You are conducting some cutting-edge research in web accessibility. Can you tell us about it?
“For almost a decade, I’ve worked in collaboration with the National Federation for the Blind, getting to know blind individuals and working with them to make the web more accessible for blind users. Right now is an exciting time to be working in the area of interface accessibility, as the federal government is taking a lot of actions to strengthen and clarify legal requirements and enforcement. My team conducts theoretical studies to understand how blind users browse the web, builds and tests new interfaces, and evaluates websites for accessibility.”
What are some of your research findings?
"We've built and evaluated more accessible CAPTCHAs. We've determined that blind users have optimal performance with the same menu structures as visual people and documented the biggest challenges for screen reader users. We're helping blind users to listen to online weather maps using sonofication and more easily access web-based calendars. We've also published numerous studies that examine levels of website compliance with accessibility guidelines, including those of government websites, which by law must be accessible but often are not. My undergraduate students and I examined 15 Maryland state agency websites for compliance with state accessibility regulations, and discovered that all but one had compliance issues of some kind. We also examined federal government websites for compliance with accessibility regulations."
It sounds like your students receive a lot of experience outside of the classroom.
“In my undergraduate classes, I encourage students to work on accessibility-related projects in collaboration with the local community. I’ve taken students on field trips to the NFB International Braille and Technology Center, Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, the Maryland Technology Assistance Program, and the Maryland Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. In one class, I led my students in a research project that documented that, when airline websites are inaccessible, blind people end up paying higher prices for airfares, even though that is against the law.”
What is a CAPTCHA?
“Traditional visual CAPTCHAs, or twisted text, are supposed to be something that only a human who can see can understand. They are security features, and the visual clutter discourages image recognition by automated viruses and bots. As crucial as they are to thwarting spam, CAPTCHAs also present an obstacle to blind or visually impaired users. And existing audio CAPTCHAs are incredibly hard to use. So our research team developed an earlier prototype known as the Human Interaction Proof Universally Usable, or HIPUU, which has task success rates above 90 percent for both blind and visual users.”
Is HIPUU currently in use?
“The Information Systems Solutions group, part of Towson University’s Division of Economic and Community Outreach, is working on turning the HIPUU prototype into an industry product. The device is now known as the “SoundsRight CAPTCHA” and it’s currently undergoing more usability and security testing.”
You’ve accomplished so much. What is on the horizon?
“Research on web accessibility is continuing in my undergraduate classes, with my doctoral students, and with other members of Towson’s faculty. There’s a lot of work to be done, but, the more people I can train in doing accessible design, the more I can bring attention to these design issues. Then, more people in the technology community will be aware of this major problem.”
Why is your work so important?
“When websites are inaccessible, it’s not just an inconvenience. If you can’t get the lowest fare on an airline website, if you can’t take advantage of Web-only specials on an e-commerce site—it becomes pricing discrimination. If you can’t use the same workplace software tools, communication tools and social-networking software—it becomes social exclusion. Technology should be bringing people together, not increasing existing barriers of discrimination. We have the technical capability and the knowledge to design for accessibility, for inclusion. Why don’t we do it?”