Blindness and Disabilities


by Mike Paciello, , WebAble!

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New developments and cutting edge technology are nothing new to the World Wide Web and it's community of users. So it should come as no surprise that similar developments are taking place within the realm of web accessibility for people with disabilities. This very topic, was featured as a workshop at the Fourth International World Wide Web Conference, held in Boston, Massachusetts, December 11, 1996. The following article provides an overview of that workshop.

The workshop theme, "Designing the Web for People with Disabilities" was selected in order to attract world leaders in the area web accessibility. Sixteen persons attended the workshop, twelve well-known experts in the assistive technology circles.

On a sad note, one of the attending experts was the President of SoftQuad, Yuri Rubinsky. Yuri died tragically this past January 21st. Ironically, just hours before his death, Yuri and I were talking about building access protocol into SoftQuad's new WWW/SGML browser, Panorama. Yuri was technical director of the International Committee for Accessible Document Design (ICADD) and was instrumental for authoring the current SGML and HTML code that makes it easier for people with print disabilities to read electronic information. He will forever be remembered as a person who cared about the needs of people with disabilities. 

Workshop Participants

The following individuals participated in the workshop:

Web Browser Accessibility

A chief concern among assistive technology engineers revolves around the ability for browsers to render information in a manner that is accessible to people with disabilties. For the blind, any aspect of a graphic interface presents barriers. For low vision web surfers (and in some cases, those with cognitive limitations), data presentation in different formats, different fonts, and inconsistent character and word spacing, make reading online information difficult. For the deaf, rendering sounds or sound bytes presents significant challenges.

Following is a list of several advancements announced at the workshop:

Web Access Technology

Several efforts in the area of general accessibilty to the World Wide web are

underway. Closed captioning, descriptive video, speech interfaces, and browser

profiles were a few discussed at the workshop. Several are briefly described in

the following sections.

WGBH - Closed Captioning and Descriptive Video Services

The Boston public broadcasting station, WGBH has been making incredible strides

in access for the deaf and hard of hearing, particularly in the areas of

captioning and descriptive video.

EMACSPEAK - Real Time Speech Interface for the Web

T.V. Raman, of Adobe has developed a realtime speech interface that resides within the EMACS extensible editor. Using EMACSPEAK, blind users have complete access to the Web using line mode browsers. A realtime speech interface relieves the typical burden of building an offscreen model for normal screen readers for the blind. Bill Barry of Oregon State University provided an excellent demonstration of the EMACSPEAK application.

Accessible Browser Design Considerations for all Disabilities

Jon Gunderson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has worked with the NCSA Mosaic development group over the past couple of years. As chair of the Mosaic Access Project (MAP) usability working group, Jon lead the usability testing and design team. The results of his testing emerged into a document of design recommendations for future iterations of the Mosaic browser.

HTML Accessibility Update

Yuri Rubinsky provided an update concerning the HTML 2+ working groups implementation of the ICADD SGML Document Access (SDA) attributes. He outlined the current proposal before the HTML 3.0 working group regarding table support and forms access.

A clear need, particularly for the blind, is the ability to read math, science, and computational notation via the Web. Because of it's graphical nature, rendering and/or transforming math to braille or synthetic speech is challenging. To date, no one in the SGML or HTML community has eveloped a solution.

Workshop Proposals

The workshop concluded with several proposals as outlined below.


Chairman Mike Paciello concluded the workshop with the following announcements:

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