By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun
7:58 p.m. EDT, September 27, 2010
In a large lab filled with rows of computers and other devices at the National Federation of the Blind, a small team of technical analysts works with gadgets and websites to test how easily they can be used by the blind.
The latest site to pass muster is also one of the web’s largest and busiest: the online auction site eBay.
The Baltimore-based advocacy group recently struck a partnership with eBay to make the site more accessible to blind users. And eBay decided to go a big step further — with an investment of $250,000 in seed money to fund blind entrepreneurs who wish to use the site to start a small business.
The blind community endures an unemployment and under-employment rate that approaches 70 percent, according to the NFB.
“The goal here is for our collaboration to go beyond mere compliance with industry-best guidelines for web accessibility,” said Jonas Klink, eBay’s senior product manager for accessibility. “The goal is to work with the NFB to identify promising individuals, provide seed funding and help them set up eBay stores.”
The NFB has worked with dozens of companies to help make their sites more user-friendly for the blind, who number about 1.3 million in the United States.
Federal law requires that government websites be accessible to blind users, who can use special screen-access software to listen to the words on a screen, or custom keyboards to “read” words in Braille. But there is no website accessibility requirement for private companies.
Derek Featherstone, president of Further Ahead, a Canada-based web accessibility consulting group, said the NFB’s agreement with eBay was a milestone for blind Internet users. There’s still “a long way to go” to persuade many popular websites to become more accessible to blind users, he said.
NFB and eBay’s collaboration is “really making people take notice,” he said.
Occasionally, the NFB, with its 50,000 members, files a lawsuit, as it did against
Target and its website. The two sides settled the class-action suit two years ago, with Target agreeing to improve its website and pay $6 million in damages in what was hailed as a landmark disabilities rights case.
“There is some concern amongst companies about poor public relations,” said Featherstone. “You’ve got a carrot and a stick, and sometimes it takes a stick to enact change.”
More recently, the NFB criticized an earlier version of Amazon’s Kindle DX e-book reader for not being easily accessible. The NFB filed a lawsuit against Arizona State University to prevent the school from deploying the device
to students because it lacked certain features. The NFB has praised new versions of the Kindle released this year for its improvements for the blind.
The NFB also has lauded Apple’s iPad,
a tablet computer that uses screen-reading and touch screen technology.
“Apple has done amazing things,” said Anne Taylor, the NFB’s director of access technology, during a demonstration in the NFB’s International Braille and Technology Center in South Baltimore.
Another big company that NFB worked with in the past few years is Blackboard, a Washington-based online learning management system provider. Thousands of primary and secondary schools use Blackboard for online education, electronic course materials, discussion boards, grading and assignment submissions, and NFB worked with the company to improve its accessibility for blind students.
The NFB had worked with eBay for more than a year to improve the site so that blind web users can use technology to navigate it by sound. The NFB did not threaten a lawsuit against eBay, said NFB spokesman Chris Danielson.
“We have a team here that works with companies like eBay to discuss what kind of accessibility features are needed,” said Danielson. Three of the four
team members are blind, he said.
“Blind people are a cross-section of society,” Danielson said. “They may want to have a business, acquire some inventory, whether it’s CDs or books or
whatever is sold on eBay.”
As part of a three-year agreement with eBay, the company will work with the NFB to educate selected blind people as certified eBay trainers. The NFB also plans to launch its own eBay store, which will serve as a model for potential blind entrepreneurs and sell assistive devices for the blind such as white canes and talking watches.