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Blind site Featured

8:00pm EDT June 28, 2001
Imagine your computer mouse disappears. Then imagine you want to surf the Web and you have to manually click through every HTML link before you can get to the one you want.

Would you want to use the Web anymore? Probably not.

But this scenario is a daily reality for blind computer users. Not only do they have to keystroke their way across the Web, they also must listen to a computerized voice read every link the cursor touches.

If that sounds like a hassle, it is. But many blind people prefer shopping online instead of facing the alternative.

''As hard as it to get around on the Internet for the blind, it's three times harder for them to get to a store, go through a store and pick out items that they can't see,'' says Holly Robinson, senior strategist at Complete Media Group in Independence. ''E-commerce is really a boon to them.''

All it takes is some simple changes in the coding of your company's Web site to make it readable to the screen readers -- JAWS -- used by the blind. If it's coded correctly, blind users will hear the page read. But if it's not, what they hear is the actual HTML code being read, which is quite irritating.

''It's a really simple matter of coding,'' Robinson says. ''The major reasons people haven't embraced this is that they think it will be very, very difficult, and they think it will be ugly. They think they can't have pictures or they can't use the graphic elements. That is just not true.''

Complete Media Group is an Internet consulting firm which has designed blind accessible Web sites for companies including the Aftermarket Group and the City Club of Cleveland. Robinson offers some compelling reasons why and how your company can and should make your site accessible for everybody.

Untapped market
Close to 50 million people in the United States have some sort of disability. And as the working population ages and starts to retire, many are facing the possibility of reduced vision and other eyesight problems.

''Some companies which deal directly with the disabled community think the people using the site are friends and family members who help these people,'' Robinson says. ''What they don't realize is that it's very likely that they have customers who just can't reach them online because of it not being accessible.''

Stay out of court
It's not a big concern today, but it may not be long before business owners face litigation if their company's Web sites aren't accessible to the blind. State and federal governments are already required to have completely accessible Web sites, as are vendors who supply information to employees of state or federal agencies.

Recently, the National Federation for the Blind sued America Online. The suit claimed the world's largest online service was completely inaccessible to the blind. Eventually, AOL settled out of court.

The company also met with the NFB and developed Web site standards that are starting to be used by other companies.

''It's sort of like a retail store,'' Robinson says. ''They have handicapped entrances, they have the ramps, they have handicapped restrooms and many stores have Braille on their signage. Yet its Web site is 100 percent inaccessible.

''It only takes enough people to complain to the federal agencies before you could face litigation.''

Wireless ready
When your company's Web site is accessible for the JAWS screen reader, it's also readable through portable Internet devices including Palm Pilots or cell phones.

''Coding your site now allows you to be one step ahead of the game when it comes time for your site to be accessible to portable devices,'' Robinson says. ''Both of them have rich benefits from a business perspective.''

How to reach: Complete Media Group, (216) 901-1212

Complete Media Group webiste