Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Towson University professor wins NFB award for research into Web accessbility for blind people

From The Towerlight, the student newspaper at Towson University in Maryland:

Imagine trying to use the Internet without the ability to see.

Towson University professor Jonathan Lazar, along with five other individuals and organizations, was given the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award by the National Federation of the Blind for his research in helping the blind become fully integrated into society.

The award commemorates the work of Bolotin, a blind physician who both learned and practiced his trade without the use of sight.

Lazar teaches in the department of computer and information sciences. He received $5,000 in order to further his research in the field of Web accessibility for the blind.

Because his background is in Web usability, Lazar stated he became interested in Web programs for the blind when he realized many websites were not formatted to allow blind people to use them.

“The World Wide Web Consortium came out with their first set of guidelines for designing accessible Web content for people with disabilities, called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, in 1999, and yet no one was following the guidelines,” Lazar said. “I found that paradox fascinating and started working in Web accessibility.”

Lazar said he has been working for almost a decade on his research, often involving blind people in the process in order to gain their perspective and insight.

“We focus together on how to ensure that websites work properly for people who are blind,” he said. “Most blind users utilize an application called a screen reader, such as JAWS or Window-Eyes, which reads, in computer-synthesized speech output, what appears on the screen. However, if websites aren’t designed properly, they won’t work with screen readers.”

Because he works as a professor in the department of computer and information science, Lazar has been able to engage his students in research collaborations with the NFB.

“I involve students [of] all levels in these collaborations. All of my recent doctoral students have done their dissertation work in collaboration with NFB,” Lazar said. “I believe that it’s important to get undergraduate students involved in research, and at the same time, have that research be something that is useful and important for the general community.”

Gary Wunder, chairman of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award Committee and editor of The Braille Monitor, described Lazar’s work as a significant contribution.

“He believes that the Web, by virtue of the fact that it is electronic, should be a great equalizer for blind people. And instead what he sees is that the Web is sometimes used to give [sighted] people service and deny blind people service,” Wunder said.

He said he believes Lazar’s research will inspire others to make similar progress in the field of blindness.

“Sometimes as blind people, we wonder, ‘Are we the only ones interested in this issue?’” Wunder said. “And when you come along and you see a guy who can use the Web perfectly well with his vision get [involved], you say, ‘Maybe we’re not so off-base here.’”