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Reagan Stone can't drive because she has a degenerative eye disease. So she turns to the Internet to do a lot of the things she used to do in her car, like banking and shopping.
A special computer program that magnifies her computer screen allows her to see a lot of what is on the Net. But some Web sites look more like a tangled mess of dead ends than a sleek information superhighway.
A site launched Thursday will provide an alternative for people like Stone. VisionConnection.org is aiming to become the Yahoo for the 40 million people worldwide who are blind and 140 million who have only partial sight.
VisionConnection features large type, legible fonts, reverse contrast and text-only pages for people with partial sight. It is designed specifically so screen readers and magnification software work with it, and it provides links to many sites that are easy to use for those who are vision-impaired or blind. It also offers resources for those with vision problems.
It isn't the only site aimed at helping people with disabilities use the Net. In fact, government agency sites are required by law to make their sites accessible to those with disabilities. And last week, America Online, the largest Internet provider, announced that it would start providing captions for some of its audio programs in an effort to make the increasingly multimedia Internet accessible to those with hearing impairments.
But for now, the biggest problem remains seeing what the Internet offers, because it is still largely a visual medium. Despite the fact that the Web has been around more than a decade, many sites are still not accessible, especially for those with low or no vision.
Many sites claim to be accessible because they allow screen-reader software to be used with them, but they really aren't, says Patrick Benson of Lighthouse International, which founded VisionConnection and is a leading partner in it, along with 39 other vision organizations. Without accompanying pictures, the words are often ''completely unintelligible.''
VisionConnection is long overdue, Lighthouse president Barbara Silverstone says. ''We wish we could have done it five or six years ago,'' she says.
As a whole, disabled adults use the Internet much less than the overall population. Though 63% of American adults are online overall, only 38% of disabled adults were online in 2002, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which studies Internet use.
And people who have vision problems have the hardest time using the Internet, says Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen of Nielsen Norman Group. He did a study that showed that the Web is three times easier to use for sighted users than for blind users. The study included only Web sites that blind people could use at all; many sites are totally inaccessible.
''The Internet is visual like the radio is audio,'' Silverstone says. ''It is very difficult for anyone with vision problems to use the Internet.''
For Stone, an insurance broker and cabaret singer in New York, the Net has been a blessing. ''The Internet provides me with the ability to shop just like everybody else and find out about information and resources very quickly.''
But, she adds, it can be aggravating as well. ''I can't see a whole site at once. I can only see pieces of it. I miss things. I ordered a shirt the other day with L.L. Bean, and somehow I ordered the wrong color because I just didn't see it. Now it has to go back.''
It's not that Web designers sit down and think of ways to make their sites difficult to navigate for those who can't see well.
Many simply don't think about it at all, says Sharron Rush, who runs Knowbility, a non-profit that provides technology access for people with disabilities.
''People create barriers without even thinking about it,'' she says.
If Web designers do think about it from the beginning, adding accessible components like tags that allow special screen readers to ''see'' pictures is fairly simple, she says.
Making sites more accessible also is good business, Nielsen says. Many Web sites, for instance, have tiny print.
''A lot of Web sites are losing a lot of business because they don't think about disability. It's not just blind people. It's a large number of people, including anybody 45 or older.''
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