Helping the blind go online

Information: A Web site unveiled here makes it easier for the blind to connect to the ocean of information available on the Internet.

October 08, 2003|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Although the World Wide Web has put the world at people's fingertips, its full benefits are often denied to those who can't see.

"Access to information is one of the principal problems blind people have," said Marc Maurer, president of the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind (NFB). "If you are blind - unless you want to stop practicing your profession - you need access to information. But how do you get to know what other people know?"

At a news conference yesterday at the federation headquarters, a Reston, Va., technology consultant and representatives from the NFB and General Electric Co. unveiled GE's new Internet site as a leading example of a corporate Web site made more accessible to the blind. The site was redesigned to work more effectively with software that "talks" through Web sites.

GE, the Fairfield, Conn.-based appliance, electronics and broadcasting conglomerate, has emphasized a commitment to corporate diversity. It approached the federation in May for help with revamping its site for the blind, along with assistance from Deque Systems Inc., a Reston technology company that specializes in information accessibility.

GE wants next to extend the program to its Internet sites for individual business units and its career site, said Deborah A. Elam, global manager of GE's choice initiatives.

"GE is committed to having [a work force] of people with diverse backgrounds," she said.

About 1.5 million blind and visually impaired people have regular access to the Internet, according to the NFB. A blind person intending to use the Internet needs a personal computer and two other key pieces of technology, neither of them inexpensive.

A "screen-reader" program such as "Window-Eyes" translates the written words on the Web site into synthetic speech or Braille language. GE.com was reprogrammed to work more intuitively with the software. Users with the screen-reading software are informed when they are at the top or bottom of the Web site or when they move their cursor over a "hot link."

The second accessory necessary for blind Internet users is a "refreshable Braille display," which sits beneath the keyboard. It enables navigation around the Web site through Braille and costs between $4,500 and $9,000, said Brad Hodges, the NFB's technology access manager.

Just as a blind person will often move about a room to learn its layout, Hodges did the same when he dialed into GE.com. Special programming on GE's site made it possible, with the screen-reader and synthetic-speech feature, for Hodges to know when was at the top or bottom of the screen.

He was able to peruse GE's content: links to the site map, information on the company's privacy policy, news about an acquisition, a current stock price and jumping-off points to each of the company's business units.

The software differentiated for Hodges whether he was dealing with an actual link to click on or just information to browse.

At his demonstration at the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind, within NFB headquarters, Hodges clicked on links and drilled down several levels into the Web site, demonstrating that this technology isn't superficial, and wouldn't desert him, no matter how deeply he delved.

"It's like a city putting in street signs," Hodges said. "You should be able to read them easily from your car. And [the signs] should be placed on every street corner, and not just on the main streets."

Other nonaccessible Web sites can cause confusion for blind users - even if they have the expensive software and accessories. Users often can't determine where their cursor is on the screen, and some of the links are "spoken" as gibberish software code instead of as words.

The federation, GE and Deque declined to discuss the cost of the project, but maintained that the investment was a reasonable one for corporate America.

"If the blind have the same access to information ... we can perform our jobs quite [effectively]," said Maurer, the NFB president and an attorney by trade.

"And that can help build a society."

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