Today I watched the f8 live keynote, whereas Facebook powers-that-be introduced new tools that will give us all a much more open Web. Sounds great to me… but will this make surfing and socializing on the Internet better for some 2% of the population, of which many already feel crippled?
I’m talking about the blind. Actually, more so, those with total blindness (which is less than 1 million, but still a buying demographic). Being married to a blind man, I experience on a daily basis the hurdles websites place on the low- and no-vision population. For example, “boxing in” dozens of social media icons may help you target the broadest audience when it comes to sharing content, but a blind user with accessibility software is forced to “listen” to each and every icon/graphic before moving onto the meat of a page. Sure, he can use keyboard controls to fast-skip over them, but then he risks getting lost on the page.
From improperly coded manual tab stops to pure Flash navigation, the majority of websites and online stores have ignored blind users since the beginning. Most of these users find it overly cumbersome to navigate Facebook and many other social media sites. In fact, we actually pay someone to post my husband‘s musings and alerts on Facebook, MySpace and LiveJournal. Yep, pay… And unless someone posts directly to him, he has no idea what his friends are even saying on most of the sites with which he’s linked.
A big part of the problem, especially on news sites, is the excessive links used for visitors to share and comment on articles. The ShareThis tool helps because it commonly displays just three to four links, with a graphical overlay (one he cannot use, by the way). But at least he doesn’t have to spend five minutes listening to a lengthy list of places at which he can create an account and post his opinion.
New changes with Facebook, especially the social media plugins, should help streamline the entire process of social networking, but I wonder if it will be a step backward for the blind.
One can argue that it’s assistive technology’s job to keep up with the changes. And they do, but at a much slower pace. If JAWS (reading software) updated software every time there’s a possible change, its users would spend more time downloading and installing updates than they would visiting the sites they love. And the costs are a factor as well. Because screenreading software caters to a much smaller demographic, the costs involved per user are much higher. The initial costs for assistive technology software averages at just over $1,000. Last week we updated to the latest version of JAWS – an investment of nearly $200 (and this is most commonly an annual costs). I’ll also mention that most of the budget-friendly desktops and laptops aren’t ideal for the software, which runs during the entire process (from startup to shut down). Throw in a stellar sound card and high-end headphones, and you’re looking at a significant investment.
What’s this mean? That severely blind people who want to access the Internet typically invest $2,000 to $3,000, well above what the average family pays for a home computer. And updates to software, which are required in order to keep up with changing technology carry additional costs.
The real dilemma is sites that heavily rely on sighted visitors. This past Christmas my husband had to enlist his sister to order gifts for me at Amazon.com because the retailer pushes so much information onto its page it’s difficult for him to know exactly what he’s buying (and, as it turned out, the link he gave her wasn’t for the product he wanted – that product was actually a “People who bought this…” item).
So, I welcome Facebook’s upcoming changes and am eager to see how they’ll make my life easier, as well as how they’ll call for changes in clients’ sites. More so, though, I wonder if my husband is going to finally be able to navigate and post notes himself, or if we’ll have to keep paying someone to do the grunt work for him.