the accessibility of their sites, that doesn't mean it's actually happening. For example, the federation's team tested the usability of, the home page for government accessibility, and it failed the test. "It's incredibly frustrating when you're fighting this uphill battle where you're trying to convince retailers to make their Web sites accessible and you see that the government, who has created this regulation, doesn't stick to its own standard," Van Gerven added.

Blind advocacy groups, such as the federation, have filed class-action lawsuits against businesses like AOL, Southwest Airlines, Target, and most recently, Disney over the inaccessibility of their "public accommodations," that is, spaces that provide goods, services, and information. Yet, these cases have only made the law's application to cyberspace more ambiguous. Before a Massachusetts district court could set a precedent in the 1999 case, AOL updated its Web site. Then, in 2002, a Florida district court decided in Southwest Airlines' favor, ruling that its virtual ticket counter was not required by law to comply to the standards; those rules only apply to physical spaces. In 2006, Target settled its case with the federation, paying more than six million dollars in damages and agreeing to make its Web site accessible. Although a victory for the visually impaired, this lawsuit failed to better define the relationship of the disabilities act to the Internet, leaving open the question of whether "public accommodation" has to be in the form of a brick-and-mortar place.

"The notion that Congress prohibited discrimination only when it occurs in a physical place or required structured changes only to physical places, is not consistent with the spirit and the plain language of the [disabilities] law," Rep. Jerrold Nadler said at a House Judiciairy Committee hearing in June 2010. That same month, the Department of Justice, which is responsible for enforcing the A.D.A., announced that it would clarify the law's applicability in online instances. A few months later it held public hearings and in March 2011 it released revised regulations. Yet, these refreshed accessibility rules still do not extend to the Web.

Litigation, however, Taylor said, is always the last resort. Instead, the federation prefers to join forces with companies to encourage them make their sites accessible. Most recently, it has started working with eBay and Travelocity. But even then there are obstacles, several experts said. Companies give a number of reasons for being resistant to making changes, such as the cost of retrofitting their sites. Also, there is concern that accessibility practices will stifle creativity and make a site look flat. But as Jeffrey Zeldman, an expert in Web design has written, neither of these worries is particularly well-founded. It is not too expensive to make small, noticeable changes that improve access for this group of users, and, the design and appearance elements are not contained in the same folder as the nuts-and-bolts of the site, so it is not that difficult to alter.

The visually impaired are not the only ones to benefit from accessibility. People with motor disabilities use screen readers to navigate a site by keyboard commands rather than with mouse movements. Many dyslexics also use text-to-speech software to help them read. Then, for those who still access the Internet with dial-up modems, they often turn off their image function to speed up a Web site's loading time. If the alt text, or the image description, is not included by the Web developer, the site becomes challenging to navigate. Not only does an accessible site expand its reach, its enhanced coding also improves its SEO, or search engine optimization ranking.

"Accessibility needs to make that leap from the last thing on the action list to being integrated in the development phase," said Olivero. Van Gerven added that not many developers are trained in accessibility strategies, but she thinks that they will eventually be integrated into the curricula, especially if the clarification to the disabilities act goes through.

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"N-Y-Times," the female voice intoned. "Double tap to open, refresh button, latest news, updated moments ago, today." More instructions came swiftly in the same stilted, artificial cadence. "Latest news, back button, back arrow, one of two, previous article button, forward arrow, two of two, next article, learning in dorm because class is on the Web, by Trip Gabriel, link, published November 4, 2010 ..." Dorrie Rush turned her ear toward the screen to capture the words, brushing away stray strands of her stylish bob. With her iPhone a few inches from her ear, she alternated between strokes and taps. She gets the news without reading it and can save articles and forward them to friends without ever looking at the screen. Rush, like hundreds of others among the visually impaired, accesses information she doesn't have to strain to see through mobile devices.

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The innovations haven't come often, but each over the past fifteen years has made accessing information easier. In 1995, the National Federation of the Blind launched the still-popular Newsline, a telephone service that provides audible versions of the Times and some three hundred other publications. Then, in the late 1990s, the Internet made it possible for the visually impaired to get the news at the same time as their sighted peers, rather than waiting for the print to be converted into Braille or audio. Among the most significant developments to date, in 2008, iPhone's NYTimes app made it even easier to navigate the digital newspaper.

When Rush pulled up the The New York Times Web site on her PC, the screen showed the upper left hand corner of the page, magnified eight times. Again, to orient herself with the page, she repeatedly zoomed in and out. Yet, on, as with most newspaper Web sites, Rush finds the multi-sectioned, image-laden format challenging to navigate.

"You're trying to convince retailers to make their Web sites accessible and you see that the government, who has created this regulation, doesn't stick to its own standard."

"It's impossible to read no matter how big I make it," she said. "Reading a thing like a newspaper for someone like me, it's too much. After the fifth, sixth, tenth line, you're exhausted. Everything's broken up. Then, when I try to use my screen reader, it won't work."

For now, apps have provided the simplest, most direct ways for fifteen million visually impaired Americans to get the news. And unlike Newsline, these apps were created primarily for mainstream, sighted users but work just as well for the visually impaired. So, whether companies realize it or not, these easy-to-navigate programs are connecting them to an audience they may not have considered.

Every seven minutes, someone in the United States loses his or her sight, a fact not lost on Apple, one of a number of companies that has seen the potential of this unfortunately growing market. Since Apple has designed its products to be accessible to the sighted and unsighted alike, Rush can use all of the iPhone's features, including text messaging, compass, and email. The only difference is that she deploys her built-in screen reader, VoiceOver, and screen magnifier, Zoom, to make them work for her.

Listen to a Screen Reader

For years, Rush said, as iPhone and Blackberry users became more and more glued to their devices, she couldn't help feeling a little jealous at being excluded from such a trendy, modern addiction, unattractive as it may be. "Emailing and texting from a mobile device — I couldn't do it," she said, "It was out of the question." Now, she can do it all.

On mobile devices, the law only requires that the call feature be accessible. So, the companies releasing phones entirely usable by the unsighted are doing so out of business concerns, since there are only limited legal requirements. Yet, the process to extend nondiscrimination requirements to text and data elements has begun. In October 2010, President Obama signed into law the Twenty-First Century Communications Act. Among other components in the comprehensive legislation, the act mandates that companies offer a wide selection of accessible mobile devices. Both the F.C.C., advocates and industry representatives are creating guidelines, which can be expected to take effect three years after their completion. This legislation is especially critical as President Obama pushes forward with his National Wireless Initiative to expand mobile broadband access.

"It's not as though we're asking for futuristic stuff," said Mark Richert, director of public policy at the American Foundation for the Blind. "Some of the things we're asking for have been available as solutions for companies to put in place for almost a decade. There's just been a massive lack of movement to do it."

And while there are some accessible devices on the market, they're expensive. The best deal comes from Apple, whose iPhone models (priced between fifty and three hundred dollars with a contract) come with a free, out-of-the-box screen reader. For phones running the Symbian operating system, users can purchase Mobile Speak or Talks, two screen readers that make most elements of the phone accessible, including the Internet. But to get these phones talking, visually impaired customers pay between a hundred and three hundred dollars for the software, about the price of the phone itself.

Then for BlackBerry users, the Oratio screen reader makes limited text (mostly on email) audible. At four hundred and fifty dollars, the software costs significantly more than the two hundred dollar device — and it's only partially compatible with the phone's Web browser.

One of the most glaringly inaccessible phones comes from Microsoft. When the company released Windows Phone 7 in October 2010, C.E.O. Steve Ballmer said it was delivering a different kind of mobile experience, one that "truly reflect[s] the speed of people's lives and their need to connect to other people." But, in the hands of a visually impaired user, this all-in-one device can't even send a text message. Microsoft has publicly admitted that its screen reader technology is not compatible with the phone's revamped operating system, making this device inoperative for users who rely on text-to-speech.

On Android-powered phones (the most widely used smartphone OS in the fourth quarter of 2010), users can snag a free, open source screen reader app from the online market. The screen reader is, however, a superficial solution, or, as John Hess, a former technology coordinator at Visions found, "a complete disaster."

"It's great if things are pushed to it [the screen reader] from the phone, so, if text messages pop up, yes, you can read them. But if you have to navigate through something, edit fields, or read things, you can't," said Hess, who is blind. "Once it's been out there, it's out there and you can't have it again. That's a problem because the blind person needs to have the ability to get the same information again, so if I missed the name I could review it. You can't do that on a Google phone yet, until Google makes changes."

The change Google needs to make is with the operating system, or the software that manages and coordinates activities. Although any dedicated developer can toy with the open sourced app, even the best-designed screen reader will not run on the phone.

"You can do everything with the iPhone," Hess went on. " When I hear of screen readers that are put out and they don't do this, I look at it like, 'Why do I want that kind of limitation?' I'm a business guy, I travel, and I need my phone to do the world and then some."

Because of the Communications Act, visually impaired customers can soon expect more accessible phones on the market — and at a better price. The new law will also create a clearinghouse of information, or a central place for shoppers to learn which phones work best for them.

As someone who is helping to shape the legislation, Mark Richert of the American Foundation for the Blind, who is also blind, wants the law to also change business perceptions of the visually impaired. "What we're trying to do is to make a fundamental shift that accessibility in the telecommunications area is not going to be the exception, it's not going to be the cool, new fringe notion that exists for just a couple products, for which you have to spend a lot of extra money," he said. "Accessibility will become an expectation and one that can reasonably be predicted to be fulfilled when you buy a product."

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In classrooms across the country, electronic tablets have replaced notebooks. A blackboard is not only a surface for chalk writing, but a Web site to access course materials. And apps can replace flashcards for geography, spelling, and more. While the digitization of school materials has advanced education, it has left many visually impaired students behind.

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BlackBoard, one of the largest learning management systems, is now accessible, although two years ago, the company would have failed a usability test. The greatest pressure to change came from the California state university system, which required BlackBoard to be accessible in order to bid on a contract. And so, by cooperating with the access technology team of the National Federation of the Blind, BlackBoard soon became a shining example of accessibility in education.

Mary Jo Hartle (Source: NFB)
Mary Jo Hartle (Source: NFB)

Mary Jo Hartle, director of education at the federation's Jernigan Institute, remembers that when she was in graduate school in a program for teachers of the blind from 2002 to 2004, using BlackBoard was challenging. "It would get stuck and not read down the menus. It was only getting part of the picture." Since she retains some of her sight, even though she is legally blind, she could use ZoomText, a screen magnifier. But those of her fellow classmates who exclusively used a screen reader had to hire someone to help them do their homework on BlackBoard. And even though BlackBoard is accessible, if a professor uploads a PDF, an utterly common occurrence, that has images instead of text ...

Hartle, who has a comforting demeanor, does not blame companies for failing to make their Web sites accessible. "Unless they have some reason to think about accessibility, they don't," she said. As an analogy, she likened the situation to the house hunter who does not factor in wheelchair accessibility, unless a family member or close friend is handicapped. Hartle argues that companies have a similar mentality: "Either they don't want to because of the expense and the time that it would take, or they're just ignorant—not in a rude way—but they don't know. It's not on their radar, so they don't do anything about it."

"Some of the things we're asking for have been available as solutions for companies to put in place for almost a decade."

When a 2008 study tested two university Web sites from every state against Section 508 standards, ninety-seven percent of pages had significant accessibility barriers. Yet it seems clear that educational Web sites cannot remain inaccessible for long. Unlike commercial Web sites, which are not regulated by clear legislation, education does falls under the government's jurisdiction. Plus, there is already a legal framework in place to protect the rights of an estimated seventy-five thousand visually impaired college and trade school students.

These students are not afraid to bring their complaints to court. Most recently, in mid-March, the National Federation filed discrimination complaints with the Department of Justice against N.Y.U. and Northwestern University for planning to use Google Apps for Education. The advocacy group argues that many of these programs, from Google Docs to Google Talks, are widely inaccessible.

In November 2010, the federation also sued Penn State for failing to make many of their services available to blind students and faculty, from the library Web site to the Web site of even the university's disability office. This lawsuit prompted the prosecuting attorney, Daniel Goldstein, to tell The Chronicle of Higher Education, "In a number of respects, blind students are at a greater disadvantage today than they were twenty years ago."

The federal government made its strongest stand in the June 2009 case against Kindle. When Arizona State University proposed a pilot program, exclusively using Amazon's Kindle to distribute course materials, the National Federation of the Blind promptly filed a class-action suit. The device, which has audio output when reading text, cannot read the menus. So, in order to access the book, a visually impaired user must have a sighted user's help. In the end, the Department of Justice forced A.S.U. and three other institutions to shut down their programs. The Departments of Education and Justice later sent out a letter to all university presidents, stating, "It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students."

This is not to say that there aren't accessible devices on the market. Apple's iPad is a widely accessible way of getting books, as through the iBooks app. While certain features, such as highlighting and marking one's spot, are not accessible, for the most part, the visually impaired community raves about the product. Olivero said, "I was able to get that access, so that's a major plus that I've never had before."

EBook readers can be especially helpful in cases where a textbook must be converted to an alternative form for a visually impaired student. In many cases, they have to wait weeks, even months, to obtain the materials that their peers receive immediately. A.S.U.'s disability resource center says that textbook conversion can take up to four months.

But there is a concern that technology will perpetuate the declining population of Braille readers, making the method seem anachronistic when there are readily available audio alternatives. Now, only ten percent of legally blind students are learning Braille, as compared to the fifty percent studying it in the 1950s. This decline can be attributed to a number of factors. For one, there is a stigma associated with learning the symbolic language of the blind. In many cases, parents and teachers will push a student with remaining vision to read enlarged text versions. When children first begin reading, the books are in large print anyway, but as they start reading denser texts, it becomes more difficult to read enlarged print books. "In most cases, the kids are only reading twenty or thirty words per minute. Their sighted peers are reading more like one hundred to one hundred fifty words per minute," said Hartle.

Plus, it is difficult to learn spelling, grammar, and formatting by ear. Rather than actively engaging with what students are writing, the learning is more passive. "It's like learning division on a calculator but you don't learn the basics of how to get there. You've got to know then how to punch a number in; you've got to know what you're doing," Hartle said.

Dawn Suvino, in her work with students, sees the same problems. "When technology first became so prevalent, so popular, so affordable, and so accessible, kids did stop learning Braille because it's not necessary anymore," she said. "Like the proponents of Braille have said, without an actual system that you can intimately see or touch, like Braille or print, it is very difficult for those rules to be solidified."

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The Internet, in its resistance to regulation, is the Wild West of the twenty-first century. After all, how could one prevent a Web site that does business in the United States, but is based in Hong Kong, from violating disability rights? And would a teenager selling knitted scarves through a small Web site be expected to abide by accessibility laws? Who would be held accountable for an inaccessible site—the Web developer or the company? These endless questions partly explain the Department of Justice's hesitation to move forward with clarifying the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Internet, in its resistance to regulation, is the Wild West of the twenty-first century.

While a law can send a clear message to a company to implement accessibility, whether in devices or on Web sites, the solution must be voluntary, not mandatory. Otherwise, what is to prevent a company from just adhering to the minimum requirements? "When companies just choose to do it without laws and legislation and a gun to their head, it's so much better because it creates an inclusive environment," Rush said.

Apple is the exemplar, Rush believes. Not only is the iPhone accessible, but Apple's iPad is, as Rush puts it, "the first electronic device in the history of the world to come to market fully accessible." Even though one might think a device without buttons would be useless to a visually impaired person, the touchscreen tablet is especially user-friendly. Plus, the assistive technology, which would be pricey if purchased separately, is already built-in. Rush thinks that the iPad will be a catalyst for getting more visually impaired people online.

The iPad may also set an example for other companies. Within twenty-eight days of its release, Apple sold one million iPads. Clearly, accessibility has not hampered Apple's innovation or profitability. Rush argues that the iPad has been so successful because when a company creates a product that's better for someone with special needs, it inevitably creates a product that is better for everyone.

The night before our meeting, Rush had watched "The Daily Show." Jon Stewart was interviewing Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, about his new book, Young Guns, on the emerging young leaders in the House. Stewart joked, "I thank you for the font size." Rush recalled the scene and laughed out loud.

Paulina can be contacted at

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NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute