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IBM Makes Web Accessibility For Visually Impaired Users a Social Effort

09 July, 2008 by Peter Verhoeven

IBM has launched a new initiative that it hopes will vastly improve the web browsing experience for visually impaired users. The Social Accessibility Project is a service that aims to make web pages more accessible for screen readers without altering the code of the page, the software for which is available in beta form today through IBMs AlphaWorks. If enough people participate in the project, then IBMs software could become integral to blind users' everyday surfing.

Typically, blind or visually impaired users who want to use the web need to use screen readers that run through each element of a page and read their descriptive elements aloud. Not every part of a web page is available in text form, however even simple things like menu items, buttons, other form elements, tables, and images can throw a screen reader for a loop. It's the developer's responsibility to ensure that the HTML of the page is as accessible as possible, usually by adding extra metadata to each element (like alt tags attached to images).

Unfortunately for most blind users, a majority of web developers in the world aren't quite so detail-oriented and leave out those elements either out of convenience or ignorance of their importance, which makes it even more difficult to get these things added later. The Social Accessibility Project hopes to circumvent the entire problem of dealing with developers by allowing users with screen readers to automatically report problems with various web pages back to IBM. Volunteers can then sort through IBM's database of accessibility issues and create their own metadata for each element. When users with screen readers return to that site, or go to other sites visited by project participants, they will simply load the latest information from the database and be able to navigate the web with greater ease.

For now, IBM's software is available for JAWS screen readers using Internet Explorer, and a Firefox plug-in (in English and Japanese) is available for volunteers adding data to the project. Eventually, researchers hope to expand the initiative to include those with other types of disabilities, like users who are deaf or have other motor problems. If you're interested in signing up as a volunteer to help add data to the project, IBM has a FAQ page that answers questions on what you need to do.

Visit IBM Sicial Accessibility Website

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