February 1998


The Spider and the Fly

by Richard Banks and Norman Coombs

Richard Banks

I am Dick Banks and the Web has made significant changes in my life in a number of ways. Being legally blind since birth, access to information has always been a challenge. I was always dependent on others to read to me or alter materials so that I could read as others did.

I access the computer with screen enlargement software and synthesized speech. I find it difficult to explain how much of a difference using the computer and accessing the Web and other internet protocols, has made in my life. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to say that it is my key to independence. I control what I want to read and when I want to read it. I had never experienced this freedom until I was 50 years old.

I am the Electronic Resource Manager for EASI: (Equal Access to Software and Information). EASI is a non-profit organization that disseminates materials about access to information for people with disabilities. One of my responsibilities is to manage the EASI Web page. Obviously, access is of paramount importance in this work. Keeping informed about Web development has lead me to understand a frightening reality. What technology giveth, technology can take away.

Norman Coombs

I am Norman Coombs, and the web has connected me to thousands of information sources that were totally closed to me before. I am totally blind and, obviously, cannot read print materials. I am a professor and had to rely on readers to assist me through many years of school until I obtained a Ph.D. Then, I continued to use readers to enable me with my reading and grading of student work as well as assisting me in my own research. An computer adapted for speech output now empowers me to do all this and more independently. I explore the information highway with a web browser daily. I vividly recall that one of the first things I accessed was our college catalog and, for the first time in my life, browsed the catalog all by myself. Next, I jumped to an encyclopedia. Yes, there are encyclopedias in braille, but I never owned one. It is cumbersome enough to own the American Vest Pocket Dictionary which fills seven giant braille volumes, about three feet of shelf space.

Not long after I began using the web as a vital information source, I learned that Time Magazine was on the internet. I quickly added it to my list of personal web bookmarks. I took great pleasure at the fact that I could read Time a couple days before my wife's print copy arrived in our mailbox at home. When the New York Times became available on the web, I was totally blown away. I never imagined that I could have the ability to access such a rich, current source of information and, more, to read it without having to rely on someone to read it to me.

Because the web and the internet were so important to me, I began searching for ways to use it in my research and teaching. Not only do I use web pages to provide information for my students, but I quickly became involved in using CMC to teaching students at a distance. I have taught some 2,000 students over the internet. In the fall of 1997, my American history course had one student located in Rome and another in Singapore. Because the National Technical Institute for the Deaf is on the campus of my college, Rochester Institute of Technology, I frequently have deaf students in my online and classroom courses. CMC is an amazing communication tool to help transcend the double communication barrier between a blind teacher and a deaf student.

The Spider and the Fly

The world wide web is an amazing connectivity technology, and, by selecting the concept of a web, it says more than it intends. For the spider, the web is a transportation mechanism. It serves as a bridge between branches on a bush and as a ladder to climb to higher elevations. For the fly, the web is not a means of getting between locations; it is a trap!

Similarly, the world wide web is both a means of connecting a web user with a vast array of resources through a myriad of connections weaving a network like a web. Sometimes, for users with disabilities, the same web has become a trap. Whether the web is a bridge or a trap for users with disabilities is less a matter of the web itself and more the result of how a particular page is designed. Graphics do make web pages more attractive and sometimes enable them to communicate more clearly. Usually, these features can be coded into html so that they still convey the important information to a user who is using the browser in text mode. Let us look at two versions of the same page for clarification. Both of our examples will view the page using lynx, a text browser. The graphics on the page viewed with a graphics browser were not changed. All that was modified was its appearance with graphics display turned off.

Page seen by a text browser

Same page after adding 'alt=text' tag

This page is an actual page on the internet, but we changed the text so as not to embarrass the web designer and the sponsoring organization.

If you use a graphics browser with graphics turned off, you are not even told that there is a link or an image present. Example of graphics page with graphics off

When we made the web designer of the page aware of the problem, it was fixed within an hour resulting in the page that included the 'alt=text' tags. . We applaud the concern and willingness to provide access for users with disabilities.

For users with limited vision, pages with little color contrast can be difficult to read. For those with some learning disabilities, pages that are crammed with text and graphics and which are visually 'busy' may be a problem as well.


The World Wide Web Consortium includes accessibility features in its HTML code standards. If you are including images or if you are using an image as a "hot link", you can use the "ALT="text" tag. When viewing this in graphics mode, the text tag is ignored; a text browser will read the tag informing the user about the image.


Not only are ".JPEG" and ".GIF" image files unreadable by screen reading programs used by blind users, but so is the Acrobat .PDF file format. Adobe, creators of Acrobat, has sought to overcome this barrier by developing a plug in which turns the image into a readable HTML file.

Site maps

Many Web designers use site maps as a means of page navigation. In effect, this is nothing more than an image as used as an index. In effect, rh is totally useless to blind user. For someone with low vision or a learning disability, the usability of site map will depend on its colors and complexity. Having a redundant text-based index on a "hot link" or placed below the site map, will provide make the page friendly to all surfers.


Frequently designers like to use tables: displaying information in parallel columns. Sometimes this is even the best way to convey meaning. However, screen reading software regularly reads text left to right, across the entire page. This makes nonsense out of information displayed as tables. Try taking a piece of paper and cut a slit in it permitting you to see one line of text only. Take a look at your tables and see how they read. If the table is being used primarily for visual effect, you may consider other formats. If, on the other hand, the table enhances the meaning of the information, place a note above the table indicating a table will follow and describe its logical structure.

Text Version

For Web designers who wish to create graphically rich pages, offering page content in a "text version" will assure that all users have access. A text version could be considered a clone of the site but with no graphics. Some very popular homepages have chosen this method to ensure accessibility to their sites. CNN Interactive is one example.

WAI: Web Access Initiative

The Web Access Initiative is a consortium of American and European governmental, non profit and industry organizations working to guarantee and improve the universal accessibility of the World Wide Web. The National Science Foundation has made a strong committment in this effort. The Web is becoming an ever-increasing part of daily life. Businesses are moving more and more of their work activities into computer networks and using web browsers as their standard interface. Schools are colleges are putting more of their materials on the Web. Many consumers are using the Web for banking, tracking stocks, shopping and entertainment. If the Web is highly accessible, users with disabilities will be empowered to participate in employment, education and personal activities as never before. If accessibility is ignored, these same users will become the fly trapped in the spider's web.


Both the Web and access technology are changing so rapidly that an article like this can not do justice to the topic. Instead we will provide links to Web sites to endeavor to keep current on Web access issues.

Norman Coombs ( is professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology where has been a pioneer in distance learning. He is also chair of EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) and has helped in creating EASI's distance learning workshops on disabilities and information technology including the workshop on universal design of web pages.

Richard Banks ( is the Electronic Resource Manager for EASI: Equal Access to Software and Information. Along with being EASI's webmaster, he also helps develop EASI's online workshops on adaptive technology, science, engineering and math and universally accessible web pages.

Copyright © 1998 by Richard Banks and Norman Coombs. All Rights Reserved.

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