THE EQUALITY ISSUE
The week of January 18, 2015
Issue23-VirtualCityWithoutCurbs_2500px_rev

A virtual city without curbs

By Thomas A. Panek

Imagine you pull up your favorite website and your screen full of output images fades to black. You poke at your device with frustration. A little troubleshooting and your retina-like display reverts to the pixel density of the Commodore 64’s VIC-II. You get frustrated and tap the screen, hoping to see that optimal resolution return to the brilliant display of pics, videos, and text we call the Internet come alive.

Imagine you are stuck in 1982 in an 8-bit world—like me.

I am part of a large and experienced super-user group in the millions that doesn’t get too worked up when our so-called gorilla glass cracks like an egg, when our pricy AMD and Nvidia chips fail, or when two-finger zoom leaves text so small that we resort to a one-finger gesture.

We are the blind and visually impaired users, and we surf the Web just like you. Well, not quite.

We have built a virtual city without curb cuts to get around.

A voice, reminiscent of the sentient HAL 9000 and not as robot-sexy as Siri or her nemesis Cartana reads aloud screen content to me, from left to right, top to bottom, much like navigating the row and columns of a spreadsheet using the arrow keys. But not all websites are created equal, and so as I pull up a URL, it’s hit or miss—and too often all I get is a silent screen.

It is as if someone unplugged Hal, and Siri is not available. What gets me, a blind browser of the Internet, worked up is when code is not accessible because that means simple examples for developers and electronic document authors are ignored. This leaves much of the Internet as inaccessible to a person who can’t see. We have built a virtual city without curb cuts to get around.

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandated ramps for disabled access 25 years ago, over time parents with strollers, delivery workers, and cyclists all benefited—not just wheelchair users. Efforts to regulate access, including Section508.gov, are the curb-cuts of the virtual world and, if followed, will make the Internet a more accessible place for all users, blind and sighted.

It’s pretty simple stuff. Tag images with alt text describing the pics you post, create a “skip to main content” hyperlink in the upper left corner of each webpage to skip to page content, and make PDFs and Flash accessible. This universal design allows us to build a device-agnostic Web that allows your content to be accessible to all, even if the display is off. Like those ADA ramps, there are benefits to all Internet users for us to have text hidden from the public eye as we take devices with private information everywhere.

Imagine you are stuck in 1982 in an 8-bit world—like me.

And so, I have a dream that all people, with and without sight, will be guaranteed the unalienable rights of equal access to the Internet. It is my dream, deeply rooted in the American dream, to be able to go from Amazon to Zappos and buy what I want,  from Instagram to YouTube and hear what’s there to see. I have a dream that one day on the Internet, as we all live to 100 and inevitably lose our HD pixel acuity, we will be able to sit down at any device and turn on a voice that reads aloud two-point font while we sip our Starbucks and put our feet up while our devices speak aloud our texts, emails, and Web content.  This dream includes hands-free texting while driving Google’s driverless car.

I have a dream that the Internet will be transformed into an oasis of freedom from screens that grow bigger with each release, because less is more.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a world where they will not be judged by their friends because Dad asks for help every time a site is inaccessible, and they figure out Santa is not real because in January Siri read aloud an email from Amazon during dinner asking me to rate my recent purchases of Lego Star Wars, Nerf Gun, and Indoor Basketball Hoops.

It’s good to have dreams.

Thomas A. Panek is CEO of Guiding Eyes, one of the world’s premier guide-dog schools. His professional career spans continents, having served as president of the World Trade Center in Chicago and as a Senior International Trade Specialist for the United States Foreign Commercial Service. An avid runner, Tom competes in marathons as a blind athlete and enjoys time with family, working on engines, and Porsches. He has a yellow lab named “Gus” who helps guide him on his life’s adventures.

Illustration by J. Longo