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December 2005

by Carl R. Augusto

October 25, 2005 Huntington (WV) Herald Dispatch - Despite high gasoline prices and security concerns, Americans are traveling in record numbers and using the Internet to do it. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, about 30 percent of the U.S. adult population uses the Internet for travel planning each year.

And why not? The multitude of travel Web sites offers a host of benefits such as comparing discounts, viewing hotel rooms online and reserving tickets to hot attractions. But not everyone gets to share in the fun. Millions of Americans with vision loss are unable to reap the benefits of the Web.

Last summer, the New York attorney general took notice and announced settlements with two major travel retailers to make their Web sites more accessible to users with vision loss. The attorney general successfully argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) means all places of "public accommodation" must be made accessible to disabled citizens, including Web sites.

While these specific sites have made changes, the Internet is still largely inaccessible to the millions of Americans with vision loss.

Visually impaired people depend on "screen reader" software that enables the computer to read the text and images displayed on the monitor. When a blind person clicks on a picture, this adaptive software reads whatever descriptive text has been programmed into the page.

But too often, Web designers fail to consider accessibility and label pictures blankly as "image" instead of "family in the mountains." Fancy features like flash animation and multiple pop-ups, while annoying to any computer user, are even more frustrating for people with vision loss as they disrupt the text flow being translated by assistive technology. Many Web sites aren't even compatible with screen readers to begin with, leaving the user with nothing but gibberish.

With the Internet becoming increasingly important for employment and educational opportunities, timely access to news and connection to communities around the world, it's imperative that businesses start taking action now.

Today, 7.3 million older Americans report some form of vision impairment even while wearing glasses or contact lenses, according to the National Vision Rehabilitation Association. As Baby Boomers age, this number is expected to increase significantly. Organizations need to start implementing adaptations to technology now -- many of which are uncomplicated and not cost prohibitive -- so they can retain these older, computer savvy consumers.

What's more is that the same accessibility tools that benefit people with vision loss help other segments of the population. We've come to rely on Blackberries and cell phones to do everything from checking e-mail to monitoring stock prices. Consumers would be able to get information more quickly and efficiently on these devices if viewing content without graphics and pop-ups was the norm.

As we approach travel planning and gift shopping for the winter holidays, we're hoping more companies will take the time to assess their Web sites -- and other technology products -- for accessibility. It's not just the right thing to do for people with vision loss. It's a smart business decision.

Carl R. Augusto is president and chief executive officer of the American Foundation for the Blind.