Collaborative Web Site Invites Users to Help the Visually Impaired

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IBM Labs comes up with novel idea to make the Web more accessible. And we can help.


For some reason, when I think of the size of the World Wide Web, I think of that scene at the end of The Perfect Storm where fisherman Bobby Shatford (played by Mark Wahlberg) swims up and away from the sinking Andrea Gail to emerge on the surface of the Atlantic Ocean only to see a limitless--and hopeless--panorama of high seas and wind-whipped waves.


As of the middle of this week, the closest estimate of the total number of indexed Web pages found on the World Wide Web is at least 27.77 billion (see Thinking about taking any universal applicable action on this--including reading all the pages or even a portion of them--seems simply overwhelming.


That's why I was inspired by a project recently launched by IBM Labs to turn anywhere from hundreds to potentially billions of Web pages into documents that can be accurately read and understood by the visually impaired.


When you use the Web as much as many of us in IT do today, you rarely think about the fact that visually impaired people can't easily use the Web--or at least not in the same way that sighted people do. Blindness and severe visual impairment affect millions of people. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are more than 40 million people worldwide who have category 3 vision or worse. Category 3 is considered blind and represents vision that measures 20/400 after correction, or, to put it another way, you see at 20 feet what the average person would see at 400 feet. Low vision category 2 starts at 20/200 (corrected), and low vision 1 is a best-corrected visual acuity of 20/70. Category 5 is no light perception at all.


So 40 million people can't read what we're putting out there on the Web. About 80 percent of these people live in developing countries. That leaves some eight million visually impaired people living in countries with easy access to computers. In the United States, about half the visually impaired population is over 65 and affected by, among other diseases, cataracts, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma. The other half of the affected U.S. population is under 65 and visually impaired from a variety of causes, including infections, injury, and poor nutrition.


There is technology available today to allow the visually impaired to access the Internet through "adaptive technology." This generally refers to screen readers and Braille displays that interpret text files. The problem is that HTML protocol provides for a high level of variation in creating documents, and it is this flexibility in the document creation process that results in limited access to the Web by those whose vision is impaired.


Because Web page designers assume that all visitors can "see" the photos, charts, and forms that they place onto a page, they often omit a text description of the graphic that would allow a visually impaired person to use it as a means of entry to the experience. The Adaptive Technology Resource Centre has suggestions on how to design Web pages so they can better be accessed by the visually impaired. One tip is to include a general outline on the page where a screen reader would begin and include similar summaries at other points in the document. Because screen readers provide information about a document's format only a little bit at a time, having an outline can give the visually impaired person a sense of what the document is about. Other tips include providing text descriptions of graphics and creating links with meaningful words highlighted so that screen readers aren't confused by commands such as "click here."


While creating Web pages that are friendly to visually impaired people is the first challenge, a second and larger task involves fixing pages already created so they can be more easily understood using screen readers. As noted, there are more than 27 billion indexed pages on the Web, and the number is growing daily. Theoretically, someone must go back to each one and manually tweak it so that it has all the features needed for screen reader assimilation. From an individual standpoint, that sounds about as plausible as Bobby Shatford swimming to shore after popping up in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But as the old Chinese proverb goes, it's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.


IBM is a large global company, and it is used to tackling big problems. Researchers in the IBM Tokyo Research Laboratory came up with an idea of how to address this seemingly monumental task of fixing existing Web pages so they are more accessible to the visually impaired. It's a software solution called the Social Accessibility Project. The way it works is that both the visually impaired and supporters who wish to help them register at the project Web site. The impaired post Web site pages that they would like to see made more accessible and state the specific problem with a page. A supporter, who goes through an easy tutorial on what is generally needed and how to fix it, makes the correction, which is automatically transformed to an external metadata. The next time a visually impaired person tries to visit that Web page, screen-reading software will read the alternative text from the metadata.


Here's an example that IBM uses in describing the process: Say you have a photo of Mount Fuji taken at sunset. Screen reading software may not obtain the same information as is shown in the image, or maybe a description of the photo is just missing. When a visually impaired person comes across such a photo, she can report it through the Social Accessibility Project and ask for someone to add an improved line of text describing the picture. Once posted, the request can be acted upon by a registered supporter, who clicks the "start fixing it" button. The person might type in a short description such as this: "Photo caption: Mount Fuji during a gorgeous sunset." Because the change is located in external metadata residing on the project's Web server, the actual Web content remains unchanged, but the Web site becomes more accessible. The visually impaired also can place tags, or landmarks, on a Web page at important positions to help others navigate to important information easier and faster. The landmark helps to serve the same function that the summary might serve.


There are incentives built into the solution that allow the visually impaired to rate the fixes and express appreciation to supporters for their input. There also is a mechanism to recognize supporters who are active.


The Social Accessibility Project is located on IBM's alphaWorks Web site, where the company displays new technology and invites users to try it and offer feedback on how they think it might be improved.


The site just went up, and already there is one supporter. The individual left a message on the site's forum, which reads: "Just a quick note to say that I am 'in' as a supporter. I have a visually impaired granddaughter, and I sent her information on this and asked her to look into it as a user. She is a junior at the University of Delaware. This program cannot go anywhere unless we get LOTS of participation. TED, a 40+-year IBMer."


Well, Ted, we're impressed by both your granddaughter for her accomplishment and you for being willing to take the plunge. We therefore are encouraging all our MC Press Online readers to register with the Social Accessibility Project. You have just lit a single candle, and we believe there are many others out there willing to do the same.