This week has shown me more clearly then ever before how discriminatory the online world continues to be for those of us who are dependant on screen reading software. Recently it was brought to my attention that you can join companies known for their marketing and/or political research, surveys and poles. After years of expressing my opinions at great length (to mainly uninterested audiences) I adored the idea of actually being able to give them when and where they might be able to make a difference. Its been an education. So many sites continue to insist on the use of the “Captcha image” box. I’ve yet to find a sighted person who can tolerate them, but there is no way for a screen reader to deal with them. And while some (like the Google based version) provide a very difficult and irritating audio that can be used, others cling to an outdated programme that provides the listener with gibberish. It’s ridiculous to think anyone could pick A word out of that noise. In addition these boxes are usually case sensitive and very exact. Most sites do not share such trivia as how many words, are they upper or lower case (or a mixture), is there or isn’t there a space. If the person who cannot see the screen miraculously manages to pick appropriate sounds out of the jumble they have no way of knowing what is the correct way to type them. When I mentioned to a friend recently that I wished to sign up to her blog but could not thanks to the Captcha image and requested her help , she not only signed me up but wrote back saying that she wanted to remove that box at the earliest opportunity. She said she’d clicked on the audio link provided and had no idea what it had been trying to say.
At this point in time it is bad enough that such an exclusionary device is being widely used online. What was far worse was the rampant ignorance and prejudice I encountered when writing to request assistance in over coming this obstacle. Out of close to a dozen sites (this became a quest) I got three prompt helpful replies. When I wrote to a fourth site for a second time a different agent caught my note and she was as helpful as the other three mentioned, but it took three E-mails to get her. Three of these kind souls simply set up accounts with token passwords, sent me the confirmation E-mail and wish me luck. The fourth had me phone their company and give my information over the phone to a representative who did the same thing. It worked, their sites should be updated (there really are excellent alternatives to Captcha, there is NO excuse for using this!) but the people with whom I dealt were fabulous. Responses from other sites ranged from “is your internet browser compatible, please check the following list”, to “you need to enter the two words that appear in the text box I can’t help you unless you register your account”. That last one is a particular favourite of mine since that site deals with its rude little box by writing just above it that if you are visually impaired please send and E-mail, and gives an address link. So I didn’t expect any problems with that one. It did get done on that site in the end, but it took several notes passed back and forth and one of my last ones had to be explicit and somewhat abrasive before I got a result. I’ve had a well established Canadian survey company (a name that is nationally recognized) share the exceptionally bigoted attitude that they can’t help, and some of their surveys use drag and drop and visual symbols so it really doesn’t matter if I don’t join since I couldn’t fill in all the surveys anyway. (I thought the point of surveys was to select relevant groups of people to question. Since when did not qualifying for some mean you are unwanted for all?!) They passed my last reply up the line, but I will be phoning them on Tuesday morning and if I’m not a member shortly there after I will be following up here in detail (with names) and in other places. I have our entire correspondence. considering this is 2012 it really makes for impressive reading.
Second place in the discrimination awards goes to our own CBC. They’ve outdone themselves!, not for them a mere image box, their entire sign up process is a graphic! (So are their surveys!) For those of you unfamiliar with the details of screen reading software it can only read text. A graphic (picture, photo, jpeg etc.) is a graphic no matter what the graphic shows. The picture can be of text but it is still a picture and so a screen reader does not see it. Ten twelve years ago when so much less was known about accessibility it might have been understandable why many of these companies would have built inaccessible websites. I don’t think that goes for a government site, or an organization owned by a government, … they always have a much higher responsibility to be available and accessible to all their citizens and should be held to a higher standard. But then as I wrote to CBC, considering they only answer to the government of Canada who is happy to spend our tax dollars in fighting a court case to keep its websites inaccessible what can you expect? This is a great and wonderful country with much to love and admire in it. But there are moments when I am unable to help being ashamed of my government. What possible excuse can they offer in their defence, nothing can justify both the flagrant abuse of their own commitments to accessibility, or their spending our money in defending the indefensible. No website changes could come close to the cost of taking this case to, and appealing it in the Supreme Court. But with that as an example is it any wonder that others continue to pursue policies that exclude. These companies I was attempting to join claim to want the views and opinions of people to help marketers and governments make their decisions. It is very unpleasant to realize that the narrow mindedness of this society goes so deep that because I do not have physical sight my opinion not only doesn’t count, it is not even wanted. I and every other adult blind Canadian function in most ways as sighted Canadians do. We do groceries, cook meals and eat at restaurants, own pets, live in houses and apartments alone and with others, raise children, have grand children, go on trips, vote, pay taxes, bank on and off line, have credit cards (and doubtless some have debts), go to work, celebrate family occasions and special holidays. In short, we are customers employees and even employers, we spend our money and pay our utilities, and do all the things that entitle the sighted world to an opinion worth hearing. But so deeply engrained is this attitude toward us that large companies feel able to allow their representatives to tell us we weren’t wanted anyway.
I don’t suffer from a high opinion of human nature, but this past week has made even me feel that I still over rate the progress we some times appear to have made.