For most of us, the Web is primarily a visual medium. The downside is that accessing the benefits of the Internet can be a challenge for the visually-impaired. Fortunately, electronic documents are much more versatile than printed ones. Screen-reading software has come a long way, and today it can make online information accessible even to the completely blind.
But even modern screen readers aren't perfect. Particularly, they are of no help when there's nothing to read. Too often, graphically rich Web sites are designed without sufficient text cues that would allow visually impaired users to navigate them. Now help is on the way, thanks to a new project from IBM's AlphaWorks that aims to improve Web accessibility through collaborative techniques borrowed from the world of open source software.
The idea is simple yet brilliant. Web developers have a lot on their plates, and often accessibility is low on their list of priorities. IBM's solution? Outsource that part of the process to the Web community at large.
IBM's Social Accessibility project consists of two pieces of software, each of which communicates with a back-end service hosted by IBM. One is a browser plug-in for volunteers who will use it to enter descriptive information about Web sites. The other is a component for users of the JAWS screen reader that can load the contributed descriptions and speak them aloud. Screen reader users can also file requests to "fix" specific Web sites, so volunteers can concentrate on the pages that are in highest demand.
Similar collaborative projects have given birth to countless achievements, from Wikipedia to the Linux kernel. With luck, IBM's efforts will attract a community of users who will help to eliminate the remaining hurdles to Web surfing for the visually impaired -- even when Web site designers themselves fall short.
For now, the software is but an early technology prototype, so you can't expect it to be ready for mainstream deployment or even bug-free. But if you're willing to try it out in its early stages, you can sign up for the service and download the components from IBM's Social Accessibility Web site. Ultimately, individual contributions are what could transform this great idea into an indispensible tool.