by Jack Varnon and Rodney Bickel

Each disability comes with its own unique set of challenges. We, the disabled, must first condition ourselves to be able to function in our social, economic and cultural environment by overcoming the obstacles presented by our respective disabilities. These obstacles are as unique as each of our disabilities. Adapting, no matter what the obstacle, is one thing every disabled person shares; the manner by which we adapt is where the difference lies. However, an area in which we can all relate, no matter the disability, is the tough challenge of educating the non-disabled of these challenges we face on a daily basis.

Many blind personal computer users have specialized screen-reading software, such as JAWS (Job Access with Speech) or Window-Eyes, allowing the user to perform banking online, browse the Internet and read and write e- mail. All of this gives the user a sense of independence and the much desired dignity that goes along with that.

The City of Gainesville's Office of Equal Opportunity and the city of Gainesville have committed to a goal of becoming the number-one accessible city in the nation for all of its citizens, including those with disabilities. One step toward fulfilling this commitment is web access for those with visual impairments or who are blind.

Rodney Bickel, Equal Opportunity Specialist for the City of Gainesville, and Jack Varnon, past president of the Alachua County Council of the Blind, have teamed up to enhance the city's web site. The goal is to make it easily accessible to the blind community. This began several weeks ago at a meeting of the Citizens Disability Advisory Committee. Rodney asked Jack to evaluate the accessibility of the city's web site. The initial report was disappointing: inaccessible!

Challenged, Rodney and Gainesville's webmaster, Matt Nobles, met with Jack at the Center of Independent Living (NCFCIL). The computer-training lab at NCFCIL has a PC set up with JAWS. Jack gave his sighted partners a demonstration of how a blind person navigates the web. We logged on and entered the web address: Jack was kind enough to leave the monitor on so the sighted observers could recognize what was being displayed on the screen and what JAWS was picking up or missing as it announced the screen display. Actually, that was the excuse Jack used. Realizing the difficulty of understanding JAWS for the first time without being able to read along on the screen can be difficult for the sighted user.

Many surprises occurred, ranging from JAWS announcing items that were not listed on the screen to skipping items it should have read. Fortunately, Matt understood the technical aspect and was able to make the necessary adjustments so that JAWS would announce the correct information. Rodney and Matt consulted with many people on how to make changes and what changes should be made to make the web site JAWS-friendly. It took several phone calls and a number of trips to the independent living center to test the changes and be sure that the desired results were being achieved. At times, Rodney would test the system with the monitor turned off to see what it is like for a blind individual navigating the site. He commented to Jack, "At times it is very frustrating." Jack assured him that this is something the blind community can relate to very readily.

Later Jack was asked to visit the site again to grade its improvement in accessibility. While significant advances have been made -- he is now able to navigate to the "government" page and identify the mayor and city commissioners -- some glitches still exist. Rodney and Jack plan to meet at the NCFCIL computer lab to review the latest modifications and determine what else needs to be done. It has been a great learning experience for Rodney, but more importantly, he has a deeper appreciation of how assistive technology expands the capabilities of citizens with disabilities.

One thing we both have learned: never give up trying to communicate the obstacles you encounter as a disabled person to one who is not disabled, no matter how frustrating this may become. If no one teaches this, how are people to learn? And if no one ever learns about these obstacles, how can we ever hope to have them overcome? Patience and understanding on both sides are required to develop a working relationship that benefits us all. Rodney and Jack have developed this bond and have been able to accomplish much. Perhaps you can do the same with someone you know, making the world a little easier for all people with disabilities, one person at a time.

Postscript: Lately, there has been widespread use of PDF documents on government agencies' web sites. Most of these documents are virtually unreadable with conventional screen readers like JAWS and Window-Eyes. Therefore, the average blind person is denied reasonable access to such information. It's my understanding that if I invest more dollars and upgrade to the latest JAWS (version 6.0) and Adobe Acrobat 7.0 (free), I will be able to read "properly" constructed PDF files. Unfortunately, many of us just cannot justify the extra expense.

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