IE Trips Up Disabled-But Help Is on Way

By eweek  |  Posted 2000-08-28

IE Trips Up Disabled-But Help Is on Way

Bryan Campbell relies on all the hot keys and keyboard shortcuts he can find to help him surf the Internet. The Toronto resident doesnt forsake a mouse because hes an edgy power user who cant tolerate the inefficiencies of pointing and clicking commands in graphical interfaces. Campbell requires streamlined key commands because he interacts with his PC using a headband-mounted metal wand that presses keys as he awkwardly moves around his standard keyboard.

Campbell is a quadriplegic who has battled cerebral palsy since birth. He also happens to be a 22-year computer veteran who, with the help of a PC, earned a bachelors in history at the University of Toronto.

Campbell and millions of other mobility-impaired computer users have come to rely on the Web for personal and professional communication and information. But to get the most out of the Internet experience, these users are looking for better shortcuts.

Based on his experiences, Campbell said mainstream Web browsers, such as Microsoft Corp.s Internet Explorer, dont deliver on their high-accessibility promises. IE offers some enhancements for disabled surfers, but they dont go far enough, he said. "The keystroke commands exist, but their execution and layout are the difficulties," he said. As a result, Campbell and many other disabled Netizens are looking for alternatives to IE. The other popular browser, Netscape Communications Corp.s Navigator, is not an option since it is limited by many of the same inefficiencies as IE, industry observers say. Right now, a shareware browser is Campbells best solution. But, thanks to government regulations, there could be more choices for him in the near future.

Since the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act 10 years ago, hardware and software vendors as well as Web designers have been under pressure to make the Information Age available to everyone who can benefit from it, including the estimated 50 million disabled U.S. citizens.

For many of those disabled Americans, the inefficiencies Campbell complains of result in more than just frustration. In the workplace, they result in a major loss of productivity. Vendors, however, will be under increasing pressure to fix this. By the end of next year, the federal government is expected to impose strict accessibility requirements-under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1998-on all the high-tech hardware and software it buys. "This puts legal teeth into the goal of making products more accessible," said Phill Jenkins, senior software engineer and program manager for the IBM Accessibility Center, in Austin, Texas.

For a number of years, many vendors, including IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems Inc., have addressed the needs of disabled users through in-house departments devoted to accessibility. Nevertheless, the sometimes conflicting pressures of keeping the user interface consistent for mainstream users have forced the creation of less-than-ideal workarounds for disabled users.

IE, because of its widespread Web presence, is especially susceptible to complaints. Among them is the choice of keys, sometimes located at opposite ends of the keyboard, for entering often-used browser commands. "I type with a head wand, and currently the keyboard commands in IE are too tiresome for me to use," Campbell said.

For example, the Tab key is the primary keyboard tool for selecting hyperlinks on a Web page. However, users must hit the Enter key to invoke the command. The key sequence may be simple for touch-typists, but users who surf with the aid of one finger-or a head wand-find the gap cumbersome, especially during a long surfing session. "Being unsteady and using a head wand to type Tab and Enter is just too much work," Campbell said. "And the key combos for other tasks are neck-breaking."

Campbell voices similar complaints about the page-forward keyboard command (Alt-Right Arrow), a more difficult companion to the simple, one-key page-backward command (Backspace). "Had Microsoft built around the Backspace, the keyboard commands could have been efficient and easy to run. This is simple ergonomics, making it baffling that Microsoft cant do it," Campbell said.

This is why Campbell now relies on the 6-year-old Opera shareware browser from Opera Software A/S, of Oslo, Norway. The simple browser shines where the feature-laden IE pales: Opera makes extensive use of single-key Web navigation thats winning the appreciation of disabled and mainstream users alike.

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For its part, Microsoft says its made a significant investment in time and money to address the needs of the disabled. For instance, Windows 98 includes an accessibility wizard to help users customize their screens with type magnifiers and so-called sticky keys that do away with simultaneous keystrokes.

IE has some of its own accessibility tools, including shortcuts such as Ctrl-Tab to jump between Web page frames. Similarly, F5 refreshes the Web page, and Esc ends a page load.

Tim Lacy, Microsofts accessibility program manager for Internet Explorer and Visual Studio, in Redmond, Wash., said that the problems mentioned by Campbell are valid but believes key positioning issues are best addressed by additional hardware available to customize keyboards.

Why cant Microsoft do more? Lacy says it is because its difficult for the company to determine the disabled communities unique needs. The company relies on input from third-party companies that produce products such as screen readers and text-to-speech technology to report the needs of the disabled market.

In addition, Microsoft contracts with research companies that poll disabled users. The company also takes suggestions for new features coming in via e-mail and by monitoring discussions in appropriate newsgroups. But when Microsoft tried to organize focus groups with disabled people, it didnt locate any volunteers.

Campbell, however, said he believes the makers of feature-rich browsers could do more to make their products more accessible.

Ironically, the ramping up of wireless applications for the Web may be the biggest boon yet for disabled surfers. Small, handheld devices such as smart phones are forcing engineers to rethink how people navigate the Net.

"Theres a lot of excitement in the disabilities community over wireless," said Larry Goldberg, director of the Media Access Group at WGBH, a Boston public television and radio station. Thats because their limitations may finally get noticed.

"When you look at the issues surrounding mobile computing, you realize theyre very similar to accessibility for disabled people," Goldberg said. Which means the revenue-generating wireless community could ultimately benefit the disabled by encouraging vendors to push out more one-button solutions to navigate the Web. Campbell looks forward to that day.

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