Buzz’s Blog: On Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web

Dec 15 2009   4:03AM GMT

The Web and Folks with Limited Vision

Roger King Roger King Profile: Roger King

I’ve been a little remiss lately in posting to this blog. I try to do it every week, but I’ve recently had one in a long series of eye surgeries, and I have been having trouble reading printed material and computer displays. This blog is about advanced Web technology, and for this posting, I’d like to look at the plight of folks with limited vision who are trying to be part of the web world.

Over the past few years, I have had cornea transplants. The corneas are the clear outer surface of the eye, which pre-focusses light for the lens. I have also had cataract surgery. This is done to replace diseased natural lenses with plastic ones. I am also super-super-nearsighted and have extreme astigmatism in both eyes.

Limited vision and the Web.

Here are some of the things that have made a difference or hold promise for the future:

The basic approach: lower screen resolutions.

This is what a lot of us already do. I use a 30 inch display and set the pixel density far lower than its maximum. I crank up the brightness. This is something that an individual can do on their own, assuming they can afford an expensive display.

The application approach: enlarging fonts on GUIs and in viewing windows.

This is something else I do. It’s hard to enlarge fonts in the GUIs of applications (like Microsoft Word), but many applications allow you to enlarge fonts inside the main work window, without enlarging fonts in the document (or other artifact) that is being created.

The browser approach: browser plugins for enlarging areas of webpages.

There are a couple of these out. I have a sister who is a science writer, and she pointed me toward http://lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability/ ( I have since learned that there are others). This plugin works with Firefox. It extracts text from webpages and blows it up.

The webpage standards approach:
        
screen readers for text, graphics, and markups,
        the use of high contrast colors and special style sheets,
        alternative viewing pages and search pages.

Much of this is actively underway, but it has been very slow to be deployed in the real world. This approach calls for a lot of cooperation between web developers, web standards folks, and society in general to make a significant investment in developing effective technology, in particular screen readers. These readers allow people with limited vision to hear written text, and descriptions of graphic images and internal pieces of webpages. Alternative pages for use by folks with limited vision might not be cost effective for a business to construct, but there is a precedent: many companies (like Amazon) have alternative pages for extra-small devices, and ironically, these can be easier for folks like me to use because they get rid of many of the noisy images, boxes, lines, and unnecessary text.

Online volunteers: the social approach.

This is something that is very promising. If volunteers can make themselves available via phone or Skype when a person with limited vision needs help, they can quickly pull up the same webpages and walk the person through the process of using them. Over the years, I have had my wife and kids do this for me, often when we are not even in the same building.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Well, it’s very hard for people with limited vision to use the Web, and the growing use of video and images and animations in webpages (something that is arriving hand-in-hand with Web 2.0/3.0) is making it all the worse.

… Consider volunteering to be available on the phone or on Skype for a friend or relative or coworker who might need occasional help. And if you are a Web developer or operate a Web-based business or organization, consider the PR coup that would come with being at the forefront of making your website more accessible!

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