Enabling the Blind to See the Web

For most net users, trying to navigate a badly designed website means irritation. For disabled people, particularly those with a visual impairment or who find it difficult to use a mouse, bad design means many sites are out of bounds. Not only are these websites losing a huge potential audience, they may also be breaking the law.

According to various pressure groups, millions of partially sighted people- an estimated 2 million in the UK alone – are being excluded from easy access to the Internet because of poorly designed websites.

The Internet has revolutionised information access for blind people, but still too many web designers blatantly ignore this audience. Not only do poorly designed websites miss out a potentially huge audience, they may also be breaking the law. The Disability Discrimination Act (1995) in the UK, and in America, Section 508 amendment of the US Rehabilitation Act 1973, hold that service providers should make reasonable adjustments to their services to make them accessible to disabled people.

However, according to groups such as Britain’s Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) and National Federation of the Blind (NFB), many web developers are completely unaware of their responsibilities, leading to confusion and frustration for disabled web users.

Missing opportunities

For most net users, trying to navigate a badly designed website means irritation. For disabled people, particularly those with a visual impairment or who find it difficult to use a mouse, bad design means many sites are out of bounds.

This is a huge missed opportunity for most companies. There are almost 10 million disabled people in the UK, around 53 million in the US, and an estimated 500 million worldwide who are affected by impairments brought on by ageing.

Many of these potential web users rely on screen reader software, which converts web text to speech, or allows it to be read with a Braille display. These are widely available and becoming more and more affordable. According to Richard Duke, who runs a business supplying technology to people with disabilities, there is a plethora of software on the market:

“Braille keyboards plug into the back of a PC. Web browsers, such as Jaws and WindowsEyes, which can turn text into speech, are easy-to-afford systems. A new market entry is Thunder – a screen reader that works with Windows word processors and email (Microsoft Word, Notepad, Outlook Express) and a text-based web browser, WebIE. It costs £159 plus VAT but is free to home users.”

The technology is there for the web to open up a new world of opportunity for disabled people, enabling them to access information, shop and bank far more easily than they could before. And yet their basic requirements are often overlooked when sites are designed. A classic example is providing text as graphics, which screen readers can’t handle. All graphics should have alt text descriptions that can be interpreted by screen readers.

Another very common mistake is to provide mouse-only navigation through a website. Many disabled users have trouble using a mouse and depend on the tab key. If the cursor lands on a link that simply asks the user to ‘click here’, it is not very helpful.

Audio files should also have text equivalents to help people with impaired hearing. Partially sighted and colour blind users should be able to change the font size and colour scheme, making pages easier to read. And if websites use frames, a no-frames alternative should be provided. The same should apply to sites that use Flash animation.

Although the latest access technologies can easily cope with Flash and other popular web design software, many disabled people using older versions of the programs are effectively excluded from sites that fail to provide text-based alternatives.

Such ignorance and indifference from companies is doubly frustrating given the Internet’s many benefits. Ian Roberts, works as a freelance web designer and has been blind from birth, says the Internet has revolutionised both his career and leisure.

‘If I wanted to browse through DVDs before, I had to ask for assistance. Now I can browse online without help and listen to music samples. It’s so much more convenient and liberating.”

According to Roberts, unsympathetic websites usually feature five common mistakes, which are:

  • Missing or wrong text captions for images
  • Page headings not marked up within the HTML code
  • Badly designed tab and return navigations through a web page
  • ‘Click here’ links that do not contain any text
  • Self-triggering’ drop-down menus that automatically redirect users without their knowledge or consent

Roberts has also discovered that if a site is accessible by a disabled user it is also a third quicker for an able-bodied person to complete tasks too, so the benefits of avoiding or correcting these mistakes is two-fold.

Redesigning websites to meet the needs of disabled people is not particularly difficult. Yet Nick Lansley, IT manager at Tesco.com, says: “When we wanted to set up our dedicated site we found that design agencies didn’t have a clue about how to write code for visually impaired customers. We did it ourselves in consultation with disabled users.”

The site took a few months to develop and cost £30,000, now Tesco is taking more than 5,000 orders a week through it.

Consultation with disabled users during the design is key, according to Richard Duke:

“I’ve advocated using blind people right from the design process through to final testing for 3 years as they can quickly highlight a missing text description for example. Why companies fail to spot this group is beyond me.”

Breaking the law

Making websites accessible is a legal requirement under the DDA and ADA, and service providers must ensure that disabled people can use their sites. The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) clarified this position in 2002.

Despite this, and despite the increased availability of clear guidelines for accessibility, little progress is being made. The DRC has found that more than 80% of websites surveyed failed to uphold basic accessibility requirements.

Service providers face prosecution if websites are not accessible. This has not yet happened in the UK, although the RNIB has brought two actions against website service providers, both of which were settled out of court. The DRC has the power to support litigants, but cannot initiate prosecutions.

Julie Howell, digital policy development manager for the RNIB, thinks it may take a legal test case to make companies sit up and take notice. In America, this has already happened. The thrift store Target is being taken to court for refusing to make its website fully accessible to blind people with specialised screen-reading technology.

The National Federation of the Blind sued Target contending that the company’s inaction violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because the web site is essentially an extension of its other public accommodations and as such should be easily accessible to people with disabilities.

A Target spokesman would not comment but in court the company offered evidence from three blind users rebutting the Federation’s arguments.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact that the case has landed in court is a big public relations blunder for the company.


The World Wide Web Consortium, the international body responsible for standards, produces guidance through its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) (www.w3c.org/wai), to promote best practice in accessible web design. Basic rules include keeping content and structure separate and providing documents that can be used even if the user cannot see or hear.

In the UK, new guidance aims to boost social inclusion for disabled people by ensuring sites are designed with accessibility in mind. PAS 78 “outlines good practice in commissioning websites that are accessible to and usable by disabled people” and is the result of a 12-month long collaboration between the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) British Standards Institution, representatives of the BBC, UK Cabinet Office, IBM, the University Professionals Association and Tesco.com. It was then reviewed by a large team of stakeholders.

The PAS is intended to help people who commission web design, rather than developers themselves. It is written as a document that commissioners can understand and can discuss with web design project managers.

“It’s easy for designers and commissioners to be seduced by the opportunities that software provides to create visually stunning designs, while forgetting about the audience,” says Julie Howell, technical author of the new guidance.

One of the main principles of PAS 78 (and Section 508) is the creation of an accessibility policy. Site commissioners should think about the audience at the beginning of the design process, and should put into writing a clear policy on who they are trying to reach and how they intend to ensure that those people are reached. We want to get across the message that accessibility is not about stifling innovation in design, it’s about enabling people.”

The UK guidance is designed to work with WAI recommendations but it emphasises that commissioners must understand the need for accessibility and the importance of involving disabled people in the process.

DRC commissioner Michael Burton says: “PAS 78 provides a route map. A lot of it is about what developers should do, but an equally important part is what commissioners should do – ultimately, the legal, moral and commercial responsibility lies with them.”

The new guidance is set to become the standard although using it is not compulsory. Research carried out last year by the Society of IT Management showed that only one in seven English local authorities met the WAI’s conformance level A standard. The case in America is much better as non-compliance means stiff monetary penalties.

But with web content trickling down to mobile phones, interactive TV and handheld computers, there are now also commercial reasons for considering the way sites are designed.


In addition to these accessibility guidelines, the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) had a program called Bobby, which tests websites for accessibility and highlights problems.

Researchers at Queen University Belfast are already working to devise ways to guide the blind and visually impaired through the web as part of the “Enabled” initiative.

The European Union has provided 3.8 million euros funding for the project which 13 other bodies across Europe including BT and Siemens, are taking part in.

Professor Alan Marshall said researchers from the Virtual Engineering Centre has joined forces with the Sonic Arts Research Centre to work various projects and are considering schemes involving tactile display screens and audio cues, there is also the potential to use mobile phones as audio guides for the blind.

This would work by embedding devices in public areas, such as shopping malls, which would trigger an alarm when the blind person with an enabled device walked passed – they could also act as maps to guide people through unfamiliar buildings.

“The Internet has had a huge impact on people’s lives. Through the web information can be accessed remotely; people can interact with friends and family and a host of other things.

However people with blindness or people with another form of disability are unable to take full advantage due to the inaccessibility in the technology itself. If the problem is not solved the discrepancy, known as the “digital divide”, will become bigger as information technology advances”, added Professor Marshall.”