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Web Accessibility – why bother?

So you have a working computer, an internet connection and some assistive technology.  That means you can access any webpage, right?


It can be hard to explain what “web accessibility” is all about.  I thought I might furnish you with a couple of examples and a couple of general pointers. First, the examples…

Bouncers of the Internet – No blacks, No dogs, No blindies!

I’m sure you will have come across a “captcha” – that image of warpified text that claims to sort the machines from the humans.  Maybe you’ve even had a whinge about how difficult they can be to see.  If you don’t know what I’m on about, here’s an example from a Google page:

Screenshot of a visual captcha window from Google
Google Visual Captcha

I tried to understand the audio alternative about 15 times, then started to record my effort.  Bear in mind that I use JAWS, a screen-reading program that gives me audio feedback about what’s happening on my screen.  Every time you hear the word “Enter” and a slight pause, I have tried to submit my effort.  Instead of hearing the same audio again, a new audio file loads. I will give you some kind of prize if you think you can understand the words in any of the 16 captcha samples on this audio recording:

And that’s assuming the Captcha challenge even has an audio alternative, and that the button to request the audio alternative is tagged so that JAWS can detect it. These are by no means givens.

PDF – the universal format

PDF has come to be a standard way to access all kinds of texts. Sometimes, I receive a PDF attachment to an e-mail, which is supposed to carry all the information the sender wishes to communicate with me. Often, PDFs are used online for brochures and publicity – often graphics-heavy publications. They are also the standard format for academic papers and articles.

PDFs have plenty of accessibility features… if the author of the document has bothered to use them. More often, the author is concerned with how the text looks on the page, with neither thought nor care for the underlying code that orders the text. Weird things can happen to words in the most straightforward documents, with headings read as if each letter were on a separate line.

Here’s an example of how JAWS interacted with a price list for spa treatments. See if you can figure out what any of those treatments were or how much they cost…

Universal Access to All Knowledge?

The biggest kick in the teeth has to be my attempt to continue academic work. There are digital and online resources available now that I would have given selected body parts for when I was still officially a student. At the time, which is over 10 years ago now, I even attended conferences about digital humanities specifically to make known how they would be indispensible from an access point of view.

However, the effectiveness of digitisation varies wildly. The wonderful Internet Archive project, of which I’m a huge fan, still has no accessible means (i.e. keyboard-only) of uploading content. A search result has to be navigated using “G” to find graphics, rather than marking search result headers as headings. And then there’s the quality of the digitised texts themselves…

The quality of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software seems to have progressed incredibly slowly down the years. Many OCR Engines seem to imagine that long text documents use an awful lot more random punctuation than I’ve ever come across. Exclamation marks (!) often appear instead of letters I and L, and capitalisation seems a matter of taste rather than of syntax. The word “arc” is apparently more commonly used than the word “are”… I could go on. Really. I could.

The fact is, if OCR is to have ANY value, it needs to be proof-read by a human being. Even then, JAWS will pick up the odd lower-case L that has been mistaken for an upper-case I. But just scanning a book and lobbing it up on the internet does not count as “Universal Access to All Knowledge”.

I have no desire to single out the Internet Archive as an offender. As I said, I love the project. It’s what the Internet was sent from Heaven to achieve. The most recent culprit (and I find at least one a week) for bad access I’ve run into (face-first) is Never mind invisible buttons and menus that can’t easily be reached. Here’s an article I tried to read this evening. Apparently, it’s about Disability Arts. Here’s what JAWS says:

And here’s a few screen shots. I use visual themes on my PC which hurt my eyes less when I need to read the screen (at least I can still do that). The size of the text at the top of the first image should give you an idea of how big it has to be before I can read it. My mum uses similar settings, although she doesn’t use screen-reading software. So this is pretty much what she’d be faced with:

NOTE: This is NOT the fault of contributers to the site. It’s down to the programmers.

First Screenshot showing a paper on

Second Screen shot from a paper on

Third Screen shot from a paper on

Fourth Screen shot from a paper on

Fifth Screen shot from a paper on

That’s all I have the energy for right now. This is a big topic, and it affects me every single day of my life. No doubt, I’ll need to rant on it again soon…


About Isolde

Writer, Artist and Story Archaeologist living in Co. Leitrim, in the rural West of Ireland. My personal blog, AccessAdventures, features random rantings about the daily entertainment that is being a visually impaired (blind) wheelchair user (cripple). My professional blog, StoryArchaeology, is with my colleague, Chris Thompson, uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology in podcasts and accompanying articles. My arts practice is currently featured on - maybe a blog here will follow... I am preparing "A Real Irish Woman's Book of Days" ( to go live for 2016.

Grace us with the spleandour of your uninformed "reckon"...

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