Turnover at a major D.C. government department is raising questions about local businesses, political contributions and influence in city politics.
Although the Department of Justice has stated that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to the Internet, the vast majority of Websites fall short. And as both private and public organizations have found,it’s not easy to make sites accessible; the federal government has been struggling to bring its own sites into compliance for more than a decade. We’ll explore the progress and roadblocks in making the Web accessible to everyone.
- Paul D'Addario Vice President, Northern Virginia Chapter of the American Council for the Blind
- Terry Weaver Director, IT Accessibility & Workforce Division, Office of Governmentwide Policy, General Services Administration
- Jonathan Lazar Professor of Computer and Information Sciences and Director, Universal Usability Laboratory, Towson University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. For most of us, if we want to find out more about an E. coli outbreak, we go online and contact the Centers for Disease Control. If we want to buy a wedding gift, we're likely to visit the couple's online registry. And if we hear about a great new gadget, we don't think twice about whether we'll be able to use it.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut for people with vision, hearing or mobility impairment, a lot of technology that we take for granted is not accessible. And although there are many devices like screen readers and audio translators, one small programming choice, for example, the proceed-to-checkout button on a retail website, could end the transaction. Almost six months ago, we had a conversation about the concept of universal usability, making technology accessible for people with disabilities. Although the Department of Justice confirmed that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to cyberspace, compliance can be complicated, both for private companies and government agencies.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo, back to update us on this issue is Jonathan Lazar. He's a professor of computer and information sciences and the director of the Universal Usability Laboratory at Towson University. Jonathan, good to see you again.
PROF. JONATHAN LAZARIt's a pleasure to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Terry Weaver, the director of the I.T. Accessibility & Workforce Division in the Office of Governmentwide Policy at the General Services Administration. Terry Weaver, thank you for joining us.
MS. TERRY WEAVERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Paul D'Addario. He is vice president of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the American Council for the Blind. He's also a retired database manager. Paul D'Addario, good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
MR. PAUL D'ADDARIOThank you for the opportunity.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday. Of course, you can call us at 800-433-8850. We're exploring technology and how accessible it is. We'd like to hear your experiences with electronics and websites. 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Paul, let me start with you. Many people with disabilities, including individuals like yourself --you're blind -- and -- or people who are visually impaired, use the Internet with assistive technology. Tell us what you do to access the Web.
D'ADDARIOWell, I use what is one of the more popular screen-reading software applications out there called JAWS. There are other ones called Window-Eyes and System Access to Go. And I do a lot of surfing the Internet, and the training I've received is -- allows me to know how to go to websites that I've never been to and make my way around. And sometimes, websites are quite friendly. Sometimes, they're not. I would say, in general, when going to websites that have a lot of texts -- one that I was saying the -- just yesterday, I go to quite a bit is thomas.gov, and that was quite friendly. Other times, when you have to fill out forms, the site has not been constructed properly and frustration ensues.
NNAMDITerry Weaver, we started this conversation about accessibility last October and focused on the federal government, specifically Section 508. Can you remind our listeners what that is?
WEAVERCertainly, Kojo. Section 508 was a law that was passed that made the government accountable. It said that we were going to develop a new technology in a fashion that made sure that people with disabilities would have equal access to it. It says it in much more complicated regulatory words, but that's basically what the law meant. That law took effect in June 2001, and what the constant evolution of technology were constantly evolving how we comply with it.
NNAMDIPaul, but many websites are not in fact very user friendly for screen readers like yours, why not?
D'ADDARIOWell, I'm going to pretend that I can get into the minds of those who construct websites, which is not fair, but I will say -- in some cases, it's ignorance. They simply don't know that their website isn't accessible, and, however, sometimes, simply informing someone that their website isn't working solves the trick. Other times, they simply don't know what they're doing wrong.
NNAMDIAnd a lot of times, these websites do not build the kind of software for screen readers into their websites, correct?
NNAMDIWell, Jonathan, we've heard now about the challenges to making government websites accessible. Several of the agencies and websites that we discussed last fall were not compliant with Section 508, including Section 508, but other important sites like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, also were not accessible. Update us on how, overall, those sites are doing now.
LAZARA few of the sites that we mentioned during the last show, six months ago, have made improvements, partially I think to the fact that we discussed them on the show.
LAZARBut across the federal government, there hasn't generally been improvement -- there hasn't been improvement in website accessibility. It's really a problem throughout the federal government. It's a systematic problem because really there are not good processes in place to monitor compliance with Section 508, and this has been an ongoing problem.
LAZARRight now, for the first time since 2001, 2003, the Justice Department is collecting data about website accessibility. They're supposed to do that every two years, and the last report they posted was in 2001. And recently, they've sent out a survey to start collecting data again, but that's really all there is in terms of compliance monitoring throughout the government. So, really, it's a systematic problem that no one is paying attention to this, and no one is monitoring on an ongoing basis.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, it's a Tech Tuesday conversation on technology and accessibility. Do you have a sight, hearing or mobility disability? Is new technology helping you to communicate and get information? Call us at 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow. E-mail to email@example.com. Or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the Tech Tuesday conversation there. Terry Weaver, of course, this is not something that can be done overnight. You're working on exactly this for a government agency. There a lot of challenges are there to making these websites accessible.
WEAVERThere are a lot of challenges. Websites are usually the area we're where looking now to draw people in, and they're -- just -- the government sites are no different than your public sites. We're trying to make them fancier and sexier for everybody. You want to get the people to come. You're looking at hits. You're looking for stickiness to the website. All those things makes the Web masters more willing to take on the new and evolving technologies quicker.
WEAVERBut, often, those technologies are where we hit the roadblocks for making compliance with 508 easy. Trying to go back and deal, you know, with Flash, with PDF documents to get out there. These are things that take time and energy to make them accessible, and frequently, they don't get out there as quickly. It isn't because they don't want to. A lot of times, it's just, like Paul said, pure ignorance. They don't realize it, and when they're -- when it's pointed out, they're going to go back and fix it more than likely. It's going to take some time to catch all those and to build the processes in that gets them there.
NNAMDIYou've said that even a site that is totally 508 compliant might still be unreadable by a screen reader, things like tab order.
WEAVERYes. So how you build a site to comply with the standards, the standards are very technical. They were written in the late '90s, and we're refreshing them. They're going to come out new, but right now, we're living with the old ones. And I've had people with disabilities tell me that you can be 100 percent complaint but because of the order of how you build it or because of what you think is a good label to somebody who is not seeing it, you're describing something that would make sense to you but not to the person who's using the screen reader, it really isn't usable to somebody who's blind.
LAZARIf we could even get to 90 percent compliance in the federal government with 508 for websites, that would be an amazing step forward. We have a study that's coming out in the July issue of the journal Government Information Quarterly that documents over 90 percent of the federal websites that we looked at are actually inaccessible or not in compliance with Section 508. And that's been a problem throughout the last decade. There are a number of other people who have documented. Usually, they say that the federal government websites are around 15 to 20 percent of them are complaint with 508. The last study before my study done was one in 2006 by my friend Paul Jaeger and, again, found tons of problems.
LAZARSo this has been really a problem for the last decade, and the key is we have to get those compliance processes in place where there's ongoing monitoring so that people in the federal government know which sites are accessible and which are not because part of it is just, you know, if you have a site that's inaccessible, someone in the government needs to be monitoring that. The way it works now is very often the disability advocacy groups are the ones who send a request to this agency and say, guess what, your website is not accessible. And they say it's not, really? What do we do? And that's not really a good system.
NNAMDII think Genie in Silver Spring has a question about that. Genie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GENIEHello there. I'd like to know how to get -- not so much the federal government but the small businesses and the small organizations able to build accessibility into their websites. Now, I know a man who was trying to set up a business for people who use screen readers, and he couldn't find someone who could -- within his price range who could design an accessible system because he didn't know what to tell -- how to tell them to do it, and they didn't know how to find it. So how -- what is out there that somebody can go to find out what's available? I don't think we can mandate it but...
NNAMDIWe have several responses for you. First, here's Terry Weaver.
WEAVERHi. I just want to speak the fact that we have a website, section508.gov, which we have fixed. Jonathan?
WEAVERAs well as B-U-Y Accessible, buyaccessible.gov. And I'm -- I point out to Buy Accessible because it does help you define requirements for websites that would produce a document that your friend could use to go to a company and say this is what I need you to build into my website. Follow this. It's a document that comes out at the end with a lovely name called a GPAT, Government Product Accessibility Template. But it's a useful tool to convey to people who don't understand what, you know, what it really means to be accessible. It's not a feeling -- feels like. It's got to be definitely designed a certain way. He can use that as a tool or a roadmap to build a website.
LAZARAnd let me just clarify. There are two separate laws there. She was asking about making private company websites accessible.
NNAMDIWe're going to that later.
NNAMDIBut go ahead.
LAZAROh, okay. Yeah. That's not Section 508. That would be the Americans with Disabilities Act...
LAZAR...which covers public accommodations. But there are also a number of resources on the Web from the Web Accessibility Initiative, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and they have a list of tools available that you can download -- many of them are free -- that will help you test and evaluate websites for accessibility.
NNAMDIGenie, thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you. Paul D'Addario, how about local government sites, not the feds, the local governments, the places you go for information about your child's school or to find out about changes to trash collection? Are you able to access those sites and services when you want to?
D'ADDARIOGenerally -- I live in Arlington, and generally, when I go to the Arlington County websites, if I'm after some information that is text -- despite in text format, that's pretty accessible. That works generally okay. I must admit I've gotten better at winding my way through websites because sometimes it's more readily available than others. Where I think websites generally run into trouble is when there's a form to fill out. And just yesterday, some breaking news here...
D'ADDARIO...I wanted to sign up for Arlington alerts, where they will e-mail or text you. All jurisdictions do this around here. And as I began filling out the form on the page, it was going along well, and then it got to a couple places where I was required to answer questions but my screen reader couldn't read the question. So I reported it to a woman in Arlington County. She got right back to me and indicates she will have it fixed. Stay tuned and I'll let you know what happens.
NNAMDII was about to ask what you generally do if a site is not accessible. That's when you go to the phone?
D'ADDARIOYes. And I know some people, blind people I know, who had difficulty with airline websites. I'm told Southwest is pretty good. But many websites for airlines, they simply don't work well with screen readers. In fact, a woman had to call recently, a friend of mine, and she indicated they wanted to charge her more because, of course, you save money if you can...
NNAMDIDo it online. Yeah. Sure.
D'ADDARIO...book a reservation online.
D'ADDARIOWell, she couldn't. And I think they eventually resolved that, but that gives you an indication of some of the barriers that are out there.
NNAMDIBut you say, even though there are still barriers, still issues, it does seem to be getting better.
D'ADDARIOIn my opinion, it's definitely getting better.
NNAMDIWhat do you think has changed? The websites or the technology you use to access it?
D'ADDARIOI'm gonna say it's a combination. I know that's a copout. I think the screen reading software applications always are playing catch up. I mean, that's been true since I've -- I've been using them since probably in the early to mid-'90s. And even if it worked, what would happen is you'd -- you would always be a little bit behind when the newest version of a Web browser came out. Your screen reading software had to catch up. And sometimes, it would be quite a while before it caught up, and you lose productivity that way.
D'ADDARIOI think the time lag has shortened. I mean, I don't know if I can scientifically back that up, but that seems to be the case. I also think there has been an improvement, and at least an acknowledgement, that websites need to be constructed with accessibility in mind. So we're making progress.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll get to your calls. And our other guests would like to comment on this issue also. We still have a couple of lines open. We're discussing technology and accessibility on this Tech Tuesday, so you can still call 800-433-8850. Is there technology that you deal with regularly that is not accessible, a Metro card machine, your banks ATM, your local school's website? Call us, 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. It's Tech Tuesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's a Tech Tuesday conversation about technology and accessibility. We're talking with Terry Weaver. She is director of the IT Accessibility and Workforce Division in the Office of Governmentwide Policy at the General Services Administration. Paul D'Addario is the vice president of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the American Council for the Blind. He's a retired database manager. And Jonathan Lazar is a professor of computer and information sciences and the director of the Universal Usability Laboratory at Towson University.
NNAMDIIf you've called 800-433-8850, stay on the line. We will get to your call. If the lines are busy, then send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Terry Weaver, does a website have to be rebuilt from scratch if it's not compliant?
WEAVERKojo, actually, a lot of websites are not fully -- in fact, most websites don't -- are not fully inaccessible. I think even Jonathan's study of them found points where they weren't. Most websites would not have to be rebuilt. It's a matter of paying attention to the details in what you put on a website. I think what Paul did was actually a very smart way of approaching this. When you encounter an inaccessible component on a website, contact the webmaster. There's usually a contact for webmaster or there's an accessibility issue link.
WEAVERYou contact that person. I think nine times out of 10, they just didn't know they're gonna be willing to make whatever the changes they can to do to fix that. It may not be instantaneous because sometimes it's more complicated than it looks to the end user. But their goal is to make more people come to the site and read it.
NNAMDIWe have a caller, Jonathan in Alexandria, Va., who, I think, wants to address precisely that issue. Jonathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JONATHANHey, Kojo. My little company that does compliance and remediation will remain unnamed. I'm already considered a renegade in the procurement community. But therein lies part of the problem. What I -- for example, recently, we did an analysis of sites -- government scorecards, where people weren't meeting their compliance goals, and then went to those agencies with solutions, turnkey solutions, to fix their sites. And the problem was the procurement system.
JONATHANThe answer from the contracting officer is go talk to the prime contractor. Well, the prime contractor has no mandate on their performance work statement to remediate the sites, i.e., compliance. So you've got a solution, you've got a capability. Even if you're a small business, you can remediate these sites. But nobody wants to play with you because you've got the answer and you're not under contract.
WEAVERJonathan, I think you're -- I feel your pain. The government acquisition process is not simple, and it's not simple for a host of reasons. Some of which are actually really pretty laudable. We wanna avoid people giving contracts to friends. So to avoid that appearance of improprietary, we've got to go through -- make sure we go through the process. So I hope you're -- you've gone through and have checked out under GSA the schedules program or even looking...
JONATHANWe're on all the schedules, and I've got 30 years experience in the domain. The problem is the requirements haven't properly been put out, and compliance isn't built-in at the requirement's level on the omnibus contracts. So whether it's large business or small, trying to attack the problem, it hasn't been elevated up to a level of visibility where somebody can do anything about it. Therein lies the important problem
NNAMDIWe're in the weeds of the government procurement process here, clearly, Terry. Go ahead, please.
WEAVEROkay. Well -- and I understand what he's -- and I'm one of these people find acquisition stuff interesting, so I apologize. The best thing I could suggest, Jonathan, is possibly go into some of those primes and try to get on as a sub because as we increase in the coming months, I think the focus on accessibility is gonna get more strong, particularly as Jonathan's report comes out, as the work towards the new standard gains momentum and all the FCC rules that have come out recently.
WEAVERSo I think it would be worthwhile to approach the subs to get on there and look to saying, gee, that's a method. When this comes down your way, you wanna be able to answer this.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Jonathan, there have been a few updates in the legal battles going on around accessibility since we spoke last fall. Can you bring us up to date?
LAZARCertainly. Well, one of the first things that's very good is that the Justice Department sent out the 508 survey, and so that's certainly -- that's a good step to start collecting data and get a sense. I'm not a fan of surveys in general for understanding accessibility because, really, you're asking people in the government, is your site accessible, and they're probably gonna say, yes. I mean, there's some great questions in the survey.
LAZARBut, still, really, what needs to be done for understanding government compliance is some combination of usability testing involving people with disabilities, expert inspections using assistive technology, or even automated tools would be a great step. That would be better than the survey. So that's -- certainly, that's one thing that's come out, but I really wish they had gone further than just the survey. In terms of some other legal filings...
NNAMDIThe last major case everyone refers to as the case between the NFB, National Federation for the Blind, and Target.
LAZARAnd Target, right. And that's a very well-known case. And the judge in that case did state that the ADA applies to websites. Now, some recent ones, there have been legal complaints filed by the NFB against universities, such as Penn State University. And Penn State uses inaccessible technology throughout the campus, their library catalog, their registration systems, their course websites, their homepage.
LAZARAnd even more recently, about two weeks ago, the NFB asked the Justice Department to investigate New York University and Northwestern University about their use of Google Docs, right, and the whole Google -- actually, the whole Google Apps suite, but specifically Google Docs has a number of accessibility problems. So if you've ever used, you know, Google Docs, right, there are a lot of problems there related to accessibility.
LAZARSo -- and I think Terry is right in terms of the fact that there's so much more attention in the last year to accessibility related to statements coming out of the Justice Department, statements coming out of the White House, from ONB. There are more of these legal filings. So, really, it's a very active time to be working this area. And I think your show has helped a lot in that area, in bringing attention to the accessibility issues.
NNAMDIPaul D'Addario, do these lawsuits generally help?
D'ADDARIOWell, I think so. And perhaps, when you asked earlier why things of -- I think things have begun to improve some. Maybe I left out lawsuits. I think it's been stated here that sometimes simply notifying someone of an issue with the website is enough. I know there was some negotiation and we're close to opening day with Major League Baseball. Some of us like to listen to -- the MLB radio website. And that was not accessible for a while and now it is.
D'ADDARIOOn the other hand, you go to the other extreme when the U.S. Department of Treasury didn't think they were required to produce currency that has some tactile features unlike every other industrialized country in the world. So the American Council of the Blind ended up taking them to court. And Treasury now has to -- when they begin producing their next generation of bills, I believe, it's the $20 bill, all their currency, the next time it is produced, will be designed with tactile features so that you could put your hand in your pocket and know what bill you have.
NNAMDIWell, we're gonna get to a variety of that in one second. But, Terry Weaver, you wanted to say?
WEAVERWell, I was gonna mention that at the recent big conference on disability issues, the California State University at Northridge conference that was held in San Diego a couple of weeks back, the Treasury was there, actually, with those test dollars out there trying with the people, getting people coming by to actually try and tell them which one's -- the feedback they can get from the participants, which dollars work for them. So they are taking this seriously. I saw them out there at the conference.
NNAMDIEven without a legal decision like the ADA forcing private companies to comply with the same standards as the federal government, what the government does tends to end up affecting the private sector. Does it not?
WEAVERThis is absolutely true. What the government is a big buyer. Our technology budget is over 80 million -- it should be $80 billion. That's a lot of money, right? A lot more than we can conceive of. In the entire tech role, it may be 1 percent of what they look at for sales. But that's -- probably, no one has got a bigger bite than we do. So in putting in laws, such as Section 508, which is, basically, an acquisitions law. It puts it in the government purchases and says, you got to buy the best accessible technology.
WEAVERCompanies won't make two products. They won't make a government version and a commercial version. They wanna make one. So therefore, we have the ability to raise all the votes by making this requirement, because we're seeing that technology coming that way.
NNAMDIJonathan Lazar, you were gonna say?
LAZARRight. What Terry is saying is absolutely right. And I think that the practices, when put into place in the federal government, can also spread to private industry. You know, we talked about what a problem Web accessibility is within the federal government, but there are a few agencies who really have good monitoring practices in place. I've documented some of the best practices at the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, at the Census Bureau, at the Food and Drug Administration. And so they all have good management processes in place for monitoring 508 compliance on their websites.
LAZARIt's things like, for instance, FDA has over 800 content contributors. And they use a content management system. And if you post inaccessible content multiple times, you lose your account privileges, right. That's a great method. The Census Bureau, 90 percent of their websites, they check on a monthly basis for 508 compliance. And they send reports back to the website owners, you know, talking about what problems they found. So, you know, even if now and then, there is one piece of content that gets up there that's inaccessible, if you have a good management processes in place to monitor compliance, it's really not a problem then because there's gonna be a regular check on that, you know?
LAZARThere are gonna people checking. There's gonna be usability testing. There will be automated tools. There will be expert inspections. And so I think some of those best practices, which are few and far between in the federal government, but they are there. I think that, first, we need to get those spread within the federal government. And then those can also carry over to private industry about how do you monitor and do this, 'cause, I mean, there certainly is a need for understanding the processes.
WEAVERI wanna go back to the whole compliance, conformance concept. The Department of Justice survey that's come out is truly a self-assessment. I agree. And it gives you -- it will give you a response that's based on how the individual agencies respond to the questions. But there are other things going on that are watching what's going on. I have been -- my office has been monitoring the acquisitions that are posted on the government's major procurement website -- it's called Federal Business Opportunity or FedBizOpps since July 2006.
WEAVERAnd we use a simple red-yellow-green approach, where red was you didn't say boo, not a word about Section 508., green was you complied with the rules and you were specific about your requirements, and yellow was you use magic language.
NNAMDIGot to get to the telephones, but we got this email from Eric who says, "In my experience as a Web developer, clients are usually just not interested in ensuring accessibility because of cost. I usually include a text-only accessibility centric mirror site along with my website packages. These text-only sites are flat out rejected by almost all of my clients who then claim it is not within their budget. When informed that by not having an accessible website they are violating federal law, they assume, and probably correctly so, that there will be little to no consequence." Jonathan?
LAZARUp to now, there actually has been little to no consequence. You're absolutely right. And the Justice Department is starting to take more actions in that area. Let me also mention, though, that from a design point of view, we actually discourage having a separate mirror site for people with disabilities. The concept of separate but supposedly equal is never really true. So we wanna have access to the main websites. We've seen this problem in research that I've done with some of my doctoral students. We've actually examined where -- when they say there's an accessible separate site, go to this site if you have a disability, go to our older version, go to this -- go to the mobile version -- what happens is that people with disabilities maybe get half the content.
LAZARThey get out-of-date content. They get functionality that's not the same. So we really wanna discourage having a separate website or separate application for someone with a disability. We don't want people going to a separate door. We want the main site. Everyone should have access to the same main site, which is always updated. And really, that's just the -- that's a basic right.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Peter in Washington, D.C. Peter, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETERYes. Thank you for taking my call. I'm calling from Washington, D.C. I am blind. I've been using cell phone, which is Verizon Wireless. I wanted to change my phone to a smartphone, which is a Droid X. Now, being blind, they were telling me that I have to add about $30 to my original bill because of the Internet connection. And I told them that from day one, I've not been using my phone, Internet wise. Why must they force me to pay for something I don't need? Right now, there are some options like so many phones, which you don't need the Internet. But my question becomes, if eventually, all phones turned out to be smartphones, must they force a blind person to pay for a service he or she doesn't require?
NNAMDIExcellent question. I don't know. Jonathan Lazar?
LAZARI'm thinking the best person to talk to about that might be a lawyer...
LAZAR...because if you're talking about the $30 month fee for Verizon for Internet access -- I know, I pay that for my phone -- are you saying that none of the other phones are accessible to you and the only way that you can get an accessible phone is get a smartphone with -- is that what he's saying?
NNAMDIHe's -- no, he's saying that he sees that conceivably occurring sometime down the road. Is that, Peter, right? Is that correct, Peter?
PETERYep. Yes. Currently, there are options. But what happens where and when there is no other options other than going with smartphone. What can a blind person do?
NNAMDIWell, I guess either we cross that bridge when we come to it or you start talking to your lawyer now in the event that that happens, so you'll have a strategy already in place.
LAZARThat's really an interesting legal question.
NNAMDIIt really is. Thank you very much. A little bit of show and tell here from you, Paul D'Addario. It is my understanding that even before the Treasury issues those notes that can indicate what denomination they are, that you have a device that can tell you the denomination of any bill that you happen to have in your hand. I can see the bill you're now holding. You can't. What is it?
D'ADDARIOWell, I'll tell you in a minute if I can.
D'ADDARIOLet me first mention, Kojo. What I've purchased recently within the last couple of weeks, so I'm still dangerous with it, is an iPod touch. I know many blind people who are trying to purchase Apple products now, and the reason is because they can go to a store just like any other customer, purchase an iPhone or an iPod touch or an iPad, a sighted person needs to go to settings and turn on voiceover and that's it, and then the blind consumer can use the product.
D'ADDARIOWhat I have done is I've downloaded an app for my iPod touch -- and I think it may have only cost $2 -- and I'm going to attempt to now tell you what this dollar bill is here.
D'ADDARIOThere's a learning curve, as you know.
NNAMDII hear it. Mm-hmm. It's correct.
D'ADDARIONow, I thought I had $100 bill, but apparently I only had a 1. But that's called the money reader, and it's very accurate. I also have a color reader. And when I told people I was going to be on the show -- Kojo has a lot of loyal blind and low-vision listeners who contacted me and told me about the various apps they have. I think the trend toward purchasing products that have the accessibility built in, which currently to my knowledge only Apple has -- excuse me, only Apple has -- will continue.
NNAMDIThank you very much for the demonstration. It is indeed a $1 bill. I could not rip you off even if I try to at this point anymore. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this Tech Tuesday conversation on technology and accessibility. If you have called, stay on the line. But the lines are now busy, so stay there. But if you are still trying to get through, go to our website, kojoshow.org. Send us an email to email@example.com or a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday, technology and accessibility with Paul D'Addario, vice president of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the American Council for the Blind, Jonathan Lazar is a professor of computer and information sciences and the director of the Universal Usability Laboratory at Towson University, and Terry Weaver is the director of the IT Accessibility and Workforce Division in the Office of Governmentwide Policy at the General Services Administration. I'll go directly to the phones. We will start with Judy in Eldersburg, Md. Judy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JUDYHi. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to share what it's like for an ordinary consumer who is vision-impaired. My husband has always been vision-impaired, low vision, color blind, and he cannot drive. And he is unable to see many sites because of the color of the sites. If it's a bright background with very pale writing, such as light blue or light gray, he can't see it. He often can't see small messages that pop up in the toolbars like change your compatibility view or something like that. He can't read websites that have a lot of clutter with a lot of different colors.
JUDYHe's an ex-government employee, retired about five years. And the only thing they really did for him was to give him a very large flat screen monitor. So those are just some of the problems that ordinary people have.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up because, Judy, we got an email from Jeff in Great Falls who says, "I'm 68 and my vision isn't what it used to be. I can see the screen just fine, but my difficulty is finding the power button on my PC. The tower is under my desk where it's kind of shady, and to add insult to injury, the entire front is black -- face, buttons, DVD tray, everything -- so I literally see just a black rectangle. I finally painted the start button white and now I can see it just fine.
NNAMDIYou'd be amazed how many appliances now are like this. Clearly, product design has value form of a function, at least according to their idiotic aesthetics standards." But there is this, Jonathan, some people use the example of the curb cut to explain how technology that's accessible to people with disabilities can be helpful to everyone.
LAZARRight. Absolutely. And what we wanna do is make sure that technology is designed in a way so that it's flexible. I mean, certainly there are times where I would like to listen to emails while driving 'cause I'm driving and I can't, you know, I'm driving my car and I can't look at the BlackBerry. So when you make technology flexible, that works for a lot of people. Actually about the consumer products issue, there was actually a bill that did not pass in the last congressional session related to that specific issue of technology, Bill of Rights for the Blind and consumer products, because a lot of consumer products are now being built totally flat, touch screen with no tactile way or no other way of interacting with it.
LAZARSo it really hurts a lot of people. It's not only people who have no vision, but the people who are losing their vision, you know, it's people maybe who can't -- there are just a lot of -- yeah.
D'ADDARIOI just wanna make two quick points. One is we have been focusing a lot on very fancy assistive technology like this iPod that I recently purchased. In my view, assistive technology can be simple things like the gentleman who indicated his solution. If you come to my house, you'll see some dots on my dishwasher and my microwave so I know which buttons to push. The other point I wanted to make is a bill that did pass in the last session of Congress so-called Quiet Car Legislation, and that will certainly benefit those outside the blind and low-vision community.
D'ADDARIOEssentially what it requires is that a standard be developed so that those cars that you can't hear, mostly hybrids -- my wife drives a Prius -- when they're idling, make a -- emit some kind of a noise. And again, I say some kind because the standard has not yet been developed. That will certainly benefit those outside the blind and low-vision community that will certainly benefit (unintelligible) people.
NNAMDII also drive a hybrid, and I can tell you how many people do not know when I'm sitting right behind them in my car 'cause it's making no sound. But, Paul, what do you say to this comment we got posted on our website? "Our son is in college and has macular degeneration. He does not use Facebook, unless someone reads it to him, or email or websites because it's just too hard for him. For a kid that takes physics test by having someone read him the problem, give him the multiple choice answers then figures it out in his head, his life would be so much richer if he didn't have to work so darn hard at everything. He's a bright kid and knows he's missing a lot but has resigned himself to the reality of computer inaccessibility."
D'ADDARIOWell, I'm speaking as one person. But what I encourage people to do -- and I had the luxury of losing my sight over two decades, over two decades. And I say luxury, I'm not being sarcastic because I could adapt. What I encourage everyone to do who has issues such as this person you described is to reach out, get connected. There are two -- there are several organizations, I'm sure, in his area, the college being one, he can get training, he can find other people who are in his situation, and there are many.
D'ADDARIOI know that that's always an initial feeling, is that I'm in this alone. How can I possibly overcome this? There are people of all ages. There are organizations -- just as one example, RFB&D, Recordings for the Blind & Dyslexic -- that make academic publications available, textbooks. And now I have -- in fact, I'm wearing a device called a BookSense. You can download those. In fact, I have downloaded a couple of textbooks for some classes I'm taking in Arlington.
D'ADDARIOSo I would say begin to reach out. Don't -- you don't -- if you're reluctant, like I am, to dive into things, get your feet wet first. Get comfortable. The first thing is assess what you need. You'll gradually get comfortable using technology. Then make yourself uncomfortable. Try something that you don't think you can do. You'll get better.
LAZARThat last email as well as some comments that Paul made earlier show why it's such a real problem, a big problem. It's not just, oh, well, if you can't use our website, call us instead. Right? That student who can't use Facebook, that becomes exclusion from society, from his friends, from his family.
NNAMDIWhat all of his peers are doing, yeah.
LAZARRight, what all of his peers are doing. Paul had mentioned earlier that he can't sign up for the emergency alerts in Arlington County, so he can't get emergency information. Paul had also mentioned a friend of his who is dealing with problems with the airlines that -- because they couldn't use the airline website, that person called. And it's actually illegal, by the way, if you have a disability and the website's inaccessible, with the airlines to charge them the phone center fee. But airlines do it anyway. We've documented that.
LAZARSo, I mean, these are real problems. It's not just okay to say, we'll make an accommodation for you because you wind up being excluded. You wind up being charged more. You can't get emergency information. These are real issues. These are issues that lead to isolation. These are issues that lead to price discrimination. You see that also with employment. A lot of the employment websites are inaccessible. So what do you have to do? You have to call the company and say, I wanna apply for your job. I have a disability. Right? And immediately then, you separate yourself out. These are real life and death quality of life issues. That's why they're so important.
NNAMDIOn to Marco in Greenbelt, Md. Marco, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARCOYes. Hello to everybody. I would first like to say I work at NASA. I'm an engineer. And I would like to say 508 is routinely sidestepped, and the way it's sidestepped is very simple. It doesn't apply to things that are not acquired by the government. I don't know about in your agencies, but at NASA, most things are acquired through contracts. The government does not procure things. And in contracts, the standard is different. It's -- you have to have an alternative, so it's back to the separate but equal business.
MARCOSo that's what I think. I've seen that since we have gone to more dependency on contractors, the relevance of 508 has really declined. That's one thing. And the other issue I'd like to mention, I think part of the reason that we're having trouble with accessibility with technology is I do believe there are mixed signals being sent. And the example I would give is that iPad demonstration or that -- that was done.
MARCOThe touch screen is fundamentally an inaccessible bad interface. It can be made accessible, but it's not a good interface. And it's not found in airplanes or anywhere where you have to do two things at the same time. And it's a bad interface because it requires that you put your senses, more than one sense in at a time. So from an engineering usability point of view, it's a bad interface. And it's being encouraged by people giving the idea that this Apple stuff is good because they build in the technology. Of course you still have to have a sighted person activate it for you.
MARCOAnd so I think that that's why a bill like this, consumer bill, that said, you know, the touch screens on the front of, you know, microwave ovens and all are not good. People don't distinguish between those two.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you...
MARCOSo although if an iPad is good, well, then, you know, this touch screen on this other thing must be usable.
NNAMDIMarco, you make two very good points. But allow me to deal with the first. Here is Terry Weaver. Contractors, 508, they don't necessarily comply 'cause they're not the government.
WEAVERWell, actually, they have to. And that's actually the beauty of Section 508 because it does state clearly you have to include the applicable language in your procurements. And this is what I mentioned earlier, where ranking agencies -- we've been doing that since 2006. Not ranking agencies. Ranking procurements to get a sense of the government as a whole, where we've gone from 80 percent red as a no 508 language to being just under 50 percent red right now. The problem, I think, Marco is referring to is where we would typically call it a yellow in that you gave some -- you gave a nod and a wink to 508, basically.
WEAVERYou're saying that there's an exception because you got to do alternatives. That's not really compliant with 508. And, frankly, you should be calling them out on that. They could be liable for a lawsuit because that wouldn't have passed muster on anybody saying, I can't use it. You didn't find -- have a valid exception.
NNAMDIOne more 508 question. Hold that thought for a second, Jonathan. Marco, thank you for your call. Here is Ian in Chantilly, Va. Ian, your turn.
IANHi. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to follow up on the comments about 508 and talk about the -- just how vague the regulation is and how many problems that causes.
NNAMDIOkay. You got to make it brief. We're running out of time.
IANOkay. Well, I noticed this specifically with -- if we're collaborating with more than one agency, you get the accessibility compliance officers on the phone with each other, and they can agree with what the regulation says and what it means and what it doesn't, and whether a website is compliant or not. And I just think the regulation really needs to be expanded and needs to be clarified as to what makes a site accessible and...
IAN...whether a website needs those tools.
WEAVERIan, I don't know if you checked out the new proposed standards that are in draft form right now, but they do go a long way to try to clarify a lot of that. And then, secondly, I would suggest, as Jonathan spoke to earlier, yeah, there's a way to resolve this. Go into testing. Let's go some -- do some really good testing and find out how well it works 'cause at that point you know it's not accessible.
LAZARRight. One of the things Terry had mentioned about the sort of red light, green light approach she mentioned earlier, too, that's one of the things I've been pushing for, for over a year, and some of the advocacy groups have been pushing for as well, that on the open government dashboard at the White House, there really needs to be a column that shows red, yellow, green for how the big agencies, how the big departments are doing for accessibility. We need more openness and more transparency, because when it's discussed that a lot of sites are not accessible and it's shown on government websites, you know, there'll be a fix relatively soon.
NNAMDIAnd, finally, this email from Randy in Montross, Va. "How do I test my website for accessibility? I'm the president of a small Lions Club chapter in Westmoreland County, and we have a simple website -- westmorelandlions.org -- through Lions International. Using the site and tools, I assume anything I post should be accessible. But how do I check? It would be particularly embarrassing for a Lions website to be unusable by the blind."
LAZARRight. There are three core ways for checking for accessibility. One is doing usability testing involving people with disabilities, where you have them attempt tasks. One is to use a set of automated tools. And by the way, if you go to the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative website -- and, Kojo, I'll give you the URL so you can put it on the website afterwards.
NNAMDIYeah, we'll put a link to it.
LAZARRight. There are a lot of free tools that you can download and use to check your website. Now the free tools aren't perfect, but they'll get you 50, 60 percent of the way there, give you some feedback, and then you can work on, you know, any problems that you find. The other way is to hire experts who do expert inspections. But really start with -- a good start is always to use the automated tools.
NNAMDIWe're putting that link on our website even as we speak. Terry Weaver, we're running out of time very quickly, but in Europe accessibility legislation is known as Aging and People with Disabilities. It's an interesting point because this is one group we'll all be a part of at some point.
WEAVERAnd that's actually their perspective on it. They tend to upfront -- they're upfront about it. But in America, we tend to kind of soft-pedal that. The reality is we all are about, you know, a step away from becoming a member of this group. As we age, I don't give up my technology. I don't think any of you are gonna say, gee, I'm off the Web now 'cause I'm older.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Terry Weaver is the director of the IT Accessibility & Workforce Division in the Office of Governmentwide Policy at the General Services Administration. Paul D'Addario is the vice president of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the American Council for the Blind. And Jonathan Lazar is a professor of computer and information sciences and director of the Universal Usability Laboratory at Towson University. Thank you all for joining us and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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