Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, January 1, 2010
During her high school years, Lisamaria Martinez, who has been visually impaired since she was 5, carried a 25-pound backpack to school crammed with books written in Braille.
But once she was introduced to the Web at UC Berkeley, she started getting professors’ class notes by e-mail, using text-to-speech software, and trading heavy Braille tomes for a few words and a click on a search engine.
A world without the Internet today, she said, is unimaginable.
“I’d cry. It’s my job. It’s how I find recipes, shop (for) my groceries, read the paper and download my books. It’s everything,” said Martinez, now 28 and a technology sales associate at the store run by San Francisco advocacy group LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
The Internet has brought enormous benefits to people with disabilities, allowing them to become more competitive when applying for jobs, lessen their dependence on others, engage more actively in public debates and connect with their peers in ways that were impossible before.
But at the same time, as society becomes more intertwined with digital media, the disabled struggle not to be left behind.
This year was marked by several success stories in the fight to improve accessibility in digital media.
Amazon.com announced last month that it will add two features to improve the accessibility of its digital media reader Kindle after two universities said in November that they wouldn’t consider widely adopting the device until it was easier to use for their blind and visually impaired students.
In a boon for the deaf and hard of hearing, Google began offering an automated captioning system that allows YouTube users to switch on captions in many more of the site’s videos.
In June, Twitter officials agreed to change their security tests – the garbled words many Web sites ask users to type to avoid fake registrations – to a newer version that works better with screen readers the visually impaired often rely on.
In that same month, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., introduced legislation that would require captioning for all videos in U.S. Web sites, just as is required of television.
And three advocacy groups for the blind reached legal settlements with drugstore chain CVS and office supplies retailer Staples, which agreed to make their Web sites compliant with widely accepted accessibility standards, said Lainey Feingold, the disability rights attorney who handled the cases.
Joshua Miele, a research scientist at Smith-Kettlewell Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center, knows firsthand how technology can improve the lives of people with limited or no sight. Miele, who is blind, has developed a Web site that generates maps that can be printed in Braille and an audio-tactile periodic table that allows blind children to hear information on the elements by tapping on the table with a digital recorder pen.
However, he is also acutely aware of the uphill battle faced by those trying to turn promise into reality.
“It might seem things are more accessible than before, but you have to remember that new stuff always comes along that at its inception is almost always not accessible,” Miele said. “If people designing new technologies planned better, and took universal design and accessibility seriously, it really would be an amazing new world.”
People with disabilities often depend on Web designers to program their sites with accessibility in mind, incorporating such features as compatibility with screen-reading software, video captions, color and font size options, and query suggestions for typing errors.
More Web programmers are aware of the need for such options as advocates have become more effective in voicing their concerns.
Jennifer Yeagley, director of development at LightHouse, said the Bay Area is a perfect place to have a dialogue about Web accessibility because of the concentration of both technology companies and agencies that serve the disabled.
LightHouse has hosted several focus groups with Silicon Valley tech giants Yahoo, Google and Apple to discuss accessibility and give them feedback on applications. In turn, the companies often host training sessions for LightHouse members on how to use new adaptive technology.
“We give them a venue to speak about those components of their technology to their prospective buyers,” Yeagley said.
Businesses have also learned that they stand to benefit by meeting the needs of the disabled.
For example, they have a better chance of obtaining federal contracts because federal agencies, which are required to ensure that all their electronic and information technologies are accessible to people with disabilities, also are allowed to work only with contractors who follow the same guidelines.
“This is a huge market that traditionally, quite frankly, has been underserved. From a business perspective, that’s another reason why we’re very focused on this population,” said Frances West, director of IBM’s Human Ability and Accessibility Center. “This is changing very quickly from a charity and philanthropic perspective to a more mainstream and business-oriented opportunity.”
In an effort to promote universal standards, the World Wide Web Consortium developed a set of guidelines for how an accessible site should look. They include providing text alternatives for images, providing captions for audio and video, and enabling all-keyboard navigation.
However, only a small portion of Web content meets the basic requirements for easy navigation, said Judy Brewer, director of the consortium’s efforts.
“Most of us working in the Web accessibility field almost always find some level of accessibility barriers in Web sites. Businesses are doing better than they were doing some years ago, but there’s still massive room for improvement,” she said.
Advocates say making sites more accessible to disabled users often improves navigation for everyone. Font and spacing options, for instance, might also help children learn to read or nonnative English speakers comprehend better.
“The misconception that has existed is that an accessible Web site will be boring, and it’s not true. You can have the look you want and, in fact, it will be a cleaner look that will benefit all readers,” said Feingold, the disability rights attorney.
E-mail Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle