The Challenges of Surfing While Blind

The Challenges of Surfing While Blind

The Challenges of Surfing While Blind–taken from the Wall Street Journal

My seeing-eye dog can’t help me with your website. Please code it for accessibility.


DeAnn Elliott

July 26, 2015 6:39 p.m. ET


The other day while going about my business on the Internet, I hit a brick wall: a map of the United States.

I was diagnosed at 28 with retinitis pigmentosa and declared legally blind at 41. I no longer see the screen well enough to use my mouse to point and click. But with a standard laptop and some software that reads the screen to me in a voice that sounds like Stephen Hawking’s, I can accomplish nearly everything that I once did with a mouse using memorized key commands.

But to make a purchase on this particular website, I was asked to choose my home state not from an alphabetical list, but by clicking on a map. For a blind person, that’s akin to being in a wheelchair and encountering a flight of stairs.

Photo: Getty Images

A well-designed website that conforms to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG) permits use by people of all abilities. In my case, text labels that identify the buttons and graphical features allow me to “see” what’s on the screen. The code is hidden and need not interfere with the way the website works for sighted customers. But without these features, a site that works beautifully with a mouse is useless to me.

Technology has removed many of the barriers that people with disabilities face in the physical world, making life in the mainstream tantalizingly close. Can’t drive to the mall? There’s Amazon! Can’t read the electric bill? Bank online! As my guide dog and I contemplate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the landmark civil-rights law signed July 26, 1990, the gap between sight and blindness has never been narrower.

The ADA requires government websites to be accessible. Sadly, the law provides little guidance to the private sector on this point, since it was passed before the Internet became ubiquitous. It applies to a “place” of public accommodation—but is the Internet a place? That question has been wending its way through the courts.

Disability advocates have worked to broaden the law’s applicability, with some success. In April, Harvard University and M.I.T. announced plans to voluntarily make their edX website for online courses compliant with the WCAG after deaf advocates filed federal lawsuits alleging discrimination. In 2010 the Justice Department announced it would consider issuing Web-accessibility regulations under the ADA, though the rule-making process lumbers on. With the number of websites growing rapidly, change isn’t coming fast enough.

“More than 50 percent of the websites on the Internet are either inaccessible or unusable for people who use adaptive technology,” Brian Charlson, director of technology at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass., told me in his office a few months back.

The consequences range from inconvenient to significant. When I can’t place an online order at my favorite Vietnamese noodle shop, I get Chinese instead. If a task is urgent, I pester family and friends for “favors.” When they hover over my screen to help me navigate around a virtual barrier, I’m keenly aware that my charge-card number and the details of my transaction are on display. At work, unequal access in an increasingly networked economy contributes to an unemployment rate that’s more than twice as high for people with disabilities—and that’s not counting many who have given up looking for work.

Recently I met a Web programmer who confessed that she omitted accessibility features because they weren’t explicitly required. Deadlines were tight. Budgets were tighter. Most customers liked the graphics. I appreciated her candor.

I explained that making a site accessible shouldn’t be seen as a bother. Rather, compliance helps a company reach the largest number of customers. As techno-savvy baby boomers age into vision and hearing loss, many more people will need accommodation. Companies that fail to adjust risk squandering years of accumulated goodwill.

Further, accessible websites often perform better in search results, since images are tagged with descriptive text. These features benefit people who have limited English proficiency or are using technology in places where they have difficulty reading the screen.

Several organizations, including the nonprofit Carroll Center, offer accessibility consulting to help businesses. “The changes are often cheaper and easier than people think,” Mr. Charlson says. There are three levels of WCAG conformance, and though the highest level might look intimidating, settlements to accessibility lawsuits usually recommend the middle one.

In the 25 years since the passage of the ADA, businesses have removed brick-and-mortar barriers to their facilities, erecting ramps and installing elevators. Now it’s time to finish the job and tear down the virtual barriers. Besides, I’d rather shop than sue.

Ms. Elliott is a Boston-based disability advocate who blogs for the Carroll Center for the Blind.