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U.S. Aims To Speed Up The Internet For The Disabled


The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. That is a long time ago in computer years. The Department of Justice is expected to release formal regulations this month that for the first time would apply ADA accessibility requirements to the web. From member station WHYY, Todd Bookman reports.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: If you're blind, the Web probably has a familiar sound.


ANGEL AYALA: We're on the Department of Justice website under accessibility under Internet accessibility.

BOOKMAN: We're inside the computer lab at Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia, where senior Angel Ayala is showing off how screen reading software works. He's using the keyboard to tab through all the various links on this government webpage. Angel is so used to hearing the Internet, he's got the speed turned way up.


BOOKMAN: Sitting to Angel's right is sophomore Marvin Pearson, also blind since birth. Even checking email or Facebook can be tricky.

MARVIN PEARSON: Where's login at? I don't know why this ain't working. Oh, there we go.

BOOKMAN: This is how it goes for these kids.

PEARSON: I can't - oh, my goodness.

BOOKMAN: For lots of people with disabilities, everything on the Web is a little slower, a little more frustrating. Angel and Marvin say some sites work well with screen readers and some just don't.

AYALA: That's a huge problem with people who can't see the screen and have to deal with these graphics and PDFs and other things that aren't presented to us the same way it's presented to you.

BOOKMAN: To make a website accessible, it doesn't need to be all text or cluttered with captions or stripped of graphics. Most of the time, the changes are relatively minor fixes Web developers make to the back end code, where the screen reader picks up its instructions. Sighted people wouldn't see any difference. And when the coding is done right, it's the digital equivalent of a wheelchair ramp. The type of accommodation the Americans with Disabilities Act helped make widespread. Advocates say the Web now needs that same treatment.

CHRIS DANIELSON: This is beyond just mere conveniences like shopping online.

BOOKMAN: Chris Danielson is director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind.

DANIELSON: This deals with education and, you know, employment, being able to do so many things that I just don't think it's realistic to say in the 21st century that websites don't have to be ADA compliant.

BOOKMAN: On this point, the United States Department of Justice appears to be on Danielson's side. The DOJ is scheduled to release regulations this month spelling out exactly what an ADA-compliant site is and to clarify which websites would have to meet those standards. In the absence of clear laws, lawsuits have been the go-to strategy. Companies including Target, Netflix and H&R Block have all reached settlement agreements. Others made site improvements after customer requests.


UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: The Giants win the pennant.

MATTHEW GOULD: It was really a great grassroots initiative of baseball fans - visually impaired baseball fans who wanted that level of access, you know, to their games, particularly live games.

BOOKMAN: This is Matthew Gould with MLB Advanced Media. He says the group just didn't know the site wasn't working well for everyone. So when it was brought to their attention, coders made the improvements. Lainey Feingold, a disabilities rights lawyer in California, says federal action could spur sites to be more proactive.

LAINEY FEINGOLD: I think that it's going to be very big when they issue their regulations because it is going to be a wake-up call, and it is going to bring heightened attention to the issue.

BOOKMAN: And the issue, according to Feingold, isn't about special treatment, it's about making sure the Web works for everyone. For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.