BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The more central the Internet becomes to our social and work lives, the greater the hardship for people who cannot access it. Usually when we talk about people on the wrong side of the so-called digital divide, we talk about class issues, people who don't have Internet access because they can't afford it. But there is another digital divide that’s in some ways trickier to bridge – disability. That’s the problem Sharron Rush and Desiree Sturdevant are working on. Their organization, Knowbility, advocates for disabled people’s access to the Internet. Mainly, they try to raise awareness about the technology that disabled people can use to get online. They try to let disabled users know the technology’s out there, and they try to teach programmers to incorporate those accessibility features into their sites. For instance, Sturdevant, who is blind, accesses the Internet using software that reads the content of web pages aloud in a fast-talking digitized voice.
[DIGITIZED VOICE/UNINTELLIGIBLE] To Sturdevant, navigating the Web using this sped-up text-to-speech software is no problem. The only sites she can't use are those that just aren't coded for her software. In that case, all she hears is a garbled mess. For instance, here’s the website for a dance school in Texas rendered pretty much indecipherable.
DIGITIZED VOICE: Joyce Willett School of Dance, Windows, Internet Explorer, Flash movie starts. Joyce Willett on label 12 button, 3 button –
[DESIREE STURDEVANT LAUGHS] – 15 button.
DESIREE STURDEVANT: So in this instance there’s a bunch of buttons on here that are not labeled.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm-hmm.
SHARRON RUSH: So, Bob, if you or I were looking at the website that Desiree’s listening to, we would see each of the buttons has a mark on it that says “schedule,” “performances,” “sign up for lessons,” “our staff.” But when these are incorrectly coded, the navigation has no meaning to someone who doesn't see it.
DESIREE STURDEVANT: Yeah, I'd have to call them and say, please help me. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Desiree, as you surf the Web, what percentage of websites are accessible to you and what percent give you the kind of garbled response that we just heard?
DESIREE STURDEVANT: Probably 75 percent I can get on now.
BOB GARFIELD: And is it a quick fix? Is it easy for, let's say, WNYC, if we are not compatible with the software that you have, to make the changes? Is it a multimillion-dollar enterprise or somewhere in between? What?
DESIREE STURDEVANT: Oh, Bob, that is such a hard question, because it depends entirely on the programming environment, the level of awareness. As we have these dynamic sites, there are many more complex programming issues that take a little more education. But for most simple HTML websites, if you include accessibility at the very beginning, there’s virtually no additional cost.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, we've been discussing visual impairments because that’s Desiree’s situation, but there are a whole host of other disabilities, and I wonder what kind of accommodations are made for them. Can you tick down a list?
SHARRON RUSH: Sure. For people who have mobility impairments, and we're seeing more and more of that kind of disability as soldiers return from war. Maybe they've lost a hand, maybe they don't use the mouse at all. So you want to have keyboard access because many of these assistive technologies are mapped to the keyboard. Also, we notice increasingly, people stream your show, and the radio, and there are audio components of the videos that are online, on YouTube, so for those elements you want to think about your deaf users and you'd want to have things captioned or you'd want at least to have a transcript available. I think between blindness, mobility impairments and deafness, you cover the major areas. There are also issues around cognitive disabilities that are relevant in educational settings.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm confused on this point. Now, I know the government has a fairly wide berth in mandating physical improvements in public space that have pretty much become standard not just in government buildings but in all public places. Is the Internet deemed, for the purposes of government mandate, a public space that the government can say to a retailer or some other website that you’re simply not in compliance and you'd best start to comply?
SHARRON RUSH: Oh, well, that’s the question. The government has not yet made it quite that explicit. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which defines some standards for Web accessibility still only explicitly governs the websites of federal agencies. There hasn't been a definitive statement that says absolutely public websites must do this. The principles of the Americans with Disabilities Act can only be supported if we make those regulations explicit.
BOB GARFIELD: If you could wave your hand, Desiree, and make something happen in the name of greater accessibility, what would it be?
DESIREE STURDEVANT: The disabled population is growing every day. To be able to kind of make people aware that just because you don't have a disability right now doesn't mean that you won't someday or you won't have a loved one that’s affected, so to bring awareness into everybody and make them understand the importance of accessibility and access to technology. And, you know, we're not alone. Obviously the Internet is global, and the European Union has adopted the Web Content Accessibility guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium. It’s a global movement that understands if we are to have modern society, we have to have equitable access to information.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Desiree, Sharron, thank you very, very much.
SHARRON RUSH: Thank you.
DESIREE STURDEVANT: Thanks for having us.
SHARRON RUSH: Thanks for having us. It was great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Sharron Rush is the cofounder and executive director of Knowbility, and Desiree Sturdevant is an accessibility experience specialist for the same organization, which is headquartered in Austin, Texas.