A Web of Opportunity

Posted December 2004: James Bailey explains how screen-reading software and accessible Web design can lower barriers between blind users and print material. See Joep van der Werff and Diana Rodríguez Arredondo's article, "Teaching EFL to Blind Students in Mexico," Essential Teacher, Winter 2004 (pp. 46-48).

Technology has brought down many barriers faced by computer users who are blind or have extremely low vision. Two developments in particular that have eased the way are screen-reading software and accessible Web design.

Screen-Reading Software + Scanner = Accessibility

Screen-reading software gives blind users access to formerly inaccessible printed material by reading texts aloud to them. Sophisticated programs of this type give blind users the same control over and interaction with the computer that sighted users have.

With integrated scanning programs, users can scan texts and have the software read to them aloud. One program has a feature that identifies the value of printed U.S. currency. There is even a hardware attachment that can take the output from the screen reader and render it in braille.

Enter Accessible Web Design

Scanning text and having it read aloud by a screen-reading program is all well and good, but users still need to spend a great deal of time scanning the printed material and coping with the imperfect results.

Enter the World Wide Web. Users with computers and Internet connections can use their screen-reading software to read accessibly designed Web sites directly and immediately--without scanning the text. More and more mainstream magazines, newspapers, and journals, such as The New York Times, Time, and TV Guide, are now being packaged for the Web, making rich content potentially available to blind users.

The catch: Web pages must be specially designed to interact properly with screen readers. Left to chance, a Web page will no doubt convey some information to the blind computer user, but it may be incomplete and of no value.

What Makes a Web Page Accessible?

At its inception, the Web was to be a forum for all. Most savvy computer users of the time could create and post Web pages with the simple tools available. And as the Web has grown in complexity, tools have appeared to help users deal with those complexities. These tools, however, either don't give users the ability to build accessible pages or do so awkwardly.

From small, personal sites to large corporate and commercial sites, much of what is available on the Web today is accessible to blind and low-vision users. But, unfortunately, far too much content is still inaccessible. All it takes to make the information on your Web site available to computer users who are blind is a little work and a lot of commitment.

Making a Web page accessible is fairly simple. Of course, as page complexity increases, so do accessibility issues, but there is almost no Web-page feature available today that cannot be made accessible to blind or low-vision users. See these resources on accessible Web design:

James Bailey (jbailey@uoregon.edu) is the adaptive technology coordinator at the University of Oregon, in the United States.