Innovations: Technology makes web sites accessible for deaf and blind

Innovative technology has made it possible for people with vision or hearing loss to access information via the web.

However, even with those tools, many of today’s web sites make it extremely difficult for deaf and blind people to get the online information they need, according to Paulette Monthei, executive director for the Milwaukee-based Center for Deaf-Blind Persons Inc.

Monthei and her colleague, Jane Albrecht, offer consulting services for organizations and companies to make sure their web sites are useable for deaf and blind individuals.

“A lot of times websites, especially government web sites, post pertinent information or require individuals to post a resume or fill out a job application online,” Monthei said. “If the person suffers from vision or hearing loss that may not always be possible, and so we want to help them through that.”

Monthei is legally blind and suffers from a traumatic brain injury. Albrecht is completely blind.

The two have done work for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce development, the Wisconsin Department of Aging, and many nonprofit organizations.

There are a variety of products on the market that have made using the web easier for deaf and blind people, Monthei said.

“The most common types of products on the market are screen magnification software, screen readers, and focused Braille displays,” she said.

According to Monthei, the problem with most web sites today is that their designers try to make the sites do too much.

“There are typically a lot of images and flash animation, that companies don’t really need to get their message across, but they like the appeal and flashiness of the design,” she said.

Excessive flash animation can often cause screen reader software to think the page was refreshed and causes the software to jump back to the top of the page, Monthei said.

“A screen reader service typically works by reading from the top of the page down. If there is an image on the page it needs to have an alternative text descriptor, which the screen reader can read and describe the image to the person visiting the site,” she said.

According to Monthei, many web sites make the mistake of including images that don’t really relate to the content on the page, which can be confusing for an individual using a screen reader.

“They sometimes get lost on unfamiliar pages, because an image or animation comes through the reader that doesn’t seem to fit,” she said.

Screen readers can also be used in conjunction with a focused Braille display, a device that connects to the computer via a USB drive, and translates words into Braille ‘keyboard’ that the individual can follow along with.

“Following a website through a screen reader or a Braille display can be confusing for an individual if things continuously jump around,” Monthei said. “That’s why we try to help organizations form the best quality website that will be accessible for all individuals in the community.”

Monthei and Albrecht team up on the website projects, she said. Monthei will look at the website’s convenience for an individual who has low vision, identify the problem areas she sees and then Albrecht will look at the websites from a perspective of someone who is totally blind.

“What I am looking for are basic things like, do they have a background that is low glare and not too busy, do they have good contrast so low vision people can identify the text on the page, have they installed skip links that will take persons directly to the context on a page, and can I access the page without using a mouse since many tools would require access using the tab key,” Monthei said.

Aside from consulting services, the center also provides resources for deaf and blind individuals from the community on computer training, orientation and mobility training, career services, communication learning independent living courses and home-based services and support. The organization is one of about six organizations in the country that focus primarily on the needs of deaf-blind individuals. They help 60 to 70 patients a year, and according to Monthei their customer base is growing due to the aging of the overall population.

“Now is a time where so many websites are going after the glam factor, we are doing our best to work with organizations both nationally and locally right from the beginning to make sure things aren’t visually over-stimulating for individuals with disabilities or those using adaptive technology,” Monthei said. “Technology has opened many doors for the deaf-blind population. We just need to make sure organizations are allowing the technology to work by designing friendly web sites.” 

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