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Software that reads websites like a book…

Sruthi Krishnan

Disabled can use the Web effectively if websites and web tools are designed well

CHENNAI: “A-ga-ra mu-dha-la.” When these letters appeared on the screen in Tamil, a voice read them out one by one.

B. Malarkodi chose the first couplet of the ancient Tamil classic Tirukkural, dedicating the first letters of the alphabet to the Almighty, to demonstrate the screen reading software she uses to surf the web. As her fingers continued to tap-tap on the keyboard, the computer narrated the rest of the verse. The monitor was redundant and so was the mouse.

An instructor for persons with visual disabilities, Ms. Malarkodi works at the Workshop for Rehabilitation and Training of the Handicapped (WORTH) Trust in Chennai. “The software reads websites like a book,” she says. But it needs the help of little markers to do its job, just like you need punctuation to make sense of a book.

A matter of courtesy

In her best-selling book, ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves,’ Lynne Truss says that her favourite definition of punctuation is “a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.” As many webpages are built without a foundation of such etiquette, the screen-reading software stumbles, falters and ultimately falls flat.

For instance, “You may have an audio clip with just an icon of a mike. Unless it is labelled, the software cannot navigate it,” says Vikas Munot, a soft-skills trainer with a leading IT services firm in Thiruvananthapuram.

The list of faux-pas is long. “When there are clusters of icons and messages without a clear demarcation, it is again difficult to interpret,” he says adding, “Some icons present in the extreme right or left may not be within the screen reader’s scope.”

Though there are impassioned debates over where a comma should be placed in a sentence, the rules of creating an accessible website are clearly laid out by the World Wide Web Consortium. The W3C is an international consortium where members, full-time staff and the public together come up with standards for the web.

“Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use the Web. It means that people with visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive/intellectual, and neurological disabilities can get the information on a website, understand it, and interact with it,” says Shawn Lawton Henry, who works for the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of W3C.

Stating that world awareness on accessibility has a long way to go, she says, “Many do not know that people with disabilities can use the Web effectively if websites and web tools are designed well.”

Creating an accessible website is like learning manners — sooner you do it, the easier it is, for you and everyone else. “When accessibility is considered early in the process of creating or redesigning a website, making it accessible does not require much time and effort. Improving the accessibility of an existing site is often more difficult than including accessibility from the beginning of a new development project,” says Ms. Henry.

Scene in India

In India, “there is no real data to understand how many websites are accessible,” says Shilpi Kapoor, Managing Director, BarrierBreak Technologies, a Mumbai-based company that provides services in the field of accessibility. No website is able to meet even basic accessibility standards as defined by Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0.

The situation is further complicated because quality screen reading software in regional languages is not easily available.

N. Krishnaswamy, chairman, Vidya Vrikshah, an organisation which is one of the founders of the ’National Initiative for the Blind,’ says that JAWS, a U.S. product, is “possibly the best one available today, for the use of the visually impaired. It has been developed by experts who are themselves visually impaired and therefore best anticipates needs of the visually impaired.”

Though it comes packed with useful features, he says, “From the standpoint of the Indian user, it presents two disadvantages: It works in English but not in any Indian language. And it is today priced at around $1,145 (around Rs. 54,000 in India) and is, therefore, within the reach only of well-to-do individuals or institutions.”

The free-of-cost software editor package developed by the IIT-Chennai that provides voice and braille support for Indian languages comes with a limited set of features.

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