The Internet can make life a lot more convenient for blind users - when it works. It's as frustrating as a roadblock when Web sites aren't designed to play nicely with software that reads text and instructions aloud.
As the world has migrated online, advocates for visually impaired people have pushed hard to make Web access truly accessible - an electronic equivalent of the ramps that give Americans in wheelchairs a way into buildings.
The Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind in particular has encouraged, cajoled and sued, stepping up its efforts in recent years because it believes that people who can't fully use the Internet can no longer fully function at school, work and home.
So it was delighted when online retailing giant Amazon.com asked for help to make its Web site more accessible now and down the line, as it looks for ways to incorporate new technology without overwhelming screen-reading software. Federation officials think the six-year partnership they have struck with Amazon, announced yesterday, could ripple outward as other businesses scramble to follow the retailer's lead.
"I think this agreement will make a dramatic difference," said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, noting that Amazon runs sites for other large retailers, too. Although those sites aren't covered by the new arrangement, Amazon said it would be happy to offer what it learns to those companies.
Amazon's Web site is generally praised as one of the better ones run by retailers. But both the company and visually impaired customers agree that there's room for improvement.
That's true of the Internet as a whole, and not just for people who can't see. For those who are deaf, can't use their hands, aren't able to distinguish colors or have cognitive disabilities, the Web experience is uneven at best. And every time a snazzy new tool such as streaming video spreads across the virtual landscape, some feel further shut out.
"There's been a lot of progress made on accessibility, but at the same time, because technologies keep moving ahead, there's still a lot of work that needs to be done," said Judy Brewer, director of the Web accessibility initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium, which develops standards for the Web. The group is working on version 2.0 of its accessibility guidelines.
Visually impaired users say problems at online retail Web sites tend to crop up when key parts of the site aren't labeled properly or at all. Screen-reading software, which costs about $750 to $1,000, can tell users what they need to know about pictures, graphics and fill-in-the-blank forms if there's text to read - even invisible "alt text" coding. No text, no luck. And any purchase that can't be completed without the click of a mouse is a purchase that a blind user can't make without someone else's help, the National Federation of the Blind says.
The group is suing Target Corp., alleging that the company has such accessibility problems.
Target said in a written statement yesterday that its site is "fully accessible and complies with all applicable laws." But it also noted that it is always trying to improve usability.
"The cooperation agreement reached between Amazon.com and the NFB should help support such efforts since Amazon.com hosts Target.com and has been our online service provider since 2002," Target spokeswoman Carolyn Brookter said in the statement.
Amazon said its decision to approach the federation had nothing to do with the Target lawsuit. But Maurer thinks the publicity got the company thinking about how to solve future accessibility challenges.
"They were anxious - very anxious - to be friendly rather than argumentative," said Maurer, who added that no money will be exchanging hands.
Said Patty Smith, an Amazon spokeswoman: "It certainly never hurts to be looking ahead and to figure out ways to implement solutions when they become available. We'll be in a better position to launch them quickly on our site."
It's a bottom-line matter for businesses and not only because someone might sue. If fewer customers are frustrated with the site's design, companies make more sales. Lots of text descriptions can mean better rankings on search engines, which are forever looking for keywords. And Web sites accessible to disabled users are accessible to people connecting via cell phone or other mobile devices.
"An accessible design is going to end up helping everybody," Brewer said.
A complex Web site could require complex changes to make it accessible, but the cost "is probably going to be very modest in comparison to what you're already putting into the site," she said. The World Wide Web Consortium keeps accessibility information at w3.org/wai.
Chris Danielsen, who edits the Voice of the Nation's Blind blog for the National Federation of the Blind, said Web sites that work well with his screen-reading software can be a real boon. He and several friends do a lot of their grocery shopping through the Internet because they can get what they need delivered - no need to catch a bus or cab, ask for assistance in the store and drag all their purchases home with them.
"It's certainly more convenient for blind people to do online," Danielsen said.