Accessibility advocates have accused Google and Yahoo of shutting out the blind. The door is still closed. Now, an Internet petition is asking Google to provide an accessible alternative to the visual verification scheme that currently locks the blind and visually impaired out of participation in all the company's services.
"Google's implementation of word verification currently denies us access to such important features as the ability to create accounts and blogs, change our passwords, and post comments to most blogs that use the Blogger service," the petition says.
Darrell Shandrow, editor of the Blind Access Journal, which is built on Google's Blogger platform, calls his effort "open source advocacy." More than 3,500 people have signed it; the goal is 10,000. Shandrow plans to print a copy and send it via certified mail to Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
Many websites use "captchas," those squiggly letters that users must decipher and type into a box before they register for a service. They're designed to block automated bots that sign up for email addresses and then use them to send spam.
The problem is they put a barrier in front of blind people, too. Many vision-impaired computer users employ screen readers that convert text and image tags into audio. The speech simulator can read menus and the names or descriptions of navigational elements such as buttons and links. But screen readers are stymied by captchas.
When internetnews.com spoke to Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer experience, last July, she said Google planned to implement some alternatives in the next one to two months to make its captchas more compatible with screen readers, as well as examining whether to add audio versions. (Mayer was not available for another interview.)
Shandrow is still waiting. No audio verifications have yet appeared.
"We've been advocating for this to be changed since at least January 2005," he said, "and there has been no improvement. In fact, it's getting worse. Google has expanded the use of their captchas to more and more services over the past year."
Since October 2005, the brilliant minds at Google have been testing an enterprise version of its Gmail Webmail service; added high-resolution imagery of Torino, Italy, to Google Earth in honour of the Winter Olympics; introduced version 3 of the Google Desktop; added chat to Gmail; updated the Google Toolbar and added a secure, enterprise version; began testing a click-to-call service to connect searchers with advertisers; released the Google Updater and Google Pack of software applications; and added music search.
A Work in Progress?
Jay Leventhal, editor of AccessWorld, the American Foundation for the Blind's technology magazine, said "Google should be able to come up with a better solution."
A Google spokesman said that the company has a team working on accessibility issues, and the company hopes to provide an audio alternative to the visual captcha by the end of April.
He also said that key Google and Blogger captcha pages would include clear and easier instructions for those unable to respond to the visual captchas, increasing staffing and resources to support this temporary solution.
While Shandrow is singling out Google for now, he doesn't think its rival, Yahoo, is up to snuff.
Along with the visual captcha, Yahoo provides a link that's not visible to the average user but is detectable by screen readers. The link connects to a customer service rep who can complete the registration via a phone call. Shandrow said it might take a day or two for a callback.
Said Yahoo spokeswoman Nicki Dugan, "The feeling we have is that captchas are intended to mitigate abuse, and unfortunately abuse is pretty rampant on the Internet.
"Our priority is to provide a really good experience for all users. Right now, the manual workaround is what we offer. At least we provide some alternative."
Meanwhile, Yahoo's accessibility manager, Victor Tsaran, is working with engineers on coding styles that reduce the barriers to screen readers.
"There are certain ways you can design a page so a screen reader can understand it and translate it to the user," Dugan said. "It's a great first step in building [engineers'] awareness that certain small changes can make a big difference."
Microsoft's MSN, by contrast, offers the audio alternative when new users sign up for email or the Spaces blogging service.
Back in 2002, Microsoft even released the PAC Mate, a version of its PocketPC customized for use by low-vision and blind users.
And then there are the smaller outfits.
Al Castle, CTO for PRWeb International, an online press release distribution agency, worked with Shandrow to provide a captcha alternative for the PR Web site.
"Our informal, general rule has always been to produce standard no-nonsense Web pages with very few graphics," he said. But the company recently had instituted captchas on two forms. It took about a week and a half to come up with an audio alternative.
The most difficult part, he said, was deciding which method best fit into the site's existing structure. It had to be quick to deploy and be low-maintenance. He considered mathematical or multiple-choice questions, but both had to be created by a human editor and varied; he figured he'd need to create 10,000 questions to foil automated programs.
He finally decided on audio, because it's easy to automate and randomize, but difficult for bots to match. He wrote the application himself in a few days.
"Truly, it wasn't hard enough that every website that uses these cannot implement an alternative solution in a short amount of time," Castle said.
The Google spokesman said that his company's infrastructure and offerings were extremely complicated, and no one outside the company could assess the difficulties involved in providing a captcha alternative.
Ought It Be a Law?
Even though the Internet has become a prime source of information, entertainment and communication, its regulation has fallen through the cracks.
Telephones, including cell phones, and telephone services are required to be accessible to people with disabilities.
In 1996, Section 255 was added to U.S. telecommunications law, requiring companies to design their products and services to be accessible to people with disabilities -- but it doesn't cover the Internet or email.
The American Foundation for the Blind hopes the Federal Communications Commission will plug that hole, according to Alan Dinsmore, its senior government relations representative.
"AFB has a long-standing policy of advocating for access to all Internet services," Dinsmore said. "We have filed in FCC proceedings dealing with IP-enabled services and are currently working with colleagues in the disability field to ensure Internet access in the next round of telecommunications amendments."
PRWeb's Castle said that while there was plenty of information available for Web publishers on how to implement captchas, he found only three websites that offered suggestions or alternatives.
"There was nothing in the form of a how-to and nothing ready to download," he said. "I imagine that, for the smaller companies and websites that do not have the resources to create or program their own solutions, the lack of information to do it yourself, or to acquire a solution, make this a much harder problem for them to solve."
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