Volume II Number 3, August 1995

Maintaining Lynx to the Internet for People with Disabilities: A Call For Action

Richard Seltzer
B&R Samizdat Express

The combination of "adaptive technology" and the Internet opened the world to many visually impaired people. Before, they were limited to audio tapes and Braille books, and books with extra large type, all of which are difficult and expensive to produce. That meant that only a small portion of the literature and information available to everyone else was open to them.

Then computer technology led to the development of a variety of devices that can turn plain ASCII text into voice or show it as extra large letters or even provide Braille output. And the Internet, through applications such as e-mail, newsgroups, ftp and gopher, provided an almost inexhaustible supply of information in plain text form.

Many blind people became Internet gurus. The Internet was the ultimate equal-opportunity, global environment, where no one knows if you are blind or have three feet or your skin is purple. What does matter are your ideas and your ability to communicate them, as well as the respect and care that you demonstrate toward others in this public arena.

For the sighted Internet user, the arrival of the World Wide Web and graphic browsers like Mosaic and Netscape was a glorious revolution. Suddenly, they could point and click their way with ease from one end of the world to the other, without bothering about complex addresses. The world of the Internet became like a CD-ROM (only slower), with information easily viewed and manipulated in a Windows environment, and with the welcome addition of great color graphics, the beginnings of video, and even audio. Over the last year, it seems that everyone has been scrambling to put up a Web server. Great work is being done. But if the only way to get to it were with a graphics interface, the blind would be locked out and consigned once again to the role of second-class citizens.

Fortunately, a handful of people at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, (Lou Montilli, Charles Rezac, and Michael Grobe) developed a character-cell browser named Lynx, and made the code freely available over the Internet. According to Lynx Users Guide Version 2.3 (http://www.cc.ukans.edu/lynx_help/Lynx_users_guide.html) "Lynx is a fully-featured World Wide Web (WWW) client for users running cursor-addressable, character-cell display devices (e.g. vt100 terminals, vt100 emulators running on PCs or Macs, or any other cursor-oriented display). It will display hypertext markup language (HTML) documents containing links to files residing on the local system, as well as files residing on remote systems running Gopher, HTTP, FTP, WAIS, and NNTP servers. (Lynx is currently available via anonymous FTP from ftp2.cc.ukans.edu/pub/lynx)

Simply put, Lynx delivers documents from the World Wide Web as plain ASCII text characters. This means that they can be "read" by the blind, as well as people who are limited to character-cell (no graphics) access to the Internet.

So there is a solution available for the blind, but lack of awareness limits its usefulness. Many blind people who could use this capability still do not know that it is available. And many people who now run or are building Web sites seem to be unaware of the importance of Lynx, and are designing their pages without taking into account that means of access. In other words, many exciting and interesting Web sites (such as HotWired -- produced by Wired Magazine, and located at http://www.hotwired.com/) are so heavily dependent on graphics that it's impossible to gain access to them with Lynx.

If you know an Internet user who is blind, tell them about Lynx. If you know someone who is building a Web server, remind them that they should design their pages with text-only alternatives for maneuvering from one place to the next and not depend on the user's ability to see icons and fancy graphics.

If this issue is particularly important to you, then on your own or with the help of volunteers systematically visit and evaluate the usability of popular Web sites based on a LYNX view and send constructive criticism and/or praise to the Webmasters who designed them, to Web-related newsgroups, and to editors of Internet-related magazines (Interactive Age, Internet World, Web Week).

If you know someone who designs, builds or sells Internet-related computer products or on-line information services, remind them that if they or their customers do business with the U.S. government they may at some time be required to make their information accessible to the blind, and Lynx can help them accomplish this.

If you know someone who is involved in the further development of Web server software and html authoring tools, encourage them to make it easy for the creators of Web pages to see how their work will appear with a Lynx browser as well as with the full graphics.

And if you know someone who is involved in the further development of Lynx, remind them how important that tool is for the blind; futher, urge them to consult with blind users for advice on features they should include in future versions. Audio technology, for example, could open entirely new Internet possibilities for the blind Internet user. New sites, created by the blind, might provide unique, previously unimagined multi- media experiences for the sighted as well as the blind user.

As a sighted person, I can only try to imagine adapting to living in a world that is always dark or near dark. To maneuver successfully through a dark room you need to carry in your head an image of the space around you, which you edit as you encounter the unexpected. From experience, you expect the unexpected, are aware of what might be encountered, how to evaluate it on the fly, and how to adjust and continue.

To relate to this mode of perception, I try playing blindfold chess and am soon bewildered by the challenge. Try carrying an image (which may not even be a visual image) not only of the board and the current position but also of the expected continuations: the likely next moves and their evaluation and consequences, and also a healthy awareness of the unexpected: the potential for sacrifices and deep combinations, for positional as well as material threats and opportunities. Some of the best chess players actually go through this exercise to train their minds for this kind of multi-dimensional awareness, to get beyond knowledge that relies upon vision.

The sighted person gains confidence and the leisure of complacency from what he or she sees. To see is to believe. To perceive that an object is in one state or position rather than another is to eliminate from consideration that it might be otherwise, to limit the possibilities. The sighted person -- above all the person who relies heavily on visual perception and visual modes of thought -- expects clarity, stability, and predictability, and hence may be less aware of ambiguity and latent potential, and less able to respond when what seems to be the case proves mistaken or uncertain. The blind person requires a multi-dimensional awareness and an openness to react quickly to the unexpected simply to maneuver safely through ordinary space. These are qualities that can prove quite valuable when maneuvering through cyberspace.

Arguably, the blind are more at home in cyberspace than the sighted. In cyberspace (and the related concepts of virtual reality and alternate reality), the blind should be considered as a special resource. Companies wishing to lead the way in virtual reality should actively recruit the blind -- not to conform to laws about hiring the disabled and not because it is politically correct, but rather because their minds are not totally dominated by visual paradigms. They can imagine, and with computer technology can simulate, what to the sighted is unimaginable. And in the vast, ever-expanding, and always unexpected realm of the Internet, they can conceivably learn to be first-class navigators, superbly able to recognize new business opportunities and to adjust to new circumstances on the fly.

For starters, companies designing next-generation virtual reality environments should recruit the blind. Visual simulation is relatively easy today; the REAL breakthroughs will likely involve the non-visual.

And given this potential, those same high tech companies should give serious consideration to the needs of the blind early in their design cycles rather than as an afterthought. Otherwise, by putting the blind at a disadvantage, by limiting the best access routes to cyberspace to the sighted, they cut themselves off from the resource that could take them a step beyond the competition and help them move far into the future.

Seltzer, R. (1995). Maintaining Lynx to the internet for people with disabilities: A call for action. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 2(3).