2000 Conference Proceedings

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Browsing Solutions For Special Situations: A Survey of Options for Providing Internet and Kiosk Access for Visually Impaired Customers, Patrons and Clients

Judith M. Dixon, Ph.D.
Consumer Relations Officer
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of congress
Washington, DC 20542
E-mail: jdix@loc.gov

Doug Wakefield
Telecommunication Specialist
Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
Washington, DC
E-mail: wakefield@access-board.gov

Many establishments such as libraries, large office building, malls and other places that wish to provide information to the public are facing a new challenge. How can this information be delivered in a manner that is usable by persons who cannot read ordinary print? The issue of providing information in an accessible manner will soon move from the "do it because itís the right thing to do" category to "do it because it is the law". At least it will be the law for any federal agency providing information to the public. On August 7, 2000, a revised amendment to the Rehabilitation act of 1973 will become effective. This amendment, referred to as "Section 508", was signed into law on August 7, 1998. It clearly states that when federal agencies provide information to the public, that information must be as accessible to people with disabilities as it is to members of the public who do not have disabilities. There also is the same requirement for agencies to provide access to information technology for employees with disabilities. However, this document will focus on providing accessible information to the public.

The U.S. government is a large consumer of information technology and a large dispenser of information. Therefore, even though the current law does not apply to non-government entities, the technology to make public sites accessible will be developed, driven by the need for federal agencies to purchase information systems accessible to all. It is unlikely that a manufacturer will develop one version of a product for the government and another, less accessible, product for the general market. In short, although not directly covered by current laws, all information systems may benefit from the requirements to make Federal sites accessible.

How does the government get information to, and collect information from, the public? The majority of these information systems rely on Internet technology. Even the electronic information kiosk is generally a closed model of an Internet site that relies on a browser to access specific topics. Therefore, AT first glance, the solution to providing access to this information for people who are blind, might seem obvious. If an organization is using internet technology, provide a screen reader that is designed to work well with internet browsers. This approach raises many problems for both the user and the organization attempting to provide information access.

There are several screen reading programs on the market today. There is no way for an information provider to predict which screen reader a user is going to know how to operate. To become a user of a screen reading program takes extensive training. A user of one type of screen reader, is likely to have major problems trying to switch between his or her private system and that used at a public site unless the public system uses a very intuitive easy-to-learn user interface. Who within the organization is going to carry out the extensive training and support needed to allow users to operate the particular program.

In the early and mid 1980s, programmers of software for blind and visually impaired computer users tended to focus on developing dedicated programs that were intended to be separate but equal to software programs run by sighted colleagues. Word processors, telecommunications programs, and databases were developed that "talked" to the user. And, producers of Braille output systems developed their own dedicated programs that provided access to the functionality of writing or communicating with online systems. The shift in the computing field from CP/M to DOS-based systems, made it possible for programmers of access systems to focus on developing one program that would give access to all other programs running on a PC; hence, the birth of the memory-resident access programs for Braille and speech output.

Now, in the late 1990s, we are seeing a new interest in the development of dedicated software programs for people who can not read the computerís screen. These are the specialized browsers that attempt to give blind internet users access to the highly graphic environment of the net. Although the individual user can benefit from this development, the real benefactors may be the public access sites. The requirements of these sites and the capabilities of the dedicated browsers are very compatible.

Criteria for Selecting an Access System

There are a number of criteria that should be considered when deciding what type of access should be provided.

What is being accessed? The features and capabilities of a system that utilizes an embedded web browser to access a building directory will be very different from a system that is intended to give library patrons full access to the internet. Will the content of the pages being access contain pictures, graphics, or sound? Or, will the presentation be all text?

How public is the location? The more public an information site is, the less control the owners will have over who uses it and how. A very public locations such as building directories or shopping mall kiosks must be low-maintenance, and simple to operate. While a library may find it valuable to provide a $10,000.00 Braille display for supervised patron to use, a Braille display attached to a very public site would probably last less then a day. Even the use of a full keyboard may be impractical in many public sites. Instead, a simple keypad interface may be in order. It is also obvious that for public sites the user can expect minimal help from local staff, while in a setting such as a university library where there is a finite number of users, a member of the staff can provide training and support to new users that will most likely also be repeat users.

Stand-alone or companionĖroducers of dedicated browsers are taking two approaches. First, there are the stand-alone browsers that can be run with no other internet access program loaded except for the network or dial-up connection. Second, there are the companion browsers. These piggie-back on a mainstream browser letting the browser perform the internet access and the companion attempts to turn the content into text. If a particular assistive technology browser requires that a specific mainstream browser be placed on the system, and that system, for what ever reason, can not have the specified browser loaded, than the assistive browsers would not be an option. Stand-alone browsers often do not have the look of a mainstream browsers and if the site is quite public and used by a variety of people, the specialized stand-alone browser may not be acceptable to the general public.

Javascripts, and multimedia.--When evaluating the type of information a system is to access, of prime concern will be the amount of multimedia presentation the system will be expected to run. The capabilities of the dedicated browsers to access these presentations varies greatly. Beyond multimedia, there is the use of Javascripts to perform everything from simple screen enhancements to complex security checking. If the site is going to be required to access secure information, such as legal databases, the Javascript-related capabilities of the browser become very important. At the time of the writing of this paper, most dedicated browsers will not handle Javascripting. This means users cannot access some sites that use Javascripts to check for login authetification.

The user interface.--Again, two approaches seem to be evolving in the dedicate browser market. Some products are designed to be accessed almost exclusively from the a keypad. In these cases, if the user never has to type information into the system, the system can be run without an attached keyboard. The second approach is to use the keyboard as a means of interacting with the program. These browsers tend to have a typical windows interface which may make them easier for experienced computer user to master quickly.

On the keypad systems, the simple navigation from word to word, or line to line is generally quite intuitive, however, the steps required to perform such actions as activate a link or go back a page can be very obscure. The simplicity of the keypad which can make a system extremely easy to learn basic functions, becomes a handicap due to the shortage of keys, when more advanced functions are attempted. On the other hand, the use of a keyboard does require keyboard skills and can often be quite problematic in a public setting.

Output Modes.--While some dedicated browsers are speech only, and at this writing, we have heard that there is a Braille output mode dedicated browser coming from Germany. There is at least one dedicated browser that provides both speech and large print output. As to which system is best for any given location depends on an evaluation of the needs of the expected users.

There are always tradeoffs when selecting any single product. This is very true when trying to provide access to information for blind or visually impaired persons. A program such as IBM Home Page Reader can be run totally from a keypad as long as the user is not asked to fill out any forms that would require entering text. On the other hand, Home Page Reader requires adding Netscape to a system. Some system administrators may refuse to do this since Internet Explorer comes with new systems. Also Home Page Reader will not handle Javascripts at this time, thus it can not access secure sites that use Javascript as a verification tool.

All dedicated browsers have similar advantages and disadvantages. The only solution is to try to match the needs of a site with the functions of the browser.

It may turn out in some settings that even though public, if training for repeat customers can be provided, the best solution may be a mainstream browser and the use of a screen reader. Although this combination also has access limits, it is safe to say that this combination will be able to access a wider variety of internet pages than any single dedicated browser on the market as of this writing. However, many times, if a combination screen reader/mainstream, and a dedicated browser can access the same page, the dedicated browser will often make the access smoother and easier.

A final note about dedicated browsers in the near future. JavaScripts are causing problems for several, but companies such as IBM and the Productivity Works, makers of WebSpeak, say they are working on the problem and hope to have it solved in the future. There may be another tradeoff however. As the dedicated browsers become more advanced, and their capabilities include functions such as table management and Javascript reading they may be a lot less easy to learn, more feature mean more complex controls.

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