Sorry if this post is a bit long, but this is a complex subject. It also explains why it is several weeks since I updated the blog; I have just had to do a bit more research and give a lot of thought to this before I felt ready to publish. So here goes.

Sorry if this post is a bit long, but this is a complex subject. It also explains why it is several weeks since I updated the blog; I have just had to do a bit more research and give a lot of thought to this before I felt ready to publish. So here goes.

It seems to me that as technology keeps “improving”, it is actually becoming more difficult for blind and low vision people to do our business on the net. It should be the other way around because the net, if well managed, offers huge potential for blind people to do business in a way that is more inclusive than ever. So why are we heading in the wrong direction?

First, I give some examples of situations that are typical and which I have recently experienced myself, and then I comment on why we need more regulation of business websites.

I recently went to Parris for the Louis Braille conference. I’ve already blogged about that. I paid my own way. A few weeks before I was due to leave, I logged onto the Air New Zealand airpoints site, as I have done many times before, only to find that they had updated it with “Flash” technology, and now it was completely inaccessible to me. I was no longer able to check my airpoints balance or check if I was owed any points on recent flights. I complained to Air New Zealand, as I know at least one other blind person also did. They told me this week that they are fixing it so maybe it will turn out ok in the end, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Imagine if it was my bank that suddenly made its website inaccessible. Now that really would make me angry, and it is scary to think that in today’s environment, that could easily happen.

In another example, a shopping site I visit from time to time works with one popular screen reader I have (I’ll call it reader A), but not with another reader which is also quite popular (I’ll call it reader B). Without getting too technical, the site uses a website coding technique that makes certain menu options invisible until you track the mouse over them. The irony is that the reason why this site works with reader A and not B is because reader A actually reads the text which is not displayed, but it is not always desirable for a screen reader to read text that is actually not visible. The more technically correct solution is that this site could be easily re-coded to follow accessibility standards, and it would then work with both readers, with no detriment to sighted users.

In another example, the organisation where I work has a payroll kiosk that all staff are meant to use for checking payslips, applying for leave, etc. It has a main menu of categories, and within each category are a number of functions or things you can do. But for whatever reason the functions within each main menu option don’t display with screen reader A, ironical really since this is the same reader that displays text on the above shopping site that doesn’t work with reader B. However, by using yet another screen reader (reader C), I was able to see the functions I need, like access payslips. So now I know more about how this system works, I can now use reader A and advanced screen reading techniques to access these functions even though the reader doesn’t actually bring them to my attention.

At the risk of boring you, I will mention one other situation. I typically use Internet Explorer 7, but I sometimes need to use the latest version of Firefox. Sometimes a website has what they call a “capcha” screen in which you need to see an image on the screen, identify the distorted letters in that image and then enter those letters. Some websites do this to avoid automated programs from logging in. Sure, some sites offer an audio equivalent that some blind people can use, but this is not common and there are a number of technical problems inherent with that approach. There is a technology that helps blind people handle visual capcha screens but so far to my knowledge it only works on Firefox.

So what does this all mean? It means that no longer can I just rely on one combination of screen reader and browser to do my everyday business online. Carrying out my business on the net nowadays is increasingly dominated by hitting unexpected obstacles, and having to switch between browsers and readers to see if a given combination might work with a given website. Most of us have a clear preference for a given browser or screen reader, but there seems to be more situations now in which another browser or reader, which may be less preferred, actually performs better. I have two popular browsers and three screen readers at my disposal, but that’s just ridiculous.

We’re having to jump through more and more hoops just to get our business done. I say, enough is enough. Let’s get back to some basic principles. The internet is no longer for geeks. It is now a place in which many different people expect to do business. It is also increasingly expected that everyday people will do their business on the net. Think of all the TV ads nowadays that refer you to a website. How people manage these days if they don’t use the internet, I don’t know.

It is time now to regulate the behaviour of businesses on the net. Now I immediately hear people arguing that one of the greatest strengths of the internet has been its lack of regulation. I agree. But is it really true to say that the internet is unregulated?

The internet has not been regulated by legislation, but it would be wrong to think of the internet as unregulated. It has for a long time been controlled by the link World Wide Web Consortium often known as the W3C. This is the group that sets standards for the various languages that are the very foundation of the internet. The fact that your browser, developed by one group of developers, can go to a web page written by someone else entirely separate, and display it, is directly the result of the standards set by the Consortium. It is the fact that both can access the publicly available rules that can be found in one known place, and follow those rules, that makes the internet work. So yes the internet has been largely unregulated in a legislative sense, but its very success has been the result of a form of public cooperative regulation.

But what has changed is that there is increasing use of proprietary end to end technologies such as Shockwave and Flash to deliver business content over the internet. These are the technologies that require you to install a “plug-in” to make them work. Such technologies fall right outside the regulating influence of the World Wide Web Consortium. There is a very important difference between this new proprietary approach compared to the traditional standards based approach to the internet. The traditional approach effectively says: I have some content for you, and if your system follows these publicly available rules, you can read and interact with that content. You have the choice of using any browser that follows the public standards. In fact, if you have the skill, or access to someone else who has, you can create your own browser that follows the standards and access this content. The proprietary approach essentially says: I have some content for you, and if and only if your system has this proprietary software (the plug-in), and provided we use the proprietary tool to develop our website, you can read and interact with our content. You may have access to a crash hot programmer but you won’t have the information you would need to develop your own software to access this content. You can only access it if your system runs this plug-in. Sure it may be that popular browsers will be able to install the required plug-ins; after all, people wouldn’t develop such technology if it couldn’t be used by many users. But not only are plug-ins not always available on all systems, but also, at least initially, they almost always don’t work with screen readers. So this is not just a question of accessibility for people with disabilities, this issue can impact on users of less common browsers such as those that run on PDAs or even home televisions. Websites that use these technologies gamble that they will deliver a better experience for the majority of customers, and thus improve their bottom line, even if they end up locking out some other customers altogether.

To be fair, some technologies such as Flash (as I understand it) publish information to web developers to help them ensure their websites are accessible when using that technology, and they make information available so screen reader developers can make their readers work with them. But experience tells us that the developers of new technologies like this do not consider accessibility from day one. They come to it later, even if reluctantly, by the time many websites are already using it. Each new proprietary end-to-end technology that comes along just adds to an increasing multiplicity of separate protocols that our screen readers need to understand, and it is still up to the screen reader vendors to decide if they will invest in unlocking any given technology for blind users. So when a new technology is unleashed on the net, there is generally a significant time lag before the technology vendor builds accesibility features into it, before website developers learn to use these features, and before the screen reader developers even think of catching up, and during that time blind people are generally locked out of any website that uses that technology. Developing screen readers is not cheap, and we the end users of screen readers end up paying for that in the end.

The new technologies might deliver a great new web experience for some, but each one generally locks blind people out, and leads to its own set of considerations if business websites are to be accessible. The W3C on the other hand is the most well established standards setting body for the net, and it is committed to ensuring accessibility is built into their standards and guidelines. Even that doesn’t ensure that all websites are accessible, but at least we should only have one place to go to find such standards, and these standards are non-proprietary and freely and readily available to anyone. In theory they can be implemented by any browser on any system.

Now let’s draw an analogy to the physical accessibility of public buildings to people in wheelchairs, something that is very much taken for granted now and backed by legislation in many countries. These standards are the cornerstone of how people with disabilities expect to have full access to the urban environment. They typically define accessibility in terms of physical measurements that can be independently verified, the maximum gradient of a ramp, the minimum width of a doorway, etc. You actually don’t determine whether a building is accessible to people in wheelchairs by finding someone in a wheelchair who can or cannot access it, you determine it by independently verifying whether the building complies with known standards. Imagine where people in wheelchairs would be if we could build public buildings with extra steep ramps, but deem them to be accessible because someone somewhere makes a particularly powerful chair that can get up them. The person with an average wheelchair would be left outside in the cold.

And that is what is happening on the net. As a blind person, if you can stumble on the right combination of technology, you might be able to use a given website when it uses a proprietary technology that does not comply with the W3C standards. But is it fair to expect us all to have that magic combination of technology, or even to know what works and what doesn’t? You can see from my earlier examples, based purely on my own experience, that the right combination that works can be different for different sites. And given my long career as a software developer, I am probably amongst the most technically competent, so what must life be like for blind people who don’t have my level of technical knowledge? Well for many blind people, their negative experiences on the net have pretty much turned them off using it altogether, or they may only use it for the most basic tasks.

There is another important reason for standards. Suppose I take a human rights action against the owner of a website that I feel is inaccessible. Would it be reasonable for the other party to defend the action by demonstrating that the site is accessible if you use a particular combination of operating system, browser and screen reader? And then, even if that is true, and I don’t have that equipment, has the site still discriminated against me personally? Is any given site accessible or not accessible purely because some arbitrary person (expert or not) says it is or it isn’t? It seems to me that in the end, any argument over accessibility can only be settled fairly by a process of independent verification rather than someone’s personal judgment. If I am to argue successfully that a site is inaccessible, and hence that the owner may be breaching human rights law by discriminating against me on the grounds of disability, then I should have to show that a particular standard is breached. Ideally, this should not be a matter of opinion but a matter of independently verifiable fact. If the standards are met, then the website should be deemed accessible.

Let me be clear hear: I am focusing only on how we as citizens do our everyday business on the net. I don’t care if you put your personal diaries, blogs, photos etc up on the net in a way that is inaccessible. The issue to me is that people with disabilities need to be sure that we can do our banking, buy our groceries, pay our tax, and carry out all manner of other transactions on the net, if this is what people in general expect to do. If the net is now a mainstream place for people to do business, then businesses and entities that use the net in this way need to be regulated to ensure that everyone can carry out everyday transactions regardless of the equipment people have and whether or not they use a screen reader. These organisations are serving us as members of the public, and they are already bound by a host of rules and regulations that control how they do their business. Why should the net be any different?

The W3C publishes guidelines on accessibility, which is an attempt to assist website developers to ensure maximum accessibility of their content. In particular, link guideline 4.1 deals with maximising compatibility with current and future browsers, including assistive technologies. Developers are urged to not display “content that relies on technologies that are not accessibility-supported when the technology is turned off or not supported”. Although this statement is unfortunately a double negative, I think it means essentially that a technology should not be used if the content would be inaccessible without it.

But I would go further. In my view, no technology should be used on a website offering business or public services unless the standards that make it work are authorised by an agreed single body such as the W3C, are publicly available and readily implementable in any browser, and are inherently accessible to assistive technologies, or, perhaps, unless the technology is only used to provide an ancillary rather than a core function of the site.

There are those who argue that such an approach will kill innovation. One reason why technologies like Flash come along from time to time is because people feel there is a need for a web experience that the traditional standards can’t deliver. I don’t know how much merit there is in that, but the cynic in me says that one motivation for companies developing proprietary technologies like this is the hope of earning royalties from their use. They sell the tools to the website developers who expect to improve their bottom line by using such tools. But I say “Too bad”. I am experiencing more and more frustration on the net, and if that is the result of innovation, then let’s not have innovation. But actually, all I am calling for is agreement on some rules that will guarantee that people with disabilities can access public business websites as I believe we are entitled to do as citizens of society. In the environment I am proposing, I am confident that there will still be room for innovation; it will just be more controlled and thought through before it is unleashed on us, and hopefully it will be open and not proprietary.

Another argument against my view is that standards on their own do not encompass all the problems that can impact on how usable a site is. So a site can meet all the standards, and yet it can still be so hard to use that it is practically inaccessible. I acknowledge this but the appropriate response is to develop better standards and guidelines that we can all see, rather than allow businesses to use an increasing array of new and inaccessible proprietary technologies that essentially lie outside the standards altogether.

Yet another argument is that standards are only as good as the people who enforce them. Experience with public buildings is that many new buildings exist today that clearly don’t comply with the standards, and yet have been given a certificate of compliance. Internet standards are even less enforceable because no body exists to enforce them. My response to this is, if we have standards, then we must advocate for them to be enforced. The fact that standards may not be enforced is not an excuse for not having standards at all, because without standards, our arguments merely descend into personal opinion.

We now live in an information age and people with disabilities now claim that access to information is a fundamental human right. This principle is now enshrined in the link UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. What we need now is a clear principle in law that websites that deliver business and public services must comply with the web accessibility guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium. The Association of Blind Citizens has a group of people interested in technology who are doing their best to monitor this ever more complex situation so we can better advocate for what we need if blind people are not going to be increasingly shut out of tomorrow’s technology-based world. We need to develop policies on what website accessibility really means. I’m sure we’ll have more on this subject on this blog before too long.

Cheers, and why not share your comments.