According to the National Coalition for Vision Health, the number of visually impaired and blind Canadians will double over the next 25 years. ((iStock))

"I have lived a very complex existence," says Valentina Gal, a novel writer and consultant based in Toronto who says technology is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's essential for her writing. On the other, even the simplest of Google searches can turn into an hours-long marathon surfing session.

That's because Gal has been blind since birth. And like many visually impaired people, she finds that functioning in the online world is not easy. That's despite the fact there are text-to-speech screen readers, Braille printers and other tools to help the cause.

Online activities that are second nature to most — making a purchase, reading a statement or simply navigating a website — can become a gargantuan effort when you can't see a screen or use a mouse. Then there's the library of codes to memorize to get anything done.

Most of the problems the blind face are caused by poor or inadequate web design. Some sites have been making efforts to become more accessible. Those who work in visually impaired circles, however, say the online community as a whole is not doing enough, especially given what is happening demographically these days. 

The National Coalition for Vision Health released a report in 2007 that estimated the number of visually impaired and blind Canadians will double over the next 25 years. According to Statistics Canada, seniors will make up 23 per cent of the population by 2031. When one also considers that one in 11 Canadians over 65, and more than one in eight over 75, experience severe vision loss that cannot be corrected with standard eyeglasses, the problem of accessibility will only escalate.

With this in mind, legislation is pending that will force website operators to make things more accessible for the visually impaired.

Ontario is the first out of the gate with its Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Information and communication standards (print and online) are among the five areas it says businesses need to address. Once those standards are finalized in the fall of 2010, organizations will have a specified number of months to comply. Timelines vary depending on the type of business, and penalties for non-compliance could be in the range of $100,000 a day.

"Websites, software products and electronic documents need to be built with these guidelines in mind so that they work with assistive technologies," explained Peter Ganza, director of product marketing for Xenos, a developer of accessible server-based technologies in Richmond Hill, Ont.

Access not equal

People with vision problems say that online accessibility to date is a hit and miss proposition.

"When you're working on a website, it's very much … a crapshoot .…," Gal said. Her list of website pet peeves includes form-fields and timeouts. "Because blind people need longer times to fill out forms, it can be frustrating, because the site will time out, and you have to start over."

The time it takes to read a page is another. "We don't have the luxury a sighted person does to scan a Google page. You have to go through it link by link, which can take hours."

As a blind person with extensive technological know-how, Chris Chamberlain is equally exasperated at times.

'True accessibility is giving blind people the same options to access information as sighted ones.' —Adam Spencer, accessibility specialist

"Booking tickets, shopping of any kind — checkouts can take 20 to 25 minutes, whereas a sighted person can do it in five," Chamberlain, chief executive of Frontier Computing in Toronto, a developer of assistive technology for the vision-impaired. "That is, if we can get through it all without giving up."

And then there are the CAPTCHAs — those cryptic letters and symbols that users have to enter to complete a purchase. They can be difficult to interpret even when the person has perfect vision.

"If I had to pick the biggest problem online, that's it," said Debbie Gillespie, an accessibility consultant with CNIB in Toronto.

While it would be easy in many cases to ask someone to help, that means giving up your privacy, Chamberlain said. "Do you really feel like putting your credit card information in the hands of another person? Why should we have to?"

The result is that blind or visually impaired people don't have the same online access to information as other people. They can request Braille or large print statements from their financial institutions if they can't read a website display of their account information, for example, but that can mean several days of delay.

"True accessibility is giving blind people the same options to access information as sighted ones," said Adam Spencer, and accessibility specialist with Accessibil-IT, a document conversion service based in Oakville, Ont.

"There is no reason a site can't be made accessible," Spencer added. "It's an extra step, but a conscious one that needs to be made."

Accessibility is attainable

The key is coding a page right and understanding the critical distinction between accessibility and usability.

When a site is not coded properly, text-to-speech screen readers can end up in mind-numbing link loops and repetitive behaviour because they read the code as it's written, Spencer explained. "Your site could be compliant and accessible. But the critical piece is, can it be easily understood by the end user?"

At its most basic, accessibility involves tagging a site behind the scenes in order to help the visually impaired wade through the clutter. By way of example, a reader that converts text into speech might come across a link and narrate the entire URL, letter by letter. By tagging that link with alternate text, the reader would be able to simply say "link to catalogue page."

The same applies to photos or graphics.

"There are barriers that many have put on [their sites] such as having websites that are all images or Flash that obviously can't be read," explained Naveesha Maharaj, accessibility consultant for CNIB National in Toronto. "If a website is programmed to provide alternate text, a picture can be accessible and reached by someone visually impaired."

One area that's a particular challenge is PDF files using Adobe's Portable Document Format. That includes bills, banking statements, insurance policies and questionnaires — few of which are formatted in a way that makes sense to screen readers.

"Screen readers are linear in fashion and want to read left to right," Chamberlain explained. "PDFs are often arranged in columns, so nothing makes sense. It has to do with layout. It makes sense if you look at it visually, but from a screen reader point of view, it's a mess."

Solving the issue means hiding irrelevant information and providing shortcuts and a read-order that make sense for screen readers, Ganza explained. "While PDFs can be tagged manually for one-off documents such as marketing materials, it's more of an issue when dealing with high volume files such as monthly banking statements."

Where sites can start

Even if the corporate spirit is willing, the commitment may not be quite there to make sites more accessible, because businesses simply don't know where to start, Gillespie said. Although with legislation in place or pending, she says they need to start moving towards more accessible websites today in order to meet future accessibility requirements.

A good starting point is reviewing the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) guidelines for technology products known as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG ), Gillespie said. "The next step is to strategically determine what is needed from an internal perspective."

Businesses can also work with consultants or in-house resources to ensure that they are giving users the information they need in a way that is perceivable, understandable, operable and robust.

It is also critical to test a website with visually impaired people and have them review it whenever a change is made and/or on a regularly scheduled basis.

"You can learn guidelines and code to specifications, but how do you know it's right until you check with actual users of the site?" Gillespie asked.

Aside from the legislative issues, Cathy Browne, a Vancouver-based social media public relations consultant, said website accessibility makes good business sense.

"Businesses will mentally write off the visually impaired as not being their target audience," she says.

"I don't think organizations down the line know how huge this market really is. If you look at the fact that the group of people with low vision is growing by leaps and bounds because of aging, there's a huge business case for adopting solutions that make sense. That is your demographic. Organizations just haven't been fed that business case."