Blind computer users have trouble with Internet

Wednesday, September 8, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:41 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gail Bryant listens impatiently to her computer as it lists each of the links on the city of Columbia’s Web site.

Last Christmas, she did all her shopping online, even though she is blind and cannot see the screen.

She uses a special computer program that provides vocal prompts about what is on her computer screen. She can do everything people with sight can on the computer, but it doesn’t work as smoothly as she would like and demands a lot of patience.

Adaptive technology has come a long way in giving visually and mobility impaired Columbians access to more privacy and independence, but the progress makes the shortfalls even more noticeable to people like Bryant.

“In Windows, everything is graphic,” said Bryant, a 51-year-old MU education major who returned to school for certification as a Braille instructor. “It creates problems.”

Mike Peplow, a user support analyst with MU’s Adaptive Technology Office, assesses the needs of faculty, staff and students for technology aids. He then teaches them how to use the tools.

Peplow has all sorts of useful tools in his office, including screen readers and magnifying software that use audio or graphics to make content available to people with special visual needs. He has voice control software that lets a user give voice commands or dictate to his computer instead of typing and using a mouse.

Homer Page, 62, just moved to Columbia to pursue a second doctorate degree, this time in American history. The transplanted Coloradan, who is blind, has only used computers for three years.

He is excited about some of the tools Peplow showed him. Page uses a scanner to digitize his regular mail and uses a screen reader to have the computer read the letters.

“What is really cool is to have the independence and privacy to read your own stuff,” he said.

Page, who used to be a county commissioner in Boulder, Colo., is particularly enthusiastic about the Newsline service, which provides free access to more than 200 newspapers and magazines via phone and will make it easier to satisfy his hunger for news.

Still, he has yet to explore the vast possibilities on the World Wide Web. Part of the reason is he hasn’t mastered the Web’s nuances. But even if he could, many Web sites are not accessible with screen readers.

Universities, government agencies and other public entities have made strides in the effort to make their Web sites accessible to people with visual impairments, according to Peplow. But commercial sites can often be impossible to navigate.

“Keeping up with technologies is the hard part,” he said. “Those who develop new technologies must make an effort to make it accessible.”

Gary Wunder, 49, is comfortable with technology. He works as a software developer for MU Health Care and knows that patience is a requirement to figure things out.

“The World Wide Web is too complicated to go there just for fun,” he said.

When he tried to navigate his Internet bank for the first time, it took him 30 minutes just to figure out what parts he could ignore.

Wunder agrees with Peplow that new technologies on the World Wide Web might have the unintended effect of preventing disabled surfers from gaining any access.

According to Wunder, particularly challenging are Portable Document Files, or PDFs. This technology has become the standard of electronic publishing, but most PDFs are not accessible with screen readers because of the security features they carry.

Wunder said that the World Wide Web is only the tip of the iceberg. Basic software packages commonly used in the workplace are lacking as well, he said.

One of his frustrations is being unable to schedule meetings with his coworkers in Microsoft Outlook. The way the software shows when colleagues are available for a meeting does not register on his screen reader.

“It is a situation I don’t want to be in,” said Wunder. “My boss should not be concerned about my blindness at all. It slows me down. I have to shine when I can and admit to the limitations when they occur. It is a lot better than it used to (be), but it is not what seeing people take for granted.”

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