My name is Allen West. I have been using computers since the mid 90’s. In the early going, I found a lot of problems with accessibility. Admittedly, some of what I called inaccessible turned out to be due to a lack of user experience. Today, the user experience is certainly not a problem. I have been teaching assistive technology for the past twelve years. Now I will set forth my opinion of the web with accessible technology with screen reader software for the blind.
Overall there has been much improvement for people with disabilities on the web. In the past, many companies considered accessibility after the site was established. Today, however, many are considering accessibility in the development stage. This has been very beneficial to people with disabilities. We can now upload resumés, complete job applications, purchase airline tickets, book hotel rooms, and shop online for groceries, clothing, electronics and a lot more.
We are happy to have all the above, but there is more that needs to be done. Let’s consider two examples I encountered within the last year.
This particular site sells survival gear. Like many sites, a video is played to get the potential buyer excited. Sometimes, these videos play automatically when you click on the link to learn more about the product. Unfortunately, for users of screen readers, there are times when the video does not have a pause or stop button, thus making it hard if not impossible to hear what speech is coming from the screen reader. Worse yet, I have given up on some products and close the page and the video still continued to play. I even had one situation when the video continued to play after closing the browser. I have even checked to see if Windows Media Player or Winamp were playing. They were not. It is very discouraging when the speaker says, “Click on the button right now to make your purchase.” As you are trying to hear your screen reader to find the button, the speaker is still talking and saying something like, “You need to act right now, because you may not see this deal again.” Now, as a totally blind user, I just lost out on this deal.
This problem is not consistent with this site. There is the problem. Because there are times when I can pause the videos with a stop or pause button. Playing hit or miss, particularly as a blind user, can be very frustrating. It is even more frustrating when there is nothing you can do about the change to get it working.
The next example is not one of inconsistency. In so far as accessibility is concerned, this site started off great and gradually eroded into absolute inaccessibility.
In 2005, I joined a music site that was very accessible. I even wrote to tell them how happy I was with the accessibility of their site. They wrote me back and offered me some additional credits for music. Now since I like to read, I also purchased audio books from this site. However, as the years went by, accessibility began to erode. It got to a point that clicking on the Email us button no longer worked. I tried the latest version of JAWS and NVDA. Neither would work with the Email us button
Last year, I had to cancel my subscription for audio books. Some changes were made to the site that made it impossible to activate the log in link with a screen reader. I tried to find other ways to contact this company to complain. I even tried to find a phone number. I have hit a brick wall. It seems that if you need to use a screen reader, you can neither use their site or contact them.
These two accounts do not represent screen reading software on the web overall. I recognize that as the web evolves, makers of screen readers need to make changes to ensure that we have access. But the two instances mentioned above are not browser issues. A pause or stop button for a video is easy. Making a sign-in link that is accessible is also easy.
I wish I could say that I have not encountered problems with other sites. But, that would not be true. Inaccessible combo boxes, checkboxes, buttons and links are still a problem with many sites. Thankfully, it is less than it used to be. Let’s continue to push companies to except that people with disabilities should not be ignored. When you take into account all the different disabilities using computers, we are a large part of the population.
Companies develop websites with the intention of making money. We want to spend our money like everyone else. We don’t want to be denied because of no access. If they want to increase their bottom line, they would do well to think inclusion.