CAPTCHA Treats Visually Impaired Like Robots

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Sarah Norman is the new media intern for the Fall/Winter 09-10 year!  She will be blogging, tweeting and managing content for all of our social media outlets. If you are interested in guest blogging or have information on assistive technology to share, email Sarah at snorman@eastersealscrossroads.org.

Signing up for an account on Facebook or leaving a comment on someone’s blog may seem simple enough, but for the blind or visually impaired, CAPTCHAs can present a problem.  A CAPTCHA, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart, is a device many social networking sites utilize to prevent spam and other harmful “bots” from entering.  In short, CAPTCHAs are tests that are meant only for humans to pass.  A typical CAPTCHA will ask the user to look at an image that contains distorted text and type the letters and/or numbers they see.  A blind operator would not be able to do this because screen readers cannot decipher the text in these images.

CAPTCHA with audio option, picture provided by Steven Vance on flickr
CAPTCHA with audio option, image credited to Steven Vance on flickr

More recently, popular websites provide an audio option for the CAPTCHAs.  Unfortunately, the audio version of a CAPTCHA is often so distorted that navigators can hardly make heads or tails of it!  I myself tested one of the audio CAPTCHAs, and after listening to it twice I still didn’t enter the correct text.  (Example of audio CAPTCHA)  I can only imagine how frustrating this would be for someone who is visually impaired.

There is hope.  New versions of CAPTCHAs are being developed at Towson University, a project they call HIPPU (Human Interaction Proof Universally Usable).  Instead of trying to read distorted text, users are asked to identify the object in an image or by the sound it makes.  For example, you might be given a picture of a car or a sound clip of a horn honking.  The leaders of this project claim that HIPPUs will be even more secure than CAPTCHAs because bots have a harder time recognizing graphics and sounds than text.  You can read more about HIPPUs here.

With any luck, more websites will realize that CAPTCHAs are shutting out a great deal of their audience, and should seek alternatives like HIPPU.  It’s important that these sites understand that while a visually impaired person could ask someone to help them type in a CAPTCHA, it limits their independence and treats them like spam.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing information about HIPPU. I had not heard about this before, and I look forward to testing it when it is released on the market. Spam is an aggravating and time-consuming animal, so HIPPU looks like a significant step forward for people who blog and for visually impaired people who want to contribute. I am aware of the problems associated with some CAPTCHA programs. I think it is important that we encourage professional web designers and bloggers to reach out via social media and interact with visually impaired people. Web designers and bloggers should feel a sense of joy and accomplishment when visually impaired people say, “Hey, I can navigate your website and your blog easily!” Part of the problem, however, is that most bloggers are not professional web designers; we don’t know how to code; we just install the software and hope it works for everyone. If the HIPPU designers put out a good product, they need to market it well. If HIPPU does all that it is supposed to do, and it is both secure and easy to use, then maybe it should installed by default in WordPress, TypePad, etc.

    1. One of INDATA’s many on-going projects is to work with companies in Indiana and let them hear how a screen reader navigates on their web site. There’s a toolbar that you can download for your browser and it will rate your web site on it’s effectiveness for screen readers. I think that your comment on making HIPPU a default for WordPress would be excellent. My guess is that because the CAPTCHA is used widely people will catch on to HIPPU easily. If not, we’ll start commenting on every blog or website and ask THEM to try out the audio CAPTCH!

      -Sara

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