The global computer network known as the Internet, and the World Wide Web that helps people use it, have long been hailed as breakthrough technologies that have given ordinary people, including those without special computer skills or social privileges, unprecedented access to information. But more than a decade after the introduction of the Web, access to this resource is still limited for millions of people with disabilities.
According to a recent United Nations report, only three of the world's top 100 websites are free of impediments to those with mental and physical handicaps.
Although many governments have passed laws mandating that public places be made accessible to the disabled, equal access to cyberspace has lagged far behind.
The director of the Web Accessibility Initiative at the World Wide Web Consortium, which sets technical standards for the Web, says things must change. "There is so much valuable information on the Web right now, whether it's educational or employment-related, health-related, government services, community activities," Judy Brewer says. "People with disabilities need to be able to access all of that information in order to have the same opportunities and the same ability to participate as people without disabilities."
Brewer says that just as there are many kinds of disabilities, there are many ways to help the disabled access the Web through so called "assistive technology."
"If somebody has a hearing disability they would need captioning for the audio," she says. Someone who couldn't use his or her hands to type, Brewer suggests, could use voice recognition software, "so you are essentially talking to your computer."
Other kinds of assistive technology make access to the Web easier for the blind and visually impaired. Marc Grossman, a sales representative at the American Foundation for the Blind in New York City, uses screen-reading software to translate the specialized code embedded in the text and images on every Web page into synthetic speech.
Grossman says this sort of software has been a boon to the visually impaired. But he adds that many websites are still difficult to use. For example, the software readers often "speechify" too much extraneous information, describing all of the graphic elements on a web page, such as advertisements, commonly placed within news articles. He is having particular difficult today finding the headlines buried inside the website of an online newspaper.
"Here I have no way of finding the headlines!" he says in disgust. "You might as well just turn it off because if you're getting gibberish, it's just as bad as not getting any information at all."
There are other problems. Some sites have no simple way for the visually impaired to scan for a specific link to another webpage. When shopping at an online department store, for example, one might have to scroll through scores of merchandise categories before arriving at the link one wants.
The irony, according to David MacDonald, a web developer at "eramp.com" a Canadian firm specializing in accessible websites, is that writing the computer code to accommodate the needs of the disabled is quite easy to do.
"Anybody who is building for the Web can easily grasp these concepts, and it's inexpensive." he says. "The biggest problem for web developers is in cognitively getting their head around the idea that they want to do it."
But McDonald says they should, not only because "it's the right thing to do," but he adds, "you are really looking at increasing your client base."
According to one estimate, there are about 40 million disabled people in North America. That number includes people with relatively minor disabilities, such as senior citizens who want large print, and the color blind, who cannot interpret web pages that use color cues to convey meaning.
Parameters such as color and font size can be set in a computer's browser, giving users some freedom to tailor their screens to fit their needs. Marc Grossman says commercial websites that allow adjustments to the way pages are displayed are easier for the disabled to navigate.
"But companies, because they are trying to represent a brand or a marketing campaign, do not necessarily want to allow the user to change what is on the screen, because they are trying to protect their image," he laments.
But Grossman says that is irrelevant to somebody who has low vision. "If they can't use your website, they are going to use your competitor's website."
Change seems to be coming, slowly, but surely. Rules requiring basic accessibility are being considered by many governments, and the disabled themselves are becoming better organized and more vocal in their demands for a Worldwide Web that is accessible to all.