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New City Site Assists The Visually Impaired - Online Forms Accessible To Travis County Blind
By Farran Powell

Travis County announced an improved county tax office Web site Wednesday featuring enhanced accessibility for the blind and visually impaired.

Developed by IBM's Austin-based Human Ability and Accessibility Center and Hamer Enterprises, the site enables visually impaired users to fill out county applications online with voice-reader assistance.

"Before, we could not fill out forms online," said Audley Blackburn, a member of Guide Dog Users of Texas. "It's much better than coming down here and having sighted assistance. To be able to do it yourself is wonderful."

The county's new interactive Web site is a pilot project aimed at developing accessibility for local government Web sites, said Bill Hamer, CEO of Hamer Enterprises. Travis County's site will be used as a model for other counties nationwide.

"IBM and ourselves did this as a pilot at no cost to the county," Hamer said.

Hamer Enterprises, which has been the county's webmaster since 1994, developed the county's first accessible site in 2004, which did not have voice-reader assistance.

The improved site now uses IBM's Home Page Reader, which reads the text in an automated voice to the visually impaired user. The Austin School for the Blind also provided feedback to enhance the new site's navigation.

More than 10 million Americans are blind or visually impaired, according to the American Foundation for the Blind, a New York-based advocacy group.

Government agencies under the Americans with Disability Act must provide Web sites accessible to disabled users. The law requires federal agencies to design sites that provide at least one mode of information retrieval to be in either enlarged print or in audio.

"The pressure of the federal government is pretty amazing," said Jim Thatcher, a Web site accessibility consultant who worked for IBM for 37 years. "The agencies all have pretty darn good Web sites, and that rubs off onto state and local governments."

The county isn't required by law to design a completely interactive site for the visually impaired, said Dusty Knight, the county's tax office chief deputy. "But we wanted to get it to those users," he said.

As state and government entities go online with accessible sites, disability advocates are pushing for federal Web accessibility guidelines to be applied to the private sector.

"I see accessibility as a civil right," said Thatcher, an expert witness for the National Federation of the Blind's California lawsuit against Target Corp. The suit against Target argues the company should provide an accessible Web site, based on a wider interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Generally, the public sites are pretty good," Thatcher said. "It's harder to get corporations to do accessibility."

Travis County will go online with its accessible Web site on Aug. 14.

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