On December 31, the Los Angeles Free-Net discontinues its text-based Internet service, the $20-per-year e-mail and limited-access information gateway that had been in operation since the service began — with 16 14.4K modems — in 1994. As a former subscriber and occasional mentor to users of the service, I lamented the end of this era even as I understood the reasons for it: A text-based interface takes time and resources to maintain, which is exactly what an all-volunteer nonprofit Free-Net can‘t spare. LAFN still offers PPP accounts for a paltry annual fee of $40, so it’s not as if it‘s abandoned the underclass altogether, and their remaining text-dependent users were few. But by disabling the text interface, LAFN also eliminated access to a significant Internet relic: a text-based browser known as Lynx.
I’m on intimate terms with Lynx, in part because, back about six years ago, I used it to navigate the nascent World Wide Web from a shell account on Netcom. I grew used to, and consequently fond of, its quirks: the use of arrow keys to move through hyptertext links, “b” to go back, a tap of the space bar to get a page ahead. Developed at the University of Kansas concurrently with the advent of the Web, Lynx was first intended to serve a campus information network; only later did it evolve to interpret the HTML code of the Web. These days, it‘s useless for online shopping or browsing MP3 tracks, but for accessing pure, word-geek information, it beats Netscape and Internet Explorer by minutes, especially on a slow modem. If you just want words from the Web, Lynx is still the way to go.
Aside from speed, Lynx has another benefit: It interacts well with the screen readers that make computers accessible to the blind. A speech program has no use for images and sounds; at best, they clog the wires with unnecessary data; at worst, they confuse the program into blurting out meaningless sounds. If a blind user has Windows 95 or a better operating system — or, even better, a Linux box — she can run Lynx from her computer over a PPP connection. But as a demographic group, the blind, not surprisingly, are relatively unwired, and for users running Windows 3.11 or DOS on a 386 with just a few megs of memory — and many people are — logging into a text-based Internet service via a telnet program is the only way to browse. And while some of them can telnet to lynx.bob.bofh.org, among other sites, and access Lynx for free, LAFN runs a proxy server that does not allow its users to telnet just anywhere.
Though Lynx still gets developed and updated at regular intervals by a group of volunteers who keep in touch on a mailing list, Web designers these days generally scoff at Lynx. Even some Web pages scoff at Lynx. Some sites offer only lists of images that mean nothing in words; others are so clogged with markers for GIFS, JPEG images and clickable ads that tabbing through them to a link of substance becomes a lengthy ordeal. (Yahoo! a is a prime offender; text-based users should opt instead for Google, at http:www. google.com. In fact, everyone should opt for Google, but that’s another article.) Some sites, http:www. maytag.com for example, just tell the text-based surfer to go away. “Sorry,” a message on the page states flatly. “You need frames for this site.” Perhaps the Maytag Corp. has yet to be made aware that blind people launder their own clothes.
Some compare designing Web sites specifically for Lynx to developing TV shows for black-and-white. But as Adam Gaffin, online editor at Network World, a trade weekly in Framingham, Massachusetts, proves in his “Lynx Manifesto,” http:world.std.com ~adamgmanifesto.html, Web designers needn‘t be hampered by Lynx; with the addition of an “ALT” here and there, pages can be stripped free of empty “IMAGE” tags and clickable maps when the server detects a request from a graphics-hostile browser. Gaffin says that Webmasters are starting to pay attention, but the Web is still far from safe for text. “One of the things that would be great to see would be text transcripts of all the content that’s now going into RealAudio and RealVideo,” Gaffin says. “And there are still a lot of sites out there that make sightless navigation difficult, either out of sheer obnoxiousness or because the page authors simply aren‘t aware of the issue.” Lest he sound too self-righteous, Gaffin confesses that even he errs on occasion. “I was shocked when somebody told me one of my sites had lots of stupid IMAGE tags,” he says. “Sure enough, I’d forgotten to use the ALT statement correctly. Fortunately it was easy enough to fix.”
According to Jim Willows, president of the National Federation of the Blind of California, putting all the ALTs in their places solves only a small part of the problem, because the Internet is only one symptom of a larger issue for the blind in the digital age. “Current interfaces just aren‘t accessible to the blind,” he contends. “What does a blind person do with Windows, or a Macintosh?” Or AOL, against whom the Baltimore arm of the National Federation of the Blind has filed a lawsuit, demanding that the country’s largest service provider tailor an interface for people whose lives aren‘t all about pictures. Willows, for his part, still runs DOS, and browses the Web using Lynx from his shell account on Netcom. “It’s the benefit of being self-employed,” he says. “I don‘t have to upgrade. But blind people who are employed at larger companies have to learn Windows — or lose their jobs.”
Given all that LAFN does to provide low-income Internet access to Los Angeles residents, it seems uncharitable to complain about its services; after all, it only exists because a small group of technicians and administrators worked tirelessly to build it with no reward save karma, and over the last six years they’ve created a viable network accessible to anyone in the area via a local phone call. Sadly, LAFN‘s founder and executive director, Dr. Phillip Mittelman, passed away on December 23, but there is nothing to indicate that the Free-Net’s future is uncertain. But as we charge ahead toward an all-multimedia-formatted future, we might stop to reassess what we mean by accessibility, and what it takes to attain it.