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BizReport : Internet : April 09, 2009

Facebook improves accessibility for visually disabled users

While rails, audio signals, and Braille signage all help make life easier for those with visual disabilities navigate the real world, it seems that making life easier for them online isn't getting quite as much attention.

by Helen Leggatt

The Internet opens up the world to many people with disabilities, but it still has its barriers, particularly for those with visual disabilities. A recent report in the U.K. by Webcredible found (.pdf) retailers' approach to website accessibility was inconsistent and sloppy.

In general terms, there are two types of visual impairment, each with their own online considerations and solutions.

Partially-sighted - Many partially-sighted online users need to enlarge text on websites. Some use screen magnifiers. Website owners need to be aware of how enlarging the text effects legibility and site use, along with the effect it has on text embedded in graphics.

Blind - Screen readers are used by those with blindness or extremely poor sight. The technology sifts through HTML code and deciphers what needs to be read aloud. Some blind users, in particularly those that are deaf/blind, might use a refreshable Braille display machine which allows users to read the content.

"The challenge is that not all webpages are compatible with screen readers and magnifiers," said Carl Augusto, President and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), a U.S.-based non-profit organization, who is himself blind.

"When a website is built without regard to accessible design, screen reading software cannot interpret the information, which prevents the blind person from accessing the site. Social networking sites present some especially difficult challenges. For instance, images are an important part of the site experience, but it is rare that photos get described."

Facebook, which now boasts over 200 million active users, has been in discussions with the AFB for some time, and has recently announced efforts to make their social networking environment more accessible to those with visual disabilities.

Improvements include:-

- Audio CAPTCHA.
- Full HTML version of the site to make it easier for screen readers to decipher.
- Facebook Chat accessible by screen readers.
- Addition of a "no javascript" version of Facebook Gift Shop.
- Shortcut keys to major areas of the site.

Tags: accessibility, blind, Facebook, visually disabled, visually impaired, Webcredible

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