The Squirrels Are Watching

Tort Bunnies is Now Accessible to the Blind

Posted in Code and Tech, Fact and Law by andrewfong on March 24, 2010

Tort Bunnies is now accessible to the visually impaired and anyone else using a screen reader, or at very least, a little less annoying to navigate than before. For those not in the know, the blind can use software that reads web-content aloud to navigate the web. Naturally, this breaks down with certain graphical elements, like web-comic images. I’ve had transcripts of all the comics hidden on the site for a while now for search engines to index, but they weren’t all that inviting to people using screen readers. Some issues that I’ve fixed:

  • The transcript used to include things like “—–” to separate panels of the comic. Screen-readers, however, read this as “dash dash dash dash dash,” which I imagine gets really annoying over time. That’s been replaced with the phrase “next panel.”
  • The transcripts were not clearly marked, and in order to get there, a screen reader would have to jump past the image, notes, and all sorts of markup before getting to the transcript. There is a now a hidden link near the beginning of the page that allows screen-readers to jump straight to the transcript.
  • The alt text and title text were mixed up. They’re separated now.

There are still minor things here and there that might annoy people using screen-readers of course. For example, I use the « and » symbols in a few places as “arrows” pointing left and right. Some screen readers will not read them as arrows however, but as “left double angle bracket” and “right double angle bracket.” I know that might be annoying, but I’m fan of how they look and given that they’re frequently used (see, e.g., Gmail), I think the burden here should actually be on the makers of screen-readers to come up a better textual description of that symbol.

I’d also like to point out that the W3C’s accessibility guidelines aren’t exactly great reading material. Much thanks to 456 Berea St. for something that was easier to follow.

In any case, I’m not even sure if I have any visually impaired readers, but given that my Written and Oral Advocacy class is arguing about whether certain websites count as “places of public accommodation” covered by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, making Tort Bunnies accessible seemed appropriate.

That said, I don’t think it’d actually be a good idea for Title III of the ADA to mandate that private websites be forced by law to be made accessible to the blind. Regardless of what the law actually says (and I sincerely believe that Title III does not cover websites with no nexus to a physical location), extending Title III to websites is bad policy.

So Many Places

First, Title III, or at least the part that would apply to websites, was designed to regulate “places.” While we might consider websites to be places in cyberspace, there are important attributes of physical places that break down with virtual ones. For example, many websites include Javascript / iFrame widgets that include code from other websites — e.g. a comment box from Disqus (which Tort Bunnies uses), a Twitter badge, or a CAPTCHA to screen out spammers (see reCAPTCHA for a CAPTCHA that is accessible). To the end-user, all of these widgets appear to be part of the page itself, but in reality, they’re hosted and served from somewhere completely different. What appears to be one page is really an amalgamation of several pages, all operated and controlled by different actors. If one of these widgets in inaccessible, who’s legally liable? The widget-maker or the page designer who decided to include the widget in the first place? What if all the widgets are independently accessible but when used in conjunction with each other become inaccessible? How about if at the time the page was first designed, the widgets were accessible, but a year later, the widget-maker pushed a change that made the widget inaccessible?

Physical places tend to be physically exclusive. You’re generally in one place at a time. With webpages however, the idea that you are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere actually makes some sense. This is hardly an insolvable problem, but it illustrates why I’m nervous about letting non-tech-savvy lawyers, judges, politicians, and jurors try to work this out. Their natural instinct is to look for a physical metaphor (“ is like a brick-and-mortar bookstore”), even though physical metaphors don’t really work.

Code First, Ask Later

Second, a large part of what has made the Internet what it is today is that there’s a very low barrier to entry to putting up a website on the Internet. Unlike physical structures, where you often need a large team of contractors, a professional architect, and all sorts of bureaucratic approval, a website is something that can be built on the cheap by some kid in a basement who taught herself how to code by reading online tutorials and checking out web forums. The mere fear that the website you spent a year toiling away in your spare time might get you hauled into court to explain why you chose to use Flash might deter many would-be Mark Zuckerbergs and Sergey Brins.

It also runs contrary to the idea that coders build for themselves. One strong indicator of success that I’ve noticed among startups that succeed is that the founders all set out to build products that they themselves wanted to use — i.e. they wanted to make dog food that they themselves would enjoy eating. See also Paul Graham’s note about how programmers build for the platforms they use themselves. If you make these people build for other people (and not pay them), a lot of that enthusiasm and innovation just goes out the window. To put it another way, is a sighted programmer really the best advocate for the blind? You can force her to make her webpage accessible, but if you do, you’ll probably just get a half-assed product.


Ultimately, I think the way forward for the blind is not to force others to make their websites accessible, through legislative means or otherwise, but to get personally involved in creating what they themselves want to see on the Internet. Instead of hiring lawyers to sue some store for not having an accessible website, you could hire a team of developers to build an alternative website or browser custom-designed for the blind through which you could interact with the original store’s website (the beauty of the Internet is that you could probably do this without asking permission from the original store). Or instead of lobbying Congress to extend the reach of the ADA, perhaps the blind could have Congress allocate money for research into technology that would make all of this a moot point — e.g. find the digital equivalent of a wheelchair that can climb stairs.

Anyhow, just my two cents.


2 Responses

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  1. Michael McCarty said, on March 25, 2010 at 10:34 am

    You might think differently if you were blind. Speaking as a blind user, I can say that it is very frustrating when I visit a site that is not accessible or that I can’t shop at because they have a CAPTCHA or bad code that doesn’t allow me to push the “buy” button. I appreciate the steps you’ve taken to make your site accessible and thank you for that work. I don’t agree that going to court is always the best route but I do believe that every website should be accessible and that creating specific browsers for the blind or alternative websites for the blind is not the answer. What if I told you that only the black people could use this software to browse the internet or that only white people could enter a site this way? No one would stand for that but it’s OK for us to build specific products/websites for the blind or disabled.

    • andrewfong said, on March 26, 2010 at 2:49 pm

      Thanks for the comment Michael. I can only imagine (I hope) what it’s like to be blind, but I’d like to make a few points:

      First, I think web designers should make their sites accessible, in the same way that people should donate to charity. At the same time however, I’m generally not going to chastize someone if they choose not to donate.

      Second, I don’t think that discrimination against black people, at least in your example, is necessarily comparable to discrimination against the blind. To discriminate against black people, you generally have to make a conscious effort to do so. In contrast, discrimination against the blind is often inadvertent and usually occurs through inaction.

      And that’s why I think ultimately the blind have to take the initiative in making the Internet accessible rather than asking the sighted to simply make it so. There are generally two ways of helping out the disabled. To analogize to the physically disabled, those choices are basically building access ramps everywhere vs. giving the handicapped wheelchairs that can climb chairs.

      Under the ADA, we’ve chosen to build ramps. Given the nature of the Internet however, I think it would be more efficient and effective to have stair-climbing wheelchairs. With the probable exception of CAPTCHAs (and I concede, it’s a huge exception), building a browser or custom websites that can tolerate a wide range of currently inaccessible code is not hard. And if it’s primary audience is the blind, you’ll probably get better results than if you asked some kid in a garage who may or may not speak your language to please fix up her sloppy code.

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