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Democracy Websites ‘Inaccessible To Audio Browsers’.

Many government, politics and news websites present significant barriers to¬† web users with disabilities using special access technologies such as text to speech convertors, delegates heard at last week’s E-Democracy ’08 conference hosted by Headstar (http://www.headstar-events.com/edemocracy08/).

Robin Christopherson, head of accessibility at technology access charity AbilityNet, presented a live audio demonstration of many of the difficulties that blind web users experience.

Among the sites he examined was the recently revamped Number 10 Downing Street website, which while relatively accessible in many ways, still has various untagged links which read simply ‘click here’, offering the audio browser no clue as to what lies behind. The website also features auto-start videos, with unlabelled control buttons, so that blind users are confronted with video noise drowning out their own audio controls and cannot work out how to turn it off.

The use of ‘Captcha’ is an increasing problem for audio web users, Christopherson said (see our previous coverage at: http://www.headstar.com/eablive/?p=183). Captcha seeks to prevent automated ‘spam’ software from registering accounts or filling in web forms by presenting a pattern of distorted letters and numbers that only sighted humans can decode.

Some captcha systems now offer ‘audio captcha’ alternatives for screen-reader users allowing blind users for example to hear a spoken code. Google is an example which uses an embedded QuickTime sound sequence to play a garbled numerical code over background noise which the listener is required to decipher in a similar way to the visual system (https://www.google.com/accounts/NewAccount?service=mail).However, these audio captcha files are also incomprehensible, as Christopherson demonstrated live to much amusement. In an attempt to foil audio recognition software, the sounds are so distorted that they cannot be recognised by humans either, he said.

A third option offered by Google to contact the site’s owners directly for assistance did not work either: when Christopherson was eventually contacted two days after applying for this option he was informed that everyone had to register online.

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