Technology continues to improve the way people who are blind interact with technology and make use of the Internet. In any major screen reader release, improvements to the way the product works on the Web are front and center in all “What’s New” documentation. Furthermore, modern software applications make use of, and behave like, webpages to such an extent that it can often be difficult to know where a desktop application ends and the Internet begins.
There is one thing, however, that can stop a blind person in his or her tracks more abruptly than just about anything else when it comes to working on the Web, and that is the presence of a graphical image that must be identified before one can proceed any further with a task. The use of these images is known as “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart,” or CAPTCHA. According to a recent Mental Floss article, CAPTCHA was “developed in the early 2000s by engineers at Carnegie Mellon University” who wanted to find a way to “filter out the overwhelming armies of spambots pretending to be people.”
The idea behind CAPTCHA was to present text that was garbled or distorted in such a way that a computer couldn’t read it, but a human could. To pass the test and be allowed to proceed, the human accurately types the words and numbers she sees into an edit box. Over the years, a variety of approaches have been taken to the CAPTCHA process. Today, human users of the Internet are regularly required to identify not only text and numbers CAPTCHAs, but images of animals and everyday objects as well.
Unfortunately, screen readers are unable to make sense of these images. In an effort to walk the line between keeping out unwanted intruders and allowing blind people to have access to the same content as their sighted counterparts, some sites offer audio CAPTCHA. The idea is to present garbled words and numbers, or bury the words and numbers a blind person needs to hear in amongst a crowd of other sounds. Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the words and numbers that need to be entered into the text area of a CAPTCHA test from the clutter of other sounds. If a blind person also has hearing difficulties, the problem is only compounded.
Early Solutions to the CAPTCHA Conundrum
In 2009, The Blind Access Journal reported on a new service called Solona. To use Solona, you install software on your computer, take a screen shot of the CAPTCHA on a webpage, locate the image of the screen shot on your computer, submit that image via the installed software, wait for a human to translate the CAPTCHA, and then paste the resulting text into the answer field. If the process seems tedious to the reader, actually going through the above-mentioned steps to solve a CAPTCHA was equally tedious–but nobody complained. The tireless enthusiasm of Solana’s developer, and the dedication of the people who solved the CAPTCHA requests submitted to the service did not go unnoticed by the blind community.
As wonderful as Solona was, there were some security risks involved. Users were encouraged to make certain that no sensitive information had been typed into a website’s forms before a CAPTCHA was submitted, because any volunteer would see whatever was captured by the screen shot. Many in the blind community were more than willing to take the extra precautions needed to have their CAPTCHA images translated for them.
Eventually, the Solona service was ended very abruptly under circumstances that are unclear to this day, and nothing took its place for a while. For those people who eventually switched from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser to the Mozilla Firefox browser, the Webvisum extension became a viable means of solving a CAPTCHA, but the extension only worked in that browser.
Building a Better Way to Kill CAPTCHA
Christopher Toth is a guy who isn’t afraid to tackle a challenge. He first became known to the blind community as the creator of a free, and phenomenally popular Twitter client known as Qwitter. Eventually, the free client was replaced by a paid program colorfully named Chicken Nugget. Besides a Twitter client, Toth’s company, Accessible Apps, has released Hope, an accessible interface for the popular Pandora music service, as well as QRead, an ebook reader that facilitates the reading of a number of electronic text formats. There are more software offerings currently available from Accessible Apps, with more likely to be on the way. Being a blind computer programmer gives Toth intimate understanding of the needs of the blind community when it comes to creating innovative technology.
In February of last year, Toth went on the popular assistive technology podcast The Blind Bargains Qast (BBQ) to talk about his latest project, then still under development. Called CAPTCHA Be Gone, this new service would combine the power of computing technology with human intervention to make the solving of CAPTCHA images for blind people as quick and efficient as possible.
How CAPTCHA Be Gone Works
The first thing that anyone wishing to use CAPTCHA Be Gone must do is to visit the website and sign up for a subscription to the service. Currently, there are two plans to choose from. You can spend $3.00 per month, or $33.00 per year. This is an introductory price, but it is not clear how long this offer will last. In the podcast interview mentioned above, Toth states that, because paid humans are partly involved in the process of solving CAPTCHAs, it would not be economically sustainable to allow users of the service to pay for each CAPTCHA-solving incident individually.
CAPTCHA Be Gone works with all major Windows screen readers and plans are under way to support mobile browsers, and Mac in the future.
Once you have picked a plan and signed up for the service, you need to download an extension for all of the browsers you intend to use–Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, or Firefox. You can download any or all of these extensions at any time. Toth hopes to make the service work with mobile browsers as well as Safari sometime in the future.
I found the instructions for downloading and installing the extensions to be very straightforward. I installed extensions for Internet Explorer and Firefox, although I only tried the service using Firefox. I used JAWS when requesting to have a CAPTCHA solved.
For my test, I signed into my Audible.com account using Firefox. I needed to reset my password for some reason. After that process was completed, I was presented with a CAPTCHA when signing in with Firefox for the first time. When I came to the CAPTCHA answer field, I pressed CTRL+Shift+S, and received an audible prompt that the CAPTCHA was being solved. In a few seconds, I heard the letters and numbers read back to me, and the information was copied to the Windows clipboard. I went to the edit box where I needed to fill in the requested information, and pasted the result there. With that, I was happily on my way. As an alternative to pressing CTRL+Shift+S, it is possible to right-click anywhere on a webpage and search for a CAPTCHA if you aren’t sure exactly where it is. The CAPTCHA Be Gone service is smart enough to distinguish a CAPTCHA from other information on a webpage, so you don’t have to be concerned about a human seeing personal information that you may have already entered such as your date of birth, or phone number.
The Bottom Line
CAPTCHA Be Gone is an easy-to-use service that does exactly what it promises–it allows someone with a visual impairment to successfully enter the information requested by a CAPTCHA with a minimal amount of inconvenience. Ironically, one of the most difficult things for me when it came to testing the service was the inability to actually find a CAPTCHA when I wanted one. The CAPTCHA barrier presents itself to a blind person at the most unexpected and inconvenient times, and that is part of the beauty of this subscription-based service. I personally have no problem paying a fee to have the comfort of knowing that I can get past this barrier when I need to. When I was resetting my password and trying to log on to the Audible website, I had a bit of trouble getting things to work. I don’t know whether the problem was with my password, or if the CAPTCHA in question was not being solved properly. I found myself hoping that I wasn’t driving a human somewhere crazy with my requests for CAPTCHA-solving. There is no way to tell whether the computer is generating the answer, or if human intervention is needed. In the four or five times I needed to have a CAPTCHA solved during my test, only once did I not get a response. After trying again a few seconds later, a result was returned and my attempt to enter the result of the solved CAPTCHA was ultimately successful. For me, at least, I will probably need to pay for several months of use, and request that several CAPTCHAs be solved before I can truly determine the effectiveness of this service. This is money I am willing to spend. For anyone who does not wish to inconvenience the sighted people in their lives, or for anyone who may not have a sighted person around frequently, I believe that CAPTCHA Be Gone is a service worth supporting.
Product: CAPTCHA Be Gone (currently compatible with Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, and Firefox) Cost: $3.00 per month; $33 per year (introductory rates)
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