NEW YORK — "Links list dialogue." "Links list view." "Your Account — Two of 164."
This is what the Internet sounds like to Chris Danielsen.
Danielsen is blind. He's using a software program called Jaws that converts the text on a Web page into a computerized voice that comes out through a speaker, allowing him to surf the Web using keyboard commands instead of a mouse — the same way lots of blind people use the Internet.
In this case, his computer is listing all the Web links on the page he's on and telling him that the highlighted link his cursor is on now will take him to the "Your Account" section on Wal-Mart's Web site.
Danielsen, who writes a blog called "The Voice of the Nation's Blind" for the National Federation of the Blind, says accessing the Internet has been a "huge boon" for blind people. It's allowed them to accomplish a great number of tasks on their own that would otherwise present difficulties or require the help of a sighted person, such as banking, buying plane tickets and shopping for things like groceries and music.
But like any evolving technology, accessing the Internet has hardly been a smooth ride for the blind. Some sites can be difficult to navigate, particularly if they contain relatively few text links and rely more on graphics and other visual elements that screen-reading software such as Jaws can't interpret.
That's why the NFB, an organization that represents blind people, is suing Target Corp., saying that its Web site is inaccessible to blind Internet users.
Last month a federal judge in California allowed the NFB's case to proceed, rejecting Target's argument that its Web site wasn't subject to the Americans With Disabilities Act, a 1990 law that requires retailers and other public places to make accommodations for people with disabilities. Target argued that the law only covered physical spaces.
The case, which is entering a pretrial phase called discovery in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, could set an important precedent for applying federal accessibility law to the Internet.
Target said in a statement that its Web site was "committed to providing an online experience that is accessible to all of our guests. Despite the lawsuit brought forward by the National Federation of the Blind, we have always and will continue to implement new technologies to our Web site."
John Pare, a spokesman for the NFB, said most Web sites are far easier to navigate than Target's. In a demonstration of screen-reading software for The Associated Press, Danielsen showed that many links on Target's side were unintelligible to the Jaws software, and that the final purchase required the use of a mouse, something even the most sophisticated blind Web surfer would have trouble with. However, he was able to navigate other sites and purchased a CD from Amazon.
Jaws, made by Freedom Scientific, is a popular kind of screen-reading software, but there are others, including Window-Eyes, made by GW Micro, and Hal, made by Dolphin Computer Access.
Many Web sites already have made major progress in becoming accessible to the blind, and some, such as those run by the government, are required to do so by law.
Yet surfing the Internet is not always worry-free for the blind. Crista Earl, the head of Web operations for the American Foundation for the Blind in New York, said graphics that don't contain textual labels — which can be read by screen-reading software — are a common obstacle for blind Internet users, as are "forms" that are unlabeled. Forms are the little boxes where you insert data, such as a book title you wanted to search for.
The decision to hold Target's Web site to the same standards of accessibility as its physical store under the Americans with Disabilities Act was considered a victory by many advocates for the blind, but at the same time others worry that the ruling could be read too narrowly.
Not every business or Web site is subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, said John D. Kemp., a lawyer with the Washington law firm Powers, Pyles, Sutter & Verville P.C. The ADA applies mainly to public places such as restaurants, retailers, movie theaters and health care institutions, explained Kemp, who has long worked on compliance issues related to disabilities, employment and technology.
For an electronic retailer such as Amazon.com, which has no physical store, the law is unclear, Kemp said. "There is no well defined policy in this area at all."
However, Kemp noted that many businesses, such as banks, see a strong business rationale for making their sites accessible, and have moved aggressively to do so.
Meanwhile, other retailers are also moving to adapt their Web sites to screen-reading software. Kelly Groehler, a spokeswoman for Best Buy Co., says the company has made a number of changes to its site since late last year, including incorporating "alt tags" — or text that labels items like graphics — into its site.
Best Buy also moved code for drop-down menus to the bottom of the page, where it's less likely to duplicate other elements on the page. "We're trying to be proactive here," Groehler said. Walmart.com spokeswoman Amy Colella says the site has made sure it is "reasonably accessible" to the blind.
Other retailers are making similar efforts, but it remains a challenge due to the continuing evolution in the technologies used by blind people to surf the Internet, says Scott Silverman, executive director of Shop.org, a division of the National Retail Federation for online retailers.
"As the retailers' Web sites continue to evolve to stay competitive in the marketplace, sometimes the technologies necessary to do that are a little bit ahead of where the screen-readers are," Silverman said. "It's a very fast-moving environment. Retailers want to serve all their customers, including blind people."
Internet search giant Google Inc. is getting into the act as well. In July it launched a project to identify and rank Web sites that offer significant accessibility to the blind.
As more information and services migrate online, keeping access open to it is of paramount importance to advocates for the blind.
"The blind have more access to information than they ever had in history _ but that's only true to the extent that Web accessibility is maintained," Danielsen said. "The technology is out there, and we don't need barriers to be put in our way. Give us a way in."
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