Betsy Gruba takes it personally, as well she should: "As someone who uses this technology for my daily quality of life, it's very frustrating to go to a site and not be able to get the information I need."
Gruba is referring to the failure of some websites to integrate features that make them more accessible to people like herself who are blind or visually impaired.
"As of July, 95% of all websites are still inaccessible to [this group of people]," says Gruba, the director of technology for the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired. "And it is against the law!" - the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.
To illustrate, Gruba uses the computer in her office in downtown Madison to visit the website of Dane County, which she's flagged as "bad." Her screen reader, a device used by the blind to read text, audibly tells her the site name and begins listing its various elements.
Gruba goes to the site's "Accessibility" page and runs a check using free software called the Web Accessibility Toolbar. It quickly identifies 11 separate errors. "And this is just the page that says the site is ADA-accessible!"
One problem is the page's "Website Accessibility Form" for users who want to ask questions. When Gruba puts her cursor on the fields for "Name," "Email," "Phone" and "Comments," the screen reader announces, "Title edit - type in text."
That's not enough information. "What text am I supposed to type in?" she asks. Each box should have a coded label explaining what it is requesting.
As it happens, Gruba has an advanced screen reader that lets her identify these boxes, but the typical screen reader user could not. That's why Toolbar flags the fields as inaccessible and a separate diagnostic called "Ask Cynthia" pronounces that the page fails to meet the requirements set forth under ADA.
In seconds, Gruba produces a report telling exactly why the page has failed and how to fix it, and recommending other improvements, all traced back to individual lines of code.
Making websites accessible, says Gruba, is "the simplest thing in the world to do. Any web junkie can do it. But they don't. Either they don't know or they don't want to. They say, 'That's not my audience.' Well, why isn't it your audience?"
In 2006 the National Federation of the Blind brought a class-action lawsuit against Target, alleging that its site was not accessible. Target eventually agreed to compensate users and make substantial improvements. This February, the federation honored the retail giant for its leadership in this area.
But Gruba and other visually impaired people say many commercial sites remain problematic. Jodi Cowle, a blind woman who works for the city of Madison, is often frustrated by this. "I like to shop online," she says. "I get all the way to where you check out and can't."
Cowle's husband, Michael Huckaby, says the Infinite Campus software used by the Madison school district for individual student data and enrollment is "simply not accessible to a Windows-based screen reader." District spokesman Ken Syke says the program is accessible but that "some labeling links can be done better." Improvements are pending.
The state Department of Natural Resources' site is deemed a failure by Cynthia, but apparently for a single lapse - a search box that doesn't adequately explain itself. Elsewhere on the site, Gruba shows how graphics have been appropriately tagged with text descriptions.
Gruba goes to the schedule page for UW Badgers football, which Cynthia flags for 11 errors and deems a failure. "It's a nightmare," Gruba says of this site. For most blind users, "the game would be over before you found where it was."
On the city of Madison's home page, Gruba stops on a photo of the city's skyline and the reader announces, "City of Madison logo - press 'Enter' for long description."
"Perfect," says Gruba, before finding it is not. When she asks the site for this long description, it bounces her back to the home page. "It's a broken link," she says.
Despite this glitch, Cynthia gives the site a passing grade. Sarah Edgerton, the city's webmaster, says the city tries hard to design its web pages to be accessible. It's even sets things up to require content editors to pair graphics with accompanying text descriptions.
Just last week, Edgerton rejected a graphic one department wanted to use because it was not ADA-accessible. "And [the graphic] came from the Centers for Disease Control, a federal agency that should know better."
As for the home-page photo that doesn't deliver a long description, Edgerton apologizes. "We missed it," she says. "We need to fix it." Early this week, the city did - by removing the fields that promise long descriptions.
Full of Kratz
For the last two weeks, everyone and her brother has been talking about the Calumet County District Attorney Ken "I'm the Prize" Kratz, who allegedly used his position to hit on vulnerable women. But amazingly, some important local players have not added their voices to the cacophony.
Watchdog set out to change that, asking several Madison-area officials what they thought about the Office of Lawyer Regulation's finding that Kratz broke no ethics rules in propositioning a crime victim whose boyfriend he was prosecuting; and whether someone in their own office who did the things Kratz has admitted to would be fired. (Kratz, under mounting pressure, this week agreed to resign.)
Ismael Ozanne, Dane County's new district attorney, says he doesn't have "all the facts" regarding OLR. But he would, if such a thing were to happen in his office, "move through the process of investigation and progressive discipline."
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney likewise does "not have enough information" to comment on OLR and sidesteps the question about whether he'd fire a member of his own office for similar conduct. But he expresses outrage at Kratz's behavior and deems it fitting that he forfeit his job.
Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk wins the prize (pun intended) for brevity. Asked if she's concerned about ORL and whether a person in her office would be fired for pulling a Kratz, she answers "Yes" and "Absolutely."
Asked the same questions, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz goes for the rim shot: "Who is Ken Kratz?"
Obama blows it again
Given yet another chance to pronounce the name of Madison's mayor, Dave Cieslewicz (Chess-LEV-itch), President Barack Obama blew it, as he has at least twice in the past. This time, in his remarks on the UW's Library Mall, Obama squeaked out a "CHESS-la-vitch."
Let's hope it's not this hard to get out of Afghanistan.
For anyone who missed last Friday's reading by the guy who writes Isthmus' popular "Watchdog" column at A Room of One's Own, fear not: The event, featuring humorous pieces about Madison from his new book Watchdog: 25 Years of Muckraking and Rabblerousing, was filmed by Madison's WYOU and will air on Thursday, Oct. 7, at 8 p.m., on Channels 95 and 991. And it will soon be posted on vimeo.com/brazenvideo. Anyone who can watch it without laughing is clinically dead.