Not all Web sites are equal

Amy Ruell is so thrilled with the malls and catalogs of cyberspace that she's become something of an e-commerce evangelist. But for her and fellow blind computer enthusiasts, items and information on the Internet are not just the much-touted "mouse-click away."

It can be a matter of a few simple keyboard strokes, but more often, there's a lot of audio clutter to wade through on Web sites, as Ms. Ruell demonstrated at a recent meeting of Boston's Visually Impaired and Blind User Group (VIBUG). First, to help the novices in the room, she turned down the speed of the computer's synthesized voice, which she normally listens to at about 425 words per minute.

At one of her favorite sites, Amazon.com, the group searched for an audio version of a Tom Clancy novel. Screen-reader software instantaneously translates text into speech and reads the information and links on a page. The first thing to do, she advised, is find the text-only version of the site, if there is one. As she answered questions about security and more technical issues, Ruell, with her back to the computer screen, used keyboard commands to quickly navigate through the bookseller's site. When she tried to take a spin around the Gap's Web site, though, she encountered a typical problem - lots of graphics that didn't have enough descriptive text "embedded" in the computer code. What the group heard was a stream of not-so-informative words. "ImageMapLinkWWW," said the monotone voice (this one happened to be male).

"That's the time to write and advocate for access," said Ruell. "Web masters have been amazed, and totally unaware that we as blind people can access these things online."

By the end of the demonstration, the 15 participants were well-equipped to get over the initial hurdles and enjoy the independence online shopping can offer.

And if they needed an idea of what to look for when they went home to practice, there was one request they didn't have time to fulfill at the meeting: What's a good site for ordering bubble bath?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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