A blind computer user's thoughts on news Web sites

Written by Adrian Holovaty on August 27, 2002

When I bring up the importance of Web accessibility with fellow online journalists, my concerns are generally brushed aside. "Oh, come on," people say. "We have much more important stuff to worry about. You can't really think there are that many disabled people out there."

Such an attitude is so hypocritical that I'm hesitant to call such people journalists. If they really cared about their "big picture" mission -- in most countries, providing the public with the information necessary to participate in a democracy -- journalists would bend over backward to make their content accessible to all readers. Instead, they don't seem to care. As I have argued time and time again in this blog, it's sadly ironic that the same news organizations that historically have trumpeted freedom of information tend to produce Web sites that make that information inaccessible. (Note: I'm not talking about making content accessible by publishing it for free online; rather, I mean the accessibility of the content itself -- the degree to which it can be understood by alternate browsers.)

But, let's be honest. It's understandable that online journalists wouldn't think about accessibility, given the relatively small number of Internet users who are affected by inaccessible sites. After all, who has actually met a user of the JAWS screen reader or a braille display? It's hard to keep those readers in mind if you've never heard from one.

Well, here's such a reader. Rich Caloggero of MIT Adaptive Technology for Information and Computing is a blind computer user. After he posted a few messages to the css-discuss list-serv, I asked him whether he would share his opinion on the accessibility of news sites for the benefit of designers who don't usually think about that. Mr. Caloggero was kind enough to answer my questions. I present the full interview here with the hope that Web designers -- whether journalists or not -- will gain a new perspective.

The interview

Q: To what do you attribute the inaccessibility of news sites?

Mostly, I attribute it to much too much information on one page, and the one-dimensional modality of speech. Just imagine that your favorite news site, say www.boston.com, had laid out with no formatting, that is, simply a long list of links, one per line, then the text of the article, if any, following all the links. How hard would it be to find something specific? What would browsing be like?

Q: As you noted in one of your postings, there's a lot of "garbage" at the top of each news story that makes reading news online frustrating. From a technical standpoint, what do you think is the best way for site designers to unclutter their pages? (For example, do you prefer a "skip to navigation" link, or would you just rather have the navigation at the bottom of the page?)

Firstly, I think all sites, not just news sites, should use structural markup wherever possible. For news sites, this is especially important, as it allows skimming by heading. If major sections of the page, say the beginning of the article in question, were marked up using heading markup, then one could use the screen reader to skip to the next heading. Perhaps lesser heading levels could be used for sections within the navigation and article body. The screen reader can be told to skip to next heading of a specific level, or simply skip to next heading.

However, all screen readers don't do this, and older versions most definitely do not. I believe that, if at all possible, sites containing large amounts of information, especially large numbers of navigation links on every page, should attempt to arrange things so that this "garbage" gets presented to a screen reader *after* the main content of the page. Said another way, the main content of the page should be the first thing one comes across on a page, especially a busy page such as one might find at an on-line news site or at any number of portal/community sites. Using style sheets, one can position navigation links wherever one wants, while having the HTML for the navigation appear *after* the content in the HTML data stream being sent to the client. From what I gathered from the CSS-Discuss postings I read, this is possible in modern browsers.

As a final resort, a "skip navigation" link should be included on pages which do not implement the previous methods. THe problem with this scheme is that it does not work when the page is dynamically generated, which is the case on many large news sites.

Q: Which news sites, if any, do a good job of being accessible? Which sites are particularly bad?

I really don't know much about news sites -- I just don't find them fun or interesting enough to bother. However, of the four that I've looked at -- www.boston.com, www.nytimes.com, www.yahoo.com, www.cnn.com -- boston.com was the worst. It seemed to have more untagged graphics than the others, and wasn't as well organized. Aside from this, no one stood out as being noticably more accessible than the others.

Q: Have you ever contacted a news Web site designer to point out how inaccessible a site is? How did he or she react? If you haven't, do you think it's worth doing at all?

I have not done this. If enough e-mail comes in on this topic, maybe they'd listen. However, I just don't see a few blind people's complaints making that much difference.

Q: Is the accessibility of news sites, and of the Web in general, getting better, getting worse or staying the same?

This is a difficult question. The optimist within says "sure, accessibility is much better than it was even a couple years ago." However, for every step forward we take, there are 3 new technologies just out which make sites slicker and more visually appealing, which are completely inaccessible to people using screen readers. I'm thinking right now about flash, shockwave, and other multi-media formats. When more and more people get high bandwidth connections, the landscape of the web will change drastically. Video, movies, interactive Java applets, and other things I've just not thought of yet will be confounding screen reader users far and wide.


Posted by Craig Saila on August 28, 2002, at 1:33 a.m.:

Great piece on a relatively-ignored issue in the online journalism industry. The thing is, if sites started doing some simple first steps (e.g., using style sheets, including alternate text on graphics, removing spacer GIFs, and labelling forms), it would result in a huge collective leap forward.

Will be passing it around my work.

Posted by Joe Clark on August 29, 2002, at 4:33 p.m.:

If he's admitting that he doesn't find news sites interesting enough to bother, why is he complaining about news sites?

Anyway, skip-navigation links work perfectly well in table-based layouts. The table hack that Mark Pilgrim has popularized also works fine. And Flash is now adequately accessible; online multimedia can carry captions and descriptions, too, so I don't know what this guy's on about. *And* he doesn't even bother writing to the webmasters of whatever site he derides in public interviews!

A critic may be blind, but that does not mean he or she is well-informed.

Posted by Adrian Holovaty on August 29, 2002, at 6:20 p.m.:

Joe: Mr. Caloggero is commenting on news sites because I asked him about them specifically.

Sure, all the solutions you point out exist and work well, but I think the point here is that news sites don't implement them. I intended this to be an eye-opener for people.

Posted by Ben Meadowcroft on August 30, 2002, at 2:30 p.m.:

I have been looking at ways of improving accessibility in a range of sites produced by a company I work for. The one point I would take note with is that Rich Caloggero states that skip navigation links "[do] not work when the page is dynamically generated." This is in fact not true, it is quite easy to include techniques like this in dynaically generated content.

A site I am currently working on for a university intranet incorporates this technique quite successfully, and I do test with IBM Home Page Reader among others. It is quite easy to put a simple id attribute on the main div or table cell containing the content. A simple link pointing to the content is then placed at the begining of the HTML (often in a 1*1 transparent gif with an alt="Skip Navigation"). Using a template driven dynamic site it is often easy to add these kinds of touches than in non dynamically generated sites where each page has to be individually modified.

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