In a perfect world, it would make sense to assume that the internet is truly one of the best things that has ever happened to people with disabilities. Most people don’t think about it much, but if you think back to the days before the internet you will quickly realize why this is true. Before the internet, how did blind people read newspapers? The answer is, with great difficulty, or not at all. Audiotapes or Braille printouts were expensive and awkward – a Braille version of the Sunday New York Times would be too bulky to be practical. Of course a visually impaired person could ask a sighted person to read to them, but it makes a person dependent upon others.
Most newspapers and magazines now publish their content online in a format that can be read by screen readers and other applications. These software programs read electronic text out loud so that visually impaired people can access almost any text content through a computer or mobile device. How great is it that all of a sudden, visually impaired people don’t have to rely on others to read out loud to them! They simply open a web browser and listen as their screen reader reads the content to them, and they do it independently, when they want to, even as soon as the content is published. People with cognitive disabilities can also benefit greatly from the structure and flexibility of web content that offers multiple types of access.
Similarly, people with motor disabilities who cannot pick up a newspaper or magazine or turn paper pages can access online publications through their computer using assistive technologies that adapt the computer interface to their own specific disabilities. Sometimes adaptations are simple and low-tech, such as having the person place a stick in their mouth and they use it to type keyboard commands. In other cases the adaptations are more technically sophisticated, such as using various special keyboards or eye-tracking software that enables the use of a computer with nothing more than eye movements.
Unfortunately, even with the web’s great potential for people with disabilities, it is still largely unrealized. Things are changing more quickly now with the implementation of universal standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), but there is a lot to do to make the web accessible to all. For example, right now some websites can only be navigated using a mouse, and only a small percentage of video or multimedia content has been captioned for the deaf. What does a person with motor disabilities do if the internet content they seek is only accessible by using a mouse? What do people do if they can’t use a mouse? What if web developers use graphics instead of text? If screen readers can only read text and the content being accessed has not been captioned, how would they translate the graphics to people who are blind?
Once these questions start being asked, it becomes very apparent that there are numerous hurdles to overcome in the quest for internet accessibility to people with disabilities. The internet has the potential to revolutionize access to information for everyone and we are closer than ever before, but there is a lot of work yet to be done.