Like millions of Americans, Tamara Johnson Kearny loves to get her news online. Unlike most Net surfers, Johnson Kearney is blind.
Fortunately for her, she lives in Caspar, Wyo., where the local newspaper publishes one of the few news Web sites whose design addresses the special needs of the visually impaired.
And perhaps even more fortuitous is that her husband, Greg Kearney, is the Webmaster of the Star-Tribune, and he has used his wife's input to design a site based on the special navigational needs of a blind person.
"Sometimes I wonder if any of these sites ever bother to go out and test the design with real blind people or are they just guessing what will work."
Like other blind Internet users, Tamara Kearney surfs the Web using screen-reading software that dictates the contents of Web pages.
Though it can be relatively simple to design sites that are easy for blind readers to navigate, most news organizations haven't given much thought to making their sites more accessible to the blind. Kearney's Caspar Star-Tribune is one of the few news Web sites that addresses accessiblity to the visually impaired.
"I'm more aware of that than most Web programmers would be, having somebody in my house who will let me know in short order if I put something up that she can't read," Kearney says.
There are a few exceptions besides the Caspar Star-Tribune: At Slate.com, editors and designers are under orders from their parent company, Microsoft, to take access for the disabled into consideration at the earliest planning stages for any new feature.
For all Web sites that are part of the Microsoft Network, "it is a requirement to be as accessible as possible," says Kathleen Kincaid, who is Slate's design director and the staff person "tasked with thinking about accessibility."
The company "made a considerable investment in making Windows XP accessible," and the Web sites are expected to show off those capabilities, she says.
Slate uses contrasting colors and live text for global navigation menu items so that they can be read easily by screen readers -- and by users who select the high-contrast option that is a new accessibility feature of Windows XP.
Slate readers can also tab through the navigation menus, making it easier for blind users to get to the stories more quickly. In addition, there are ALT-text descriptions for all images and graphics. And the site is designed in scalable text rather than fixed font sizes so that readers with failing eyesight can choose their own setting, Kincaid said.
In perhaps the most ambitious accessibility initiative anywhere, La Nacion -- one of Argentina's largest newspapers -- has just launched what may be the world's only daily Web newspaper designed specifically for the visually impaired.
Angelica Peralta Ramos, one of the online editors at La Nacion Sin Barreras ("without barriers"), said the site's home page has been getting about 1,000 visits a day since it launched in September.
The site was developed at the request of visually impaired readers, a group of whom helped test the new site while it was under development. It follows design guidelines created by the World Wide Web Consortium and the Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards created by the U.S. Access Board under authority of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Most sites don't need a major overhaul to become more accessible -- usually it's just a matter of making a few tweaks to help screen readers work more smoothly, says Curtis Chong, director of field operations and access technology at the Iowa Department for the Blind and former director of technology for the National Federation of the Blind.
Designing for accessibility for the most part simply means "being aware of the issue at the very beginning of a project," and testing it before it is launched to catch inadvertent stumbling blocks, said Slate's Kincaid.
"It's easy to change your architecture before the site is launched so that navigation can be tabbed through in an understandable sequence," she says, but not so easy after the fact.
Designing for the blind
One of the first things Kearney learned from his wife is that photographs or other graphics that have no ALT-text caption baffle screen readers, which can detect the presence of such images but can't tell what they are.
"Nothing drives blind people nuttier than to hear, 'This is an image,' " Kearney says. "An image of what? Do I need to click on it or not?"
Screen readers get bogged down wading through the tangle of navigation links and other clutter around the edges of a Web page, which stand between the top of the page, as the screen reader sees it, and the news. So Kearney set up the Star-Tribune's Web site so that the navigation links jump directly to streamlined pages with headlines and the first paragraph of stories stacked in a simple, linear layout.
"According to my wife, this feature is somewhat rare," he says. "The New York Times seems to have a similar function, but the page that they deliver is very complex for a screen reader to navigate," cluttered as it is with the same tangle of navigation links that the blind user had to contend with on the main page.
Earlier this year, Kearney created a program that allows one-click translation of any story on the site into a file that can be printed out on a braille embosser. "As far as I know we are the only newspaper in the whole wide world that offers this," he says.
While many news sites haven't been designed with the blind in mind, most are easier for screen readers to tackle than other commercial Web sites because news sites are mostly text and have few flashy graphics and PDF files.
"What we find with respect to newspapers is not so much that the Web sites are inaccessible as much as that they're cumbersome to use," says Chong with the Iowa Department for the Blind.
If they are not thinking about the needs of blind readers, news sites could inadvertently become inaccessible, he adds. For example, some sites have adopted graphical verification systems that require users to copy a code word embedded in an image into a text box.
"That's something we don't want papers to adopt," says Chong. "If they are thinking of adopting security schemes, we hope they will consult with the blind so that what they do doesn't lock us out. It's better to catch it before it's implemented than to get a bunch of people mad at you because you did something that you didn't even know you did." (See more of Chong's design recommendations here.)
Access and the law
While many online editors acknowledge that their sites could be more hospitable to the blind, there is debate over whether they are required by law to be accessible in the same way that restaurants are required to have handicap-accessible bathrooms.
Some U.S.-based disability rights groups claim that virtually all commercial Web sites in the United States that are open to the general public are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates that all "public places" be accessible to the handicapped. [See sidebar]
While no court has yet reached that conclusion, a definitive ruling to that effect could make the guidelines voluntarily followed by La Nacion mandatory for newspaper and magazine Web sites in the United States.
For now, however, many news sites seem to have backburnered the issue.
The Los Angeles Times, for example, is not "doing anything special or exciting" to facilitate access for the blind, said Joseph M. Russin, assistant managing editor for multimedia.
At the Denver Newspaper Agency, which publishes both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News under a joint operating agreement, spokesman John Nolan says, "I don't ever recall online access for the disabled even coming up as a discussion point."
The Orange County Register is thinking about doing something, but "at this point we don't have services for the handicapped that are related to our Web site, unfortunately," says Terry Moore, the paper's deputy editor in charge of features and online. "It's something that we've started looking into but we haven't been able to implement anything just yet."
Christine Mohan, a spokesperson for New York Times Digital, says the Times has created a text-only Web site for the visually impaired.
Text-only sites have typically been "the fallback for Web accessibility" for a number of newspapers, says Larry Goldberg, director of the National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH in Boston. "If [you] don't want to make your whole Web site accessible, you give users a link to a non-graphic site."
However, aside from avoiding the problem of unidentified graphics, text-only sites aren't necessarily any easier for screen readers to decipher, if other steps to assure accessibility haven't been taken.
Many, like the New York Times text-only site, have "lots of artwork ads, which would seem to defeat the idea of a text version. If you want ads on it, they should be text as well," says Kearney.
"Sometimes I wonder if any of these sites ever bother to go out and test the design with real blind people or are they just guessing what will work and what won't."
Going with audio
Many of the newspapers that have not made their Web sites blind-friendly have found another way to bring their news to the visually impaired: through audio.
More than 100 U.S. newspapers -- including the Los Angeles Times, both Denver papers, the Orange County Register and the New York Times -- support audio services that dictate some of the daily content by radio, over the phone or in an audio file delivered over the Internet.
The largest such service, called Newsline, offered by the National Federation of the Blind, provides touchtone telephone access to the content of more than 90 newspapers. Users of the service can select from a list of papers and then a menu of headlines to pick stories that will be converted from text to synthesized speech and read over the telephone. Other services use volunteer readers to record the day's paper to be replayed over the phone.
One of the newest audio services, called audible.com, provides subscribers first thing in the morning with a 45-minute to one-hour audio file, deliverable by e-mail or over the Internet, featuring readings of the top stories in the paper that day. The main target audience is sighted subscribers who don't have time to read the paper and want to hear it while they're on the go.
Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal make their stories available through audible.com.
Audio services, which have a large and avid following among the blind, have clearly taken some of the onus off organizations to make their Web sites more accessible.
In Denver, for instance, the Post earlier this year began to deliver text files of stories each day to the NFB's Newsline service. And the Rocky Mountain News has had a long-standing relationship with the Radio Reading Service of the Rockies. Representatives from the papers communicate regularly with organizations for the blind to maintain those services, says Nolan, and "we haven't heard one word about the Internet. The issue quite honestly has never come up."
Newspaper Web sites shouldn't assume that a lack of complaints about accessibility means there is no demand, says Goldberg. Those sites that haven't taken any steps to accommodate the visually impaired may be letting a large group of potentially loyal customers slip away.
"If a newspaper is not hearing from visually impaired consumers, there could be a lot of reasons for that. People might not want to complain. They might have given up on trying to gain access and have gone to another site," he says.
There are around 12 million people in the United States who are blind or have significant visual impairment, and as the nation's population ages, the ranks of those with faltering vision are growing. "Internet use is probably higher than you might expect among the visually impaired," Goldberg adds. "Blind folks have relied on technology for years."
Editors and designers at the few news sites that have gone out of their way to accommodate the visually impaired report that the effort was neither difficult nor costly. And while most don't have any figures to show how many visually impaired people use their sites, they say making the Web accessible is a good idea no matter how many people take advantage of the enhancements.
Cyrus Krohn, Slate's publisher, says he has no idea how many visually impaired users visit the site. "But I can rattle off four or five names of friends or friends of family members who are blind and who read Slate," he says.
There's no question that the effort is worth it, he adds. "We're looking at continually enhancing our accessibility," says Krohn, who notes that Slate is developing a new, improved text-to-speech function that can be launched from any story on the site.
In Casper, Kearney said his superiors have been supportive of his efforts to make the Web site as fully accessible as possible to the visually impaired, even though they haven't always understood the need.
For example, when he pitched the idea for the braille translation function to executives at Lee Communications, the Star-Tribune's parent company and publisher of three other papers in the northern Plains, the response was "underwhelming," he recalls. But ultimately he got the go-ahead. "There wasn't any reason not to do it," he says. "From a programming standpoint, it was a relatively trivial thing to do and there was no real cost involved."
He has received only a handful of e-mails about that feature so far, but the limited feedback suggests that there is some demand from an unexpected quarter: school teachers who appreciate having the ability to print out the day's news in braille for blind pupils in their class.
"There may be a very limited demand for this service," he says. "But it's a simple thing to do, it doesn't cost any money to do it, and if only one or two people use it, I'm happy to know that I've done my part to make their lives easier."
Interested in making your site more accessible to the visually impaired? The National Federation for the Blind has a Web site certification program that can help:
Contact: Brad Hodges
National Federation of the Blind
Nonvisual Accessibility Web Application Certification Program
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, MD 21230
(410) 659-9314 ext. 412
Click here for a list of other Web accessibility consultants.