Most Americans take the internet for granted. Banking, accessing medical records, making reservations, shopping and school/work-related research are routinely done online. Blind Americans, however, who rely on text-to-speech software (aka screen readers) are being left behind. And, why? The technology to fix this problem has been here for years. Inaccessibility even prevents them from raising their voices about it.
Web Accessibility: Academic Research Illuminates the Problem
In 2011, Dr. Brian Wentz (Professor of Management Information Systems at Shippensburg University), published an academic study concluding that fully 80% of the internet is inaccessible. In Wentz’s 2016 study on banking/financial sites and apps, he discovered that the problem is so bad that alarming numbers of blind people pay hefty sums for help. Find his published research at: http://www.bwentz.com/
Web inaccessibility comes in many forms. Some sites simply don’t work, often crashing screen reader software and requiring a system re-boot.
Other times, islands of inaccessibility make it impossible to interact with a site. A “Send” button won’t work, checking a checkbox will cause the screen reader to be thrown out of focus, leaving the checkbox unchecked. Sites using linked graphics don’t have alt tags explaining what they are, so the screen reader reads gibberish. Often, crucial features aren’t labeled at all. Even government sites and representatives’ “Contact” forms present problems.
Digital Access vs. Physical Access: an Analogy
Digital accessibility is to blind people what access to brick and mortar buildings is to people with physical disabilities. When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, however, the internet was in its infancy. There was no Amazon, no Facebook and no Google.
When someone wishes to build a shopping mall, hospital, library or apartment complex, they must include wheelchair ramps, elevators and accessible bathrooms. Plans not addressing these issues don’t make it off the drawing board.
There is a massive difference in cost between these real-world accessibility accommodations and the considerably cheaper implementation of the “virtual ramps” of 1s and 0s necessary to connect each website to the text-to-speech software that blind people need in order to use digital devices like computers and cellphones. Nonetheless, there is no similar set of regulations ensuring equal digital access.
Obama’s Broken Promise
In 2010, for the twentieth anniversary of the ADA, the US Department of Justice (DOJ), released an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM). It addressed the obligation of public accommodations to provide websites that are accessible to individuals with disabilities. Blind people and those with low vision are not the only ones impacted by this problem. Those with learning, sensory and physical disabilities that inhibit their use of the mouse and monitor, also rely on assistive technology and have similar access issues.
President Obama, who called these proposed rules, “the most important updates to the ADA since its original enactment,” promised to release the regulations necessary to achieve a level playing field by 2012. He didn’t. In fact, he recently pushed the date back to 2018. He has effectively washed his hands of the matter, leaving blind Americans to start from scratch with a new administration.
In January, blind people decided to try yet another approach — a Whitehouse petition. Gabe Cazares, Government Affairs Specialist for the advocacy, training and research nonprofit National Federation of the Blind (NFB), posted the petition. As per the rules, if 100,000 people sign in a month, the President must address the issue. Until Feb. 11, it’s at: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/direct-us-department-justice-promptly-release-ada-internet-regulations
100,000 isn’t that many signatures for most of the major minorities, but for a low-incidence minority like blindness, it’s monumental. Add to that the fact that the petition is only marginally accessible to people using screen readers, and you can see that a Herculean effort has been necessary. Some, who have been advocating for accessibility for years, feel more like Sisyphus.
Press Coverage So Far is Limited
The effort has caught the attention of only a tiny group of mainstream publications. On Feb. 4, Washington, D.C.’s The Hill published an op ed by NFB President Mark Riccobono, “Inequality & Indifference.” http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/civil-rights/266943-inequality-and-indifference
On Feb. 2, in the print edition of the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, features writer Mary Therese Biebel wrote an article “Web Changes Lose Sight of Some Users: The Visually Impaired Seek Change in Regulations.” A version appears online at : http://timesleader.com/features/508443/advocate-for-the-blind-donna-hill-of-meshoppen-asks-people-to-sign-petition-regarding-internet-access
On the same day, psychologist Dr. Nancy O’Reilly of Women Connect4Good published “Sign The Petition And Guarantee Access For All!” http://www.drnancyoreilly.com/sign-the-petition-and-guarantee-access-for-all/
Back on 1/22/16, I published “An Author’s Life Without Accessible Websites & an Easy Fix: Sign This Petition to Wake Up Obama” at: https://donnawhill.com/2016/01/22/life-without-accessible-websites-and-easy-fix-sign-petition-wake-up-obama/
I hate to be a pessimist, but with less than 4,000 signatures at this point, it’s hard to conceive of a situation developing in which we get the required 100,000 signatures. Nevertheless, to my fellow Americans, I encourage you to sign, write to, or call your federal representatives and share this information with your family, friends, co-workers and local papers. We are striving for independence, but we do need your help on this. Let the government know that you consider us equals. Sign now, if you haven’t already, and thank you. https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/direct-us-department-justice-promptly-release-ada-internet-regulations