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A few weeks ago, Lucy Greco heard a story on NPR about more clothing retailers shuttering their stores and moving online. Oh, great, she thought, recalling some of her past experiences with online shopping: “You’re clicking on something that says, ‘graphic graphic graphic,’ or some numbered file name, or some gibberish like that.”

The internet can be like this for Greco, who is blind and uses a screen reader to wayfind online. Screen readers convert display text into synthesized speech or refreshable Braille, giving visual displays an audio equivalent. But many websites have features that make them impossible for her to use—unlabeled graphics, forms with missing field labels, links mysteriously named “link.” Greco says she runs into issues like this “90 percent of the time” that she spends online. When she does, entire chunks of the internet disappear.

Since the 1990s, the popular narrative of the internet is one of progress: More people are online than ever and the web is increasingly open. But today, the internet is far from fully accessible. By some measures, it’s gotten even worse.

There are around seven million people with a visual disability in the United States, according to the National Federation of the Blind. Many of them may, like Greco, find the modern web to be lacking. One study by a accessibility software company this August found that 70 percent of the websites it surveyed, ranging from e-commerce to news to government services, contain “accessibility blocks,” or quirks in the design that make them unreadable with assistive technology. Another accessibility report analyzing the top million homepages on the web estimates that just 1 percent meet the most widely used accessibility standards. People who use screen readers are regularly confronted with read-outs like “unlabeled button” or “image1.jpg” in place of the descriptive information they need to navigate.

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As a self-proclaimed “web accessibility evangelist,” Greco has worked to solve these problems since she first started using a computer in 1985. That was five years before the Americans with Disabilities Act afforded protections to people like her, and 15 years before the first web accessibility lawsuit made the case that those protections should extend to the internet. By the late 90s, hoards of Americans were rushing online for the first time, and AOL had begun to reshape modern life with email, instant messaging, and 500 hours of free internet for all. But on a screen reader, all of that vanished. AOL was littered with unlabeled graphics, forms with missing field labels, and commands that couldn’t be performed with a keyboard.

In 1999, the National Federation of the Blind sued AOL, making the case that online accessibility was a civil rights issue. The company eventually settled, spruced up its software, and even hired its first Director of Accessibility—moves that Curtis Chong, then the NFB’s Director of Technology, called “the first major step down the long road of getting full access to electronic information.” Just like public buildings were required to add wheelchair ramps, web developers were now expected to add features like alt text, a word or phrase that identifies the content of an image.

The same year as the lawsuit, the World Wide Web Consortium developed its first set of Web Accessibility Guidelines. It contained 14 recommendations for accessible design: offer alternatives to audio or visual content, provide clear navigation mechanisms, use markup and style sheets. These guidelines were meant to create a foundation on which web developers and designers could build a more inclusive internet.

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It’s not that highly visual websites can’t be accessible to the blind. Plenty of them are, and video-first platforms like YouTube and Twitch have active communities of blind users. To make those websites work with assistive technology, though, someone has to ensure the code includes things like alt text, properly labeling each of the graphical elements on the page. This stuff isn’t just tidying up for blind and low-vision users—it’s good web practice, says Whitney Quesenbery, a UX researcher and the co-author of A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences.

When websites don’t contain good coding on the backend, it makes those unlabeled images, links, or buttons completely uninterpretable. To understand how maddening this is, watch this YouTube video demonstrating how a screen reader parses the New York Times homepage from 2014. The “subscribe now” button is read as “list 1 item”; the sections for world news, US news, opinion, each come out as “link,” “link,” and “link.” Research from Deque Systems, which makes digital accessibility software, found most websites contained these “accessibility blockers,” like unlabeled “buy” buttons on e-commerce websites. CAPTCHAs, meant to be an obstacle for bots, can also keep out blind people.

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