WebAnywhere Brings Convenient Internet Access To Blind People

Here’s a topic we don’t consider often enough: accessibility. Specifically, web accessibility for visually impaired users.

There are more than 38 million blind people worldwide who rely on screen readers to access the Internet. However, screen readers aren’t cheap and unless you use them yourself, you probably don’t have one installed. This makes using someone else’s computer a virtual impossibility for blind people.

WebAnywhere is a web-based screen reader. It takes the content on a web page, translates it to text and reads it aloud for the user. By putting the screen reader in a browser window, WebAnywhere makes web surfing by blind people possible from any computer. As an added bonus, the application is free and open-source, and the developer, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, says he hopes other people will help to improve it.

WebAnywhere divides the screen into two frames — navigation and content. The navigation frame consists of a location bar and a search bar, which effectively takes the place of the location bar of your browser while you’re using the site. The sites you navigate to are displayed in the lower frame.

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It’s interesting, to visit some common sites and see how well optimized they are for screen readers. Take Twitter for example; the site would be a nightmare for a user using WebAnywhere. The reader picks up a whole lot of gibberish from the homepage and if you do manage to log in, the reader goes down the right-hand side (with the long list of followers) before hitting the main page. Fortunately, WebAnywhere features several handy shortcuts (apparently standard in screen readers), including one which jumps to the next input box.

Here’s a brief bare-bones video explaining a little more about the system:

WebAnywhere is in alpha right now so it certainly isn’t perfect — I noticed that when I loaded my site through it, it replaced all of the apostrophes in my most recent post with ellipses. Meanwhile, it seemed to break GMail completely although the video above shows someone using GMail through the application. There’s clearly some work to be done but, like I said, it’s in alpha so that’s forgivable.

As a sign of the potential of WebAnywhere, the developer, Jeff Bigham, won the grand prize of Microsoft’s 2008 Imagine Cup Interface Design Accessible Technology Award for the program.

As this is the first screen reader I’ve used and I’m not exactly the target market, I don’t have much context on which to base my opinion of WebAnywhere. I wonder, does anyone reading this site use a screen reader? What do you think of WebAnywhere?

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(Image credit: Amit Agarwal)

1 comments
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tom
tom

I think primarily we need to pick a set of standards, or just accessibility related common sense and code our pages based on it. If we code for particular screen readers, the issue will be that others read it differently. Once we code based on a set of standards or guidelines, for example WCAG, screen reader manufacturers will pay more attention to make their products work in more environments.