How inclusive is CAPTCHA?

Last updated: March 4, 2015

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Filtering visitors, or unwanted visitors, is a challenge to those who maintain websites. Unwanted visitors refers to those who want to post material unsuitable for children, grandparents – or even yourself! (I'm talking about spammers and their ilk.)

Unfortunately, one of the popular methods of filtering creates a barrier for other legitimate visitors. This method is called CAPTCHA and is a barrier to those using screen readers. CAPTCHA is an image of a distorted word, whose letters you must type into a field to identify yourself to the system. If you cannot see, how do you use an image to identify yourself as a real person who wants access to a certain system? Perhaps it is time to revisit the topic of CAPTCHA?

The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) wrote about this topic back in 2006. This particular article was about the exclusion of blind users on the social networking sites MySpace, Facebook, and Friendster. AFB also prepared a video on YouTube that offers a visual demonstration of the barrier presented by CAPTCHA. Half a year later, Facebook came up with a screen-reader friendly version of their gift shop.

In January 2008, a blog entry on the AFB site praised Facebook for improving the site's accessibility: Thanks Facebook! One blind user explains what it means to have access to Facebook even though she cannot see pictures. A recent entry from AFB about Facebook and accessibility has a link to the pages inside Facebook that explain their accessibility policy. Kudos to AFB intern, Michelle Hackman, for working persistently with Facebook to make that social networking site more inclusive! If developers of Web applications had technical communicators who were accessibility-savvy on their project from Day 1, people like Michelle can use their energy elsewhere!

With the issues presented by CAPTCHA, how much longer will it be used?

An August 28, 2008 article in The Guardian from the UK argues that CAPTCHA is broken. The "bad guys" that CAPTCHA was designed to block have already broken down the barrier, and unfortunately, it is not to be nice to visitors with screen readers.

What alternatives are there?

Some use a question and answer system designed by Mike Cherim.

reCAPTCHA is an interesting alternative, but not the perfect alternative. It claims to be accessible to blind users, but discussions at Joe Dolson's Accessible Web Design, Blind Access Journal, and Twitter's blog reveal flaws, such as lack of proper keyboard access. An interesting aside about reCAPTCHA is that it is being used to assist with a digitalization project of book texts. This is a worthy and ambitious project.

Are the flaws in reCAPTCHA still there? Are there other inclusive filters in place or on the drawing board somewhere? Share your experiences in the comments.

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