Web-based program gives the blind Internet access

Lindsay Yazzolino, a Brown University student, demonstrates WebAnywhereBy DONNA GORDON BLANKINSHIP, Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE – Blind people generally use computers with the help of screen-reader software, but those products can cost more than $1,000, so they’re not exactly common on public PCs at libraries or Internet cafes. Now a free new web-based program for the blind aims to improve the situation.

It’s called WebAnywhere, and it was developed by a computer science graduate student at the University of Washington. Unlike software that has to be installed on PCs, WebAnywhere is an Internet application that can make web surfing accessible to the blind on most any computer.

The developer, Jeffrey Bigham, hopes it lets blind people check a flight time on a public computer at the airport, plan a bus route at the library or type up a quick e-mail at an Internet cafe.

To get WebAnywhere running, a blind person has to manage to get online, which can be complicated on a computer not already set up to give verbal feedback. But Bigham’s research found that web-savvy blind people often know plenty of keyboard tricks and when to ask for help.

Once online, a blind web surfer can use the WebAnywhere browser, which can link to and then read out loud any page – as long as the computer has speakers or a headphone jack. The program can skip around the section titles, tab through charts or read the page from top to bottom.

WebAnywhere could benefit from some tweaking, but it’s a big improvement over a total lack of public access, says Lindsay Yazzolino, a blind Brown University student who has a summer job at the University of Washington.

Yazzolino, 19, would like to see a better search function and fewer keystrokes required for navigation around web pages, but she loves the fact that the program is free.

Bigham says he hopes others will make improvements to his program, which is open-source to invite tinkering. He doesn’t have a personal connection to the issue of computer accessibility – except through his fellow students who are blind – but recognizes the area as wide open for programmers.

His faculty adviser, professor Richard Ladner, hopes a commercial search engine will adopt WebAnywhere as a module. Ladner’s next dream is for web developers to keep blind people in mind when they design their pages – a change that could make information easier for everyone to find.