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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 March 2008 Issue  Volume 9  Number 2

Untangling the Web

Surfing into the Future: An Introduction to Web 2.0

The World Wide Web created a revolution in how people shop, acquire information, and interact with others. Now the web is undergoing a revolution of its own, and it is called Web 2.0.

So what is Web 2.0? First, let me address what it is not. It is not a separate, "all-new" version of the World Wide Web; rather, it is just a new way of using the web that lets users collaborate and share information online. The term Web 2.0 was coined to sound like a new version of the web, much like the number given to a new version of software that indicates which version it is. Web 2.0 web sites expect the user to contribute. It may be best to think of Web 2.0 web sites more like applications than just web sites. Web 2.0 sites allow you to do something such as publish words and pictures or keep a group calendar.

What types of sites are considered Web 2.0, and what are they used for? Probably the most well-known type of Web 2.0 site is the social networking site, such as MySpace and Facebook. These sites allow users to put up their own content, share content with other sites, and browse the content of fellow members. They also have the facility for you to send messages to fellow members and even post your content on someone else's site if you have been given permission to do so by the other user. While these sites initially gained popularity with teenagers and college students as a way to keep in touch with friends and meet new people, many have become important ways for individuals and groups to communicate. For example, many secondary and postsecondary school clubs create MySpace pages where information regarding activities and upcoming events is posted. In many cases, these pages are the only places where this information is made available to members. If students who are visually impaired do not have reliable access to the pages, they are essentially cut out of the information loop for the organizations.

In addition to clubs, many businesses and political organizations use social networking sites for marketing and communication. For example, the Carroll Center for the Blind, in Newton, Massachusetts, thought that it needed to have a MySpace page as a way to get the word out about the center. Webmaster Mark Sadecki said that the center added pages on both MySpace and Facebook "not to direct people from our site to theirs (the content on MySpace is much more easily accessed on our home page), but to market to existing and future users of these sites. If they are using the sites, we assume that they are not having accessibility issues with them." Even though Sadecki experienced issues of accessibility on both sites, he said it is an important part of the center's marketing effort to have at least a basic page on both sites.

Another popular Web 2.0 application is project management. Project management sites provide individuals and organizations with a way to manage projects within their organizations. For example, the popular project management site Basecamp allows users to manage multiple projects at once, providing to-do lists, message centers, calendars, and reminders along the way. Multiple users can access and share information via an electronic whiteboard. This type of software has become common in the business world and is used to help companies manage all the details of large projects. Project management software used to come in a box, but now Web 2.0 versions like Basecamp allow people to use the software as a web-based tool.

Blogging is another popular Web 2.0 application. Short for web log, a blog is essentially a compilation of diary entries that are arranged in reverse date order. Blogs can range from the personal to political. They can include pictures, MP3 files, videos, and the like, which usually make accessibility difficult.

Another example of a Web 2.0 application is wikis, web sites that allow users to add and edit information. A wiki usually provides information about multiple topics, and users can update, edit, and add to the information that is provided. Like blogs, accessibility issues in wikis are usually tied to the addition of media.

Sounds Great, So What Is the Problem?

Before you even get to whether the content of these sites is accessible, you need to get past the inaccessible elements of the sign-up process. All the Web 2.0 sites that were reviewed for this article require users to sign up, and all use a method called CAPTCHA (completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart) to verify that you are a human, not a computer. A CAPTCHA is a small graphic that contains text, numbers, or both. You are asked to type the characters that are displayed into a text field. CAPTCHAs are basically a Web 1.0 technology that is used to prevent automated systems, such as those used by spammers, from signing up for services.

Unfortunately, because they are graphic, CAPTCHAs are completely inaccessible. Some CAPTCHAs include an audio alternative, but because of voice-recognition technology, the quality of the audio is poor on purpose. Anyone with less-than-perfect hearing or with auditory-processing problems would find them difficult to use. (For an example of an audio CAPTCHA, visit www.recaptcha.com and follow the link for What Is ReCAPTCHA.) The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recommends that CAPTCHAs not be used at all because they are inherently inaccessible, but that if you use them, you should use an audio alternative. According to W3C, CAPTCHAs are not so effective in preventing automated sign-up, and their limited value is not worth the loss of accessibility. Also, audio alternatives are not accessible to braille-only users such as people who are deaf-blind. Alternatives to CAPTCHAs would include providing the user with a question that requires a human to answer or check boxes that need to be unchecked.

Most of the Web 2.0 sites have not gotten the message. Both YouTube and MySpace do not bother to use audio alternatives. In fact, both provide a frustrating "If You Can't Read This" link next to the CAPTCHA, which, at first, gives you hope that an audio prompt will follow, but alas, all the link does is refresh the screen with a different CAPTCHA. This lack of audio is inexcusable, since ready-made CAPTCHAs that include audio are freely available, most notably from Carnegie Mellon University's CAPTCHA project (www.captcha.net).

Once you manage to sign up, you will find a variety of obstacles to participation. First, because much of the content found on Web 2.0 sites is user generated, little attention is paid to making the content accessible. The average user just does not know anything about the need for accessibility or how to go about making the content more accessible. This situation can be aggravated by the fact that the applications that end-users use to put content on the web site typically do not provide any way to make their content more accessible. For example, MySpace is a social networking site where individuals and organizations can put up content on their personal MySpace pages. Content can include photographs and videos. Even if users are aware of accessibility issues and want to provide accessible content to visitors to their pages, there is no facility to do even something as simple as providing alt-text with photographs.

Web sites like YouTube that focus on videos are equally inaccessible to use. Even if users decided to create a description for their videos that could be played simultaneously, no facility to upload them or play them is built into the web site.

New Technology

Another big issue with Web 2.0 is the introduction of new technology that is intended to make these sites more dynamic. In a way, these sites are becoming more like television, where content is updated on the screen without the user having to do anything. Unfortunately, screen readers do not always notice the new content, or, worse, the new content can cause the screen reader to begin reading the page again from the top, basically hijacking control of the page away from the user.

As a group, these technologies are referred to as rich internet applications (RIAs). Unfortunately, RIAs provide web designers with a multitude of new options for web design, most of which are not accessible.

Here We Go Again ...

When computers moved from DOS to Windows, screen readers had to come up with a whole new way to read the screen. Most screen readers began to use an off-screen model and relied on interpreting objects to provide accurate information about which part of the screen had focus and what it said. The off-screen model's functionality was enhanced when the companies that produced the operating systems provided additional information and consistency through the use of accessible application programming interfaces (APIs), the most well known of which was Microsoft Active Accessibility. APIs worked fairly well until the introduction of the World Wide Web and the proliferation of HTML in both web pages and documents. Manufacturers of screen readers had to scramble once again to find a way to read the underlying HTML efficiently.

As the web exploded in popularity, the number of authors of web sites expanded with it. Since HTML was simply a markup language, there were no real rules to govern its use, thus very little consistency in how web pages were structured. This situation created an accessibility problem for users of screen readers because there was no reliable way to tell something as simple as whether a table was really a table or was just being used to format the page. The facility existed to provide alternative descriptions of pictures, but not everyone knew how to use them or even why they might want to use them.

Enter W3C. W3C is an international consortium, created by one of the inventors of the World Wide Web, as a way to "lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure long-term growth of the web" (www.w3.org/Consortium/Overview.html#mission). In 1997, W3C created a Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) whose goal was to create standards for HTML authoring that created fully accessible web sites. The WAI provided the ground rules for accessible HTML, and a host of other web sites and applications used these guidelines to help web authors create accessible sites.

Unfortunately, with the advent of the new RIAs, we are back at the beginning of the process of making the web accessible once again. Much of the technology behind RIA is new, and no standards yet exist for web authors to make their sites accessible. According to W3C's "Roadmap for Accessible Rich Internet Applications," much of the accessibility architecture that is needed to create standards does not yet even exist. The little that does exist is so new that it will not work in all web browsers.

RIA accessibility is very much a work in progress, but one thing is clear. It will be extremely difficult to provide any kind of backward compatibility for RIA web sites. Old versions of screen readers simply will not work with the new technology, but neither will old versions of web browsers.

According to Eric Damery, vice president of software product management for Freedom Scientific, the company is actively working to make changes in future versions of JAWS and MAGic that will support accessible rich internet applications (ARIA), but these changes and the full ARIA standards are 9 to 12 months away and will be compatible only with Firefox, not Internet Explorer. Damery was hopeful that the problem would eventually be solved. When asked to compare this new technical struggle with the early battles to make the Internet accessible, he said that the assistive technology community is more involved with software developers now, so these issues are being addressed much earlier in the process.

The outlook is similar at GW Micro. According to Doug Geoffray, GW Micro's vice president of development, Window-Eyes added some Web 2.0 accessibility for things like tree views and buttons in the last version when it added Firefox compatibility. Geoffray said that IBM has worked hard to make sure that Firefox has all the support necessary for ARIA, but Microsoft does not have the same commitment for Internet Explorer. He also noted that the ARIA standards are "much cleaner than the WAI standards and right to the point," but he still believes that there is a "bumpy road" ahead for computer users who are visually impaired until Web 2.0 code is accessible and developers begin to use the more accessible code.

Geoffray was not willing to predict when Window-Eyes will make the changes that are necessary to take full advantage of ARIA, but he said that the company is actively pursuing these technologies and will pay greater attention to Web 2.0 compatibility after the release of the next version of Window-Eyes, which is due to come out this spring.

In the meantime, to be accessible, Web 2.0 sites will need to provide an alternative to RIA content, much like the "text-only" versions of web sites that were popular in the early days of the World Wide Web.

A big hurdle for accessibility is a technology called Ajax (the acronym for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML). Ajax is intended to make web pages more dynamic by providing the ability to refresh parts of a web page without having to refresh the entire page. Essentially, new content can come onto the page without the user having to do anything. Several problems are presented by Ajax, however.

First, since Ajax is a form of JavaScript, anyone who turns JavaScript off or is still using technology that is not able to process JavaScript has no access to the information. Second, even if your screen reader will read the information, it will not tell you that the page has updated, so you will not even know that something has changed. This second problem is being addressed by the new ARIA standards and should be implemented by the end of 2008, but it will still depend on web developers understanding and implementing the new standards and on users upgrading to the newest screen readers.

Fortunately, products, such as the Dojo Toolkit (www.dojotoolkit.org), are available that build ARIA standards into their tools for web developers, making it easier for developers to create accessible Web 2.0 pages. Like the ARIA standards, the Dojo Toolkit is a work in progress, but its tools are impressive and its definition and explanation of what makes a Web 2.0 site accessible are well written and fairly easy to understand.

In the meantime, while the standards are being finalized and the screen readers are catching up, here are some recommendations for what Web 2.0 sites can do to maximize accessibility. First, sites should use Ajax only as a layer on top of existing web sites, so that users can use the page, even if they cannot run JavaScript or recognize when updates have occurred. Second, sites should inform users, at the top of a form, if the form requires JavaScript to be submitted, and provide a link to a version of the form that does not require JavaScript. Finally, keyboard alternatives must be provided for any actions that require a mouse.

In the end, accessibility on the web requires a commitment to creating accessible web pages that developers still do not seem to have. Most of the Web 2.0 sites have accessibility issues that are left over from Web 1.0 and require attention only to available standards to fix. For example, many of these sites do not even provide something as simple as the ability to add Alt-text to your photographs, all of them use CAPTCHAs for security, and many use old-fashioned rollover menus that were never accessible. So while the new technology has presented new technological hurdles, the biggest hurdle still appears to be the lack of attention to accessibility. For every Web 2.0 web site I reviewed for this article, I searched for information on accessibility using the search engine provided by the site. For all these sites, the search returned no documents. I even tried calling the press office at MySpace for comments several times but never received a return telephone call. It would seem that the biggest hurdle is to get the owners of these web sites even to consider accessibility.

If you have comments about this article, e-mail us at accessworld@afb.net.

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Copyright © 2008 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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