The evils of captcha explained by a blind person

by Stefania Leone - 2015.03.19
The evils of captcha explained by a blind person
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Whoever forgets their online banking password or any other account with sensitive data must pass the dreaded captcha test. This is an image containing letters and numbers that, for security reasons, the user must be able to recognise and type in to continue the authentication procedure. Apparently it's a doddle – one that, however, can really try one's patience. Because captcha is particularly difficult to read – which of course ensures that only humans, rather than an automated system such as a virus, can decipher the code.

But it's a system that, frankly, doesn't get much sympathy, especially from the visually impaired, even though audio captcha is often available as an alternative. Unfortunately, the audio is usually incomprehensible. The numbers and letters are spoken in English, with an echo in the background that makes it hard to hear. It's certainly not a question of being lazy, as shown by Marco's story. He is visually-impaired and is a registered user of the Italian Post Office's website (www.poste.it) but he hadn't used the online services for some time and had lost his access credentials. He therefore tried to recover his password but couldn't get passed the intransigent captcha graphic that gives no alternative: either recognise me or you're not coming in!

Marco then tried to solve the problem over the phone. He called the helpline and wasted the whole morning trying to talk to an operator. When he selected the appropriate option he was greeted by a recorded message asking him to call back later due to the high number of calls, before cutting him off abruptly.

But Marco didn't give up. He then filled out the form available online to request assistance. It seemed accessible but no sooner had he thought it than the treacherous captcha popped up again, without audio option, barring his path again. This finally forced him to give up the attempt to recover his password – and brought him to the conclusion that if even an important public service like the post office doesn't have a fully accessible website, that really means that Italy has a long way to go for the rights of people with disabilities.

Dear Marco, to support your opinion, I would add that although there are international web support services online, which can decode a captcha graphic, they are in English and are only compatible with particular browsers and can only be used by experts. These cannot and must not replace the standard systems aimed at users with basic skills. And yet there are solutions, such as those used by some websites, which, like captcha, ask simple arithmetic questions that the user has to solve.

Published in E-accessibility.
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