RealTime IT News

IBM Tool Has An Eye For The Blind

IBM's emerging technologies site, alphaWorks, now features a Java-based application that lets developers see how their site looks and sounds to a person with low-vision impairment or blindness.

Called aDesigner, the tool was developed in the IBM Tokyo Research Lab to make Web access easier for the thousands of Internet users around the world who go online to conduct their business, read e-mails and shop online.

According to Steven Booth, manager of the Braille and Technology Center for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the developer community as a whole has done a good job and made real progress in making their sites accessible to visually impaired Web surfers -- but there is always room for improvement.

"Labeling [text with images] is a big problem, as well as having too many links per page -- it's too confusing to get through -- or have forms that aren't labeled so you can't tell what field you're in," he said. "Overall, access is good right now and it's getting better all the time."

Booth said there are a growing number of people who are entering old age now who know what computers are and aren't intimidated by the Internet as many in the previous generation might have been. As those people get online, they're going to want to access the Internet as they always have.

According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), five in 10 Americans expect to work well into their 70s and 80s; with the Internet as ubiquitous as it is these days, these workers will need Internet access and the ability to see or hear the site they're visiting.

"Increasingly, tech jobs require you to do something on the computer display, if you don't see stuff quickly and find things, it becomes a problem," said Jim Chou, IBM emerging technology strategist. "Anything you can do to improve that is going to help a lot of people."

The 4.6 MB Java application is easily installed on Windows 2000 and XP, but isn't supported on any other platform. IBM officials say they are looking into the possibility of supporting other operating systems down the road.

The software tool evaluates Web sites on their font choices and colors (and the ability to change them upon request), compliance with accessibility guidelines, alternate text for images and link navigation.

A five-pane window shows the Web site as it looks for most people. Another browser pane demonstrates how it looks or will read for blind or low-vision people, while the bottom three panes list and map out problems aDesigner had with the Web site.

The site is then scored (from 1 to 100) for compliance, navigability and listenability and given an overall letter grade from A to D. Also included in the program is a "simulator" showing how a Web site looks to a person with low-vision impairment. Using the simulator

Two of the three largest Internet portals, Yahoo.com and Msn.com, each got a "C" grade with the simulator. AOL.com scored an "A." AOL's grade might have been helped by a case in 2000, in which it settled a discrimination suit filed by the NFB on charges it wasn't compatible with screen-reading software. Other popular sites fell into the "C" grade: RIAA.org - C, Slashdot.org - C, Universal.com - C, Microsoft.com - C (internetnews.com also received a C). Apple's itunes.com site got an A.

Chou said there are several software tools on the market today to help Web designers improve the code on their Web sites, but have limited capabilities. They deal with navigational issues, he said, not compliance or listenability.

As of now, there are no plans to commercially release the product, Chou said. The program was placed on the alphaWorks site to give developers a chance to use the application and suggest improvements. If there is enough interest down the road, the program could get wrapped up in the IBM product line.

You can download the application here.