Americas Oct 20, 2011
Towson University has begun making changes to its website to meet the needs of blind people.
Jonathan Lazar, professor of computer and information sciences and director of the Universal Usability Laboratory in the Jess and Mildred Fisher College of Science and Mathematics, spent a year studying the difficulties encountered by blind users as they browsed the Web. Lazar said he has grown to understand some of the technological needs of blind people.
“When websites are inaccessible [to blind people], it’s not just an inconvenience,” Lazar said. “If you can’t get the lowest fare on an airline website, if you can’t take advantage of Web-only specials on an e-commerce site, it becomes pricing discrimination. If you cannot use the same workplace software tools, communication tools and social-networking software, it becomes social exclusion.”
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is working with several colleges and universities to create blind-accessible technology and Internet use. When schools haven’t complied by making accessible means, the NFB has responded. In a more recent case, the organization sued Arizona University for not having blind-accessible e-reader technology. But the organization has commended Towson University on the efforts made with the University website.
“We think and believe that all colleges and universities need to make sure that their websites are accessible. Not only are they an important source of info for students, but increasingly websites are where you get lots of other things done,” Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the NFB, said. “Using a website is critical. We’re always certainly glad that a college or university is upgrading its website.”
In the past six months, improvements to Towson’s website have been released as they are completed, according to Matthew Wynd, Towson University’s information technology support centers director. By July 2012, Wynd said several scripting-level changes will made to improve readability when using assistive software to view the website.
“The site navigation will allow for browsers that read Web pages to more efficiently use the navigation or skip over it to the page’s content,” Wynd said. “Each image on the page will include an alternative text description of the image. PDF files will flow more logically when read out loud by text to speech software. Video files will include Closed Captioning or will have an associated link to a text file containing a script of the video. Content linked on the site that requires functionality beyond what is built into the browser will include a link to download the needed plugin on the same page.”
Lazar said it’s imperative to use what means are available to enhance the website.
“Technology should be a driving force for bringing people together, not increasing existing barriers of discrimination,” Lazar said. “We have the technical capability, the existing knowledge, to design for accessibility, for inclusion. Why don’t we do it?”