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Wheelchairs and Audio Captchas

March 22, 2011

Please note: I neither use a wheelchair, nor listen to audio captchas. I’d like to work in the field of designing captchas and making sure they’re usable, so I’ve been paying attention to them recently.

What do wheelchairs and audio captchas have in common? It’s not a joke, I won’t end this piece with a terrible pun, and there actually is an answer. It may take me a few paragraphs to get there, but, but just bear that question in mind when I explain what a captcha is, apart from a potential future employer.

On the internet, many people would like to know that they are dealing with a person and not a computer program. For example, I don’t want to stop people commenting on my blog, but I’d rather the comments weren’t filled with automatically-generated advertisments. Probably the man way of doing this for one-off items, like comments, is by using a captcha. A captcha is anything that a human can interpret but a computer cannot. They usually take the form of images where a human is expected to identify the letters within it and type them in a box.

This leads to a problem. Many people require images to be interpreted by their computers before they can understand them, but captchas are designed so that they cannot be interpreted. So if all captchas were purely visual, this would mean that a section of society would be silenced in many corners of the internet. This means that many captchas have an alternative audio component, that can be used if a person cannot or does not wish to use the visual component. I’m sure there will be people using the internet without either images or sound, but they are a small enough part of the population for mainstream captchas to consider worth ignoring. (Of course, no-one’s worth ignoring.)

Where do wheelchairs come into this? Via Blogger. The (visual) symbol for the audio captcha is a wheelchair. The target audience for the audio captcha won’t see it, but people using the visual captcha will. What does a wheelchair have to do with your ability to see? It’s just a sign saying that everyone who needs to use the audio captcha is disabled, because all disabilities get represented by a wheelchair at some point or another. By indicating the audio captcha in such a way, it puts all the people who need or wish to use it into a big catergory of “disabled” and implies that there is something wrong with a person who doesn’t use the first method of verification presented to them.

As time goes on, this will become more of a problem. Captchas are being developed all the time, because captchas are being broken all the time. Some of the ideas I’m aware of are appallingly inaccessible, and we’re only going to encounter more of them. It’s a problem with the captcha, not with you, if you can’t interpret it, and if and when these new inaccessible captchas get released, there’s going to be a lot of people finding the internet isn’t as accepting of their comments as it used to be. We need to find a simple standard that all captchas should follow, with differing individual codes and specifications so that they do not provide one big target to the unscrupulous. And we need it more accessible than it is now.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Mal permalink
    March 25, 2011 15:10

    Here’s what I don’t understand. Why isn’t the audio portion represented by one of the many many symbols for audio: a speaker, for example? Would remove the assumption that everyone using it identifies under the broad heading of ‘disabled’, and shouldn’t be too bloody hard to make a standard rule for captchas. Just seems ridiculous.

    (Shall add on a general thank you for the post as well, as it’s a well-thought-out look at something that a whole lot of people take for granted).

    • March 26, 2011 14:05

      I didn’t understand it so much I made a blog post on it! If they’re assuming that anyone who’s going to use the audio captcha is unable to see (that’s the only reason I can start with to come to the logical conclusion of “audio=wheelchair”) the symbol isn’t for the people who they expect to use it anyway. It’s a symbol to the privileged people who can use the first method of verification presented to them, telling them “You can ignore this bit, you’re not disabled”. It simultaneously erases the people who don’t identify as disabled but use audio captchas, and people who do identify as disabled but do not or cannot use audio captchas. All in one little logo. Wikipedia only has one paragraph on captchas that are not visual, and it seems like there are no standards in place whatsoever.

      I did mention at the top that I want to work on these. This is a whole lot of data that’s been wandering around my head for a while, and finally hit the “someone else should find out about this” button.

  2. March 26, 2011 19:00

    Well you make a mistake in thinking that the only people who need audio CAPTCHA are people who lack complete vision. I have reduced vision coupled with a language processing problem that usually doesn’t affect me while using the web, except in cases where I’m supposed to work out logic puzzles like a CAPTCHA and the visual “noise” makes it impossible for my brain to engage in what it is seeing. While good ol’ “wheelie blue” doesn’t represent my particular run of disabilities, it is a clear visual signal for me that an attempt has been made to make this accessible to people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the same processing problem, coupled with some hardness of hearing, means that an audio CAPTCHA is even less accessible to me than a visual one. People often assume that the only people who will find CAPTCHA a problem are deaf-blind individuals, but this isn’t the case. Is an excellent run down of the ways in which CAPTCHA technology is inaccessible. FWD also has a few articles on CAPTCHA and the variety of people who find them inaccessible. They also cover why “wheelie blue” isn’t truly a universal symbol for disability access.

    • March 26, 2011 19:26

      I had meant to phrase the article to state that I am well aware that there are many different reasons why someone will find a visual captcha inaccessible, but I think it got hidden in my belief that the designers of the captcha considered only blind users would require an alternative.

      Thanks for the hints towards resources. I just wrote this without any research, after commenting on someone else’s blog and using a captcha.

  3. April 12, 2011 23:37

    I don’t really understand why there are captchas that needs to be interpreted, where in fact the main purpose is to distinguish if you are truly a human, it doesn’t need to much interpretation I guess, I had encountered it many times… Haven’t you?

    • April 19, 2011 14:37

      The problem is that not all humans have the same abilities. If a person can’t see, and has to interpret a visual captcha, they’re stuffed.


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