Screen-reading software helps blind users navigate the Web as advocates press for greater accessibility

The sightless follow the voice of the Internet

November 23, 2007|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,Sun reporter

As Michael Bullis sped from one Web page to another in his search for Christmas presents this week, he saw none of them. Blind for most of his life, he has never seen the Internet.

But he doesn't need to. He can hear it.

Screen-reading software has for years translated the visual experience of computers and the Web into one-way conversations for blind users, reading aloud everything from the welcome message on a home page to the instructions for making an online purchase.

Sometimes this works very well, sometimes not at all. If there are no words, there's nothing to read - which means an image with no descriptive text tucked away in the coding is truly invisible.

The Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, calling the Internet a critical part of everyday life that should be fully accessible to the country's 1.3 million legally blind residents, has brought national attention to the issue by coaxing - and occasionally suing - companies to make their sites more screen-reader-friendly.

Last month it won class-action status for a lawsuit against Target Corp., though the company contends that its site is fully accessible.

"I think that more blind Americans will attempt to shop online this Black Friday than ever before, and we hope that they have a better experience," said John G. Par? Jr., executive director for strategic initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind.

Bullis, who isn't involved in the suit, says some sites are a pain. But 99 times out of 100, he can find his way around. He expects to try things several different ways when he's on the prowl for a product or the checkout button. It's one part logic puzzle, one part treasure hunt.

"Hey, the freedom I've got now compared to what I had five years ago or 10 years ago is incredible," said Bullis, an instructor with Blind Industries and Services of Maryland who does as much of his shopping as he can online.

"This is a whole new world, you know? You can talk about whether the cup is half-full or half-empty; in my view, the cup is overflowing."

Bullis, a 54-year-old Baltimore resident, is a self-described geek where computers are concerned. His first was an Apple IIe in 1984; now he has a PC with four hard drives. Over those years, screen-readers have gone from rudimentary to pretty darn intelligent, in his opinion, though computers - and the Internet especially - have also become exponentially more complex.

Bullis took a break from work Monday morning to start his holiday shopping. His goal: Buy three copies of a favorite book for some of the adults on his gift list and find a nice globe for his 5-year-old daughter, Julianna.

A touch typist, he started with the book, typing the name and author into a search engine. As a check against typos, the screen reader's robotic voice repeated the letters out loud at the rat-a-tat-tat pace of an auctioneer on fast-forward. (Bullis keeps the speed at a head-spinning 350 words a minute because that's how fast a good human reader can process text, and he wants to be just as efficient.)

The results from his search appeared. The reader said: "One hundred headings and 428 links." A lot to consider - and that was just the first page.

Bullis uses keystrokes rather than a mouse, since point-and-click does little good if you can't see. The screen-reader software has dedicated keys to help navigate. So he keyed his way past the links unrelated to his search and stopped as the reader announced "Amazon.com."

That sounded promising, he thought. He hit the "Enter" key to go to the Amazon page for the science-fiction book he wants.

"Seven headings and 113 links," the reader told him.

Now for the logic puzzle: Which of those links was the one to buy the book? He tapped the dedicated H key repeatedly to scroll through the headings for clues. "Gift ideas for book lovers," said the reader. "Best books of 2007," said the reader. None of this was getting him where he wanted to go.

He switched to the N key, which moved him to each blank line on the page, to look for new subjects.

"OK, so now they're describing the book," Bullis said, listening to the reader. "And now they've gotten into reviews. I don't really want to review the book, I just want to buy it."

Next step: Search for the word "buy."

"Buy three books, get a fourth free," the reader suggested.

Bullis snorted.

He kept trying. He found "add to wedding registry" - "I don't think so," he said - and "foreword by Kurt Vonnegut," also not helpful. Then, five minutes after he started with the search engine, the reader said the magic word: "Availability."

"Ah, here we go!" he exclaimed, pouncing on it. If he had remembered that was the go-to word, he could have searched for it to begin with.

From there, he picked a candidate from the long used-and-new list. He changed the number of items to buy from one to three. He selected a shipping option, updated his credit-card information, hit "continue" - and then realized the subcontractor he had chosen for the book didn't offer gift wrap.

Ah, well.

Bullis decided to give it a break, search for his daughter's present and come back to Amazon later, since his almost-order would be preserved and he wouldn't have to start from square one. He called the wandering around to get to checkout "a little frustrating," but anyone could have been caught by the gift wrap.

"We're more alike than different," Bullis said of sighted and blind Internet users. "Yeah, my computer talks to me, but after that, I'm a guy who doesn't like to shop and is sometimes overwhelmed by the Web."

Not by the necessity of hearing a visual medium. By all the choices.

"I think that's a complaint that everybody has," he said.

jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

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