Changing the Internet

«Tiflohost» organizer Artem Plaksin on how to make Internet resources accessible to the visually impaired

Artem Plaksin

Tiflohost project
Accessible life project

We would like to tell you about «blind Runet» projects and introduce to you the organizer of the project for the visually impaired and blind people called «Tiflo Host» and co-founder of the «Affordable Life» project Artem Plaksin.

Now Artem is graduating from a school for visually impaired people in St. Petersburg and is going to study software development in the university. He likes to read a lot, types quickly without mistakes, develops websites for regional branches of the VOS (All Russia Association of the Blind). His thoughts are that of a mature man and he would make you feel like you deal with a person of rich worldly and professional experience. This inspires respect, because he is only 18 years old, and carries a baggage of knowledge and experience of at least 30 years.

Artem Plaksin.​

He says that he wants to be a support agent for a hosting, but it is very clear that his desires, capabilities and abilities are much more than that: he wants to promote accessibility of services as a separate specialization and develop accessible services in a large Russian company that will understand the value of interaction with all the user categories.

Artem Plaksin and Kirill Belousov were able to make progress in the field of accessibility for the blind in several large services. Most importantly, their idea brings together people with impaired vision and caring for the purpose of accessibility of the Internet environment for everyone. Back in 2015-16, active members of the visually impaired community initiated an appeal to Vkontakte (Russian Facebook analogue) on с and collected more than 138 thousand signatures, then Artem collected more than 68 thousand appeals to Sberbank. Online, after which the service managers really began to listen to the needs of the visually impaired people. This success also led Artem to create separate projects to promote Internet accessibility for such special users.

Более 68 тысяч подписали петицию Артёма Плаксина к Сбербанку

What exactly does the «Tiflo Host» project do?

«Tiflo Host» is engaged in training the blind and visually impaired people in the field of creation and placement of web sites on the Internet, use of web services and mobile applications (thereby reducing the burden from technical support), as well as forms Internet literacy among the visually impaired people.

The project includes several services:

  • Tiflo Download - is a web site with software and scripts for the blind and visually impaired.
  • Blind Games - is a portal with sound games for the blind and visually impaired.
  • My TTS Info - is a forum about speech synthesis and screen access programs.
  • Tiflo Help - contains current news on accessibility, interesting articles, useful programs for speech synthesis and accessible programs for screen readers, tips for software configuration.
  • Blues MCDC - is a website about music, and the use of the Cockos Reaper software for blind and visually impaired. And there is also Artel with discussions about modern and unusual art for the blind and visually impaired.

Artem and his friend Kirill Belousov are the founders of the «Accessible Life», project, the task of which is to ensure accessibility of web sites, computer programs and mobile apps for the blind people.

Appeal of co-founder Kirill Belousov to the developers in the «Accessible Life» community page. If you are a developer and want to help, write a comment on the community page or send a private message to one of the administrators.

The organizers of the project strive for managers of services, sites and applications to pay attention to the problems of the blind people, who use their resources. They believe (and all the visually impaired people agree with them) that it is the blind people with programming skills who will be able to develop really useful services for people like themselves.

It should not be done without us, rather it should be done with us, or be trusted to be done by us.

The extent of this initiative can be judged by the number of petitions signed, as well as by the remark of some politicians that "these two guys" have done more in the field of the Internet technologies accessibility for everyone than two houses of parliament ever could have done.

We hope that after this article more people will learn about the problems of people with visual impairment and will be able to help. This is the interview with Artem Plaksin.

Can you describe how you see?

I see poorly, have a first-degree disability. Lifetime, with everything that comes with it. If you ask me how I feel, well, I see the light, I can more or less see shapes thanks to the contrasts between bright and dark areas. Also, bright lights or inappropriate lighting (in example, blue screen of death) hurt my eyes.

Do you wear special lenses or glasses to see a little more?

I wear glasses, but they have a photo chrome effect, that is, they darken vision in a bright light, and lighten it in darkness. It helps a lot when we talk about the sun or blinding snow. I can't even go outside without them in winter. I navigate in the environment with my hands, for example, it is easy for me to find doorways thanks to the light-and-shadow. I can't go outside without a white cane or an escort, of course.

You type so fast and without making mistakes. How long ago have you learned the blind typing method? And how's that even possible to code this way?

Yes, I learned the blind typing method 6 or 7 years ago, even without text-to-speech program at first, my mother taught me to type in Word 2007. And when I was twelve, I could type quite well and at a good speed. Now I type faster than most sighted people do :)

Coding, as well as server administration, social network messaging, registration on the web sites, web site creation, editing of texts, is not difficult for me. There are screen access programs (screen readers), also known as text-to-speech, which allow me to do all this. These programs read all the text on the screen with a synthesized voice. But not all the Internet resources can be processed by screen readers.

What applications are missing to facilitate the use of the services?

There is a lack of free Russian-language high-quality solution to describe the content of the image, such as ones available from Facebook and Microsoft. Foreign services describe it in English and their quality is not that great, but that's still something.

It is unlikely that neural networks in Russia will learn to tell the blind the meaning of images in the near future.
Tell me how you came up with the idea to create «Tiflo Host»?

Awareness occurred slowly, everything was accumulating. Probably, the turning point was that in the 5th line of ISP-manager hosting panel there was such a feature: they have enabled tooltips by default, and those block the function of text-to-speech software for the blind. And virtually no one knew that it was possible to turn them off. As a result, the visually impaired refused to use the ISPmanager panel. After turning off the tips, all the same some moments were uncomfortable. I got tired of constantly stumbling on mistakes and an idea came up that it's necessary to create some unified system, so that the blind could get answers to the questions and solutions to the problems. They will create and administer sites, not throw it all away simply because even the control panel is not accessible to them.

Is it more social work for you or an entrance to the profession?
I wouldn't say it's a job. This is my life, this is what I face every day. I fact, I work for the normal future for me and the future for the other blind and visually impaired. If you won't start doing it yourself — nobody will do it.

But it's also an entrance to the profession, yes, I already have a good practice. I have been engaged in web site development since the age of 13, I’ve been administering Linux systems since 15, and I’ve been working on «Tiflo Host» since the age of 17. It has been working since July 2018.

I worked with ISP System, VR Manager panels; I know how to administer sites at quite a good level. And I think that this technical and social experience (hard and soft skill) will give me a boost to get a job, for example, as a technical support officer in the near future. I'm interested in advising people on setting up services and applications, and now I'm doing it for blind and visually impaired people in «Tiflo Host».

ISPManager Web Hosting Panel

Which companies already cooperate with you in terms of accessibility?

We cooperate with Sberbank and developers of the mobile version of Vkontakte. Other visually impaired people develop the web version of Vkontakte, and I am an intermediary between the mobile developers and the blind people, helping to adapt products for the latter. Together with the blind people, we look at what is inconvenient for us; I make it out as a bug report, offer examples of code for adaptation and send it to the developers. I communicate with them separately on terms.

My friend and I have access to the beta version of Sberbank Greenfield services, and we are testing new products in terms of accessibility.
How did you draw attention to yourself?

Back in 2016, Anton Tuliakov created a petition to Vkontakte, which gathered more than 138 thousand signatures. They couldn't ignore it, they promised to adapt the service for the visually impaired. We created a conversation with the blind testers (yes, there are such, and there are blind developers), got our developers involved, and in 2017 we even hired a web-accessibility specialist, he is a developer without visual impairment, but knows how to adapt sites for the blind. The work is carried out in the web version of the web site mainly, and I am an informal intermediary between the developers and the blind people in the mobile version. We just communicate like people.

Are there still companies that do not see the need to adapt sites for the blind?
Yes, there are many of such companies, almost all of them. Because there is a stereotype that a disabled person sits at home, does nothing and knows nothing.

That's not right. In 2005, the same Yandex actively published information that it will develop services and applications for the blind, that it is beneficial for them not only from social, but also economic point of view. Because blind people are also people who have needs and money for Yandex services. But from my point of view at the moment it is done carelessly, or rather — there is a desire, but not enough knowledge. Developers simply copy pieces of code from previous adaptive versions, and what we get is not quite as accessible product. That is, there are attempts to adapt, but without specialists who understand this and the visually impaired beta testers.

What can be done to encourage companies to make services more accessible?

We have written offers repeatedly to services, including Yandex, offered our help as blind testers and blind webmasters. They responded something like “we will consider your proposal”, or immediately refused, because it is what we need, not something they need. The asking person's position is always a passive one.

It is necessary first of all to fix requirements of at least minimum accessibility of web and mobile services for all categories of users for operators of personal data at the legislative level.

Otherwise, they simply wouldn't want to do it. Even if they have the knowledge and the free workforce that we offer, companies won't waste time, resources, they don't need it, they don't see any reason to do so.

But if the requirements for accessibility are approved at the legislative level and they will appear in each design assignment for the development or optimization of web and mobile resources, then it will be effective.

And we as administrators of the «Tiflo Host» project and «Accessible life» here will be able to help everyone to improve accessibility of their services. Free of charge and without any problems.

Now it appears that each time we ask to adapt services for us, it is us who identify bugs, provide solutions, offer code and then test it after implementation. But if companies don't want to make services accessible in a good way, why should we want to do it in a good way?

What resources have you managed to attract for «Tiflo Host»?

Resources are based on the objectives of the «Tiflo Host» project. Firstly, we are engaged in ensuring the accessibility of Internet products for the visually impaired. Secondly, we give the opportunity to the blind and visually impaired to learn to work with hosting panels, which by the way are also inaccessible. We asked ISP System to adapt the panels; their first response was that they'll discuss this matter with us in 2019. I wrote them another letter, and they said that this task is already not in their development plan for this year. Therefore, we have to adapt ourselves to unadapted products. That is sad, but by now there's nothing to be done about it.

Thirdly, we teach the visually impaired to make high quality and convenient web sites in terms of accessibility, not just for a beautiful visual picture. We help to create really necessary projects for the blind, and we place them on servers provided by sponsors and partners. In general, it turns out that we improve the Russian Internet, focused on the blind and visually impaired. Important resources are provided by partners and sponsors, which we display in the relevant section of the «Tiflo Host» project forever. For example, dedicated servers, they go under the core infrastructure panels, administration panels (ISPmanager, C-Panel, DirectAdmin, Plesk) and partially custom panels.

On virtual servers, there are DNS, a small ATS for correct operation of broadcasts, mail services, and the projects for the blind people, for example, the voice portal. Partners also provide advice, technical support if there are questions or problems.

What resources are lacking? Where do you need help right now?

The main problem is that we pass as a group of initiative individuals, we do not have the status of non-profit enterprise and cannot attract funds, receive grants and other resources. Even projects of Strategic Initiatives Agency and Social Technologies Greenhouse act only within the framework of non-profit organizations. And it's not that we are afraid of official status. It costs money to simply hire a lawyer who would form the constitution, write the protocol of the inaugural meeting, bring the documents to the Ministry of Justice and register all of these correctly, starting from twenty thousand rubles. We don't have such a budget. This is a vicious circle.

What do we need? It costs about $100 to extend the domain for a year. In addition, we renew four ISPmanager licenses every year. But we do this with our own money.

Recently an unpleasant situation happened - one company decided to recall the server, and there was DirectAdmin with users installed. They said that they most likely would extend the trial period because the project is promising. But the day before the end of the term of use, I subconsciously realized that they are not going to extend anything, and backed the user services up. That was not a very beautiful thing to do without notice.

Have you ever thought about creating sites adapted for the visually impaired people as a web studio?

I think the market is still narrow to highlight accessibility as a separate segment. And it is necessary that more people learn about us and to develop the idea of accessibility of services. At the moment it's hard to imagine, none of us is a marketer. I am a webmaster; I can adapt sites for the blind, fix servers. In addition, we need funds for promotion that we don't have. However, I did several sites for familiar writers, who now recommend me, and I create sites (mostly on WordPress) for a small cost, but cost nevertheless.

How do you see the most suitable society for the visually impaired people?
I would like people to respond adequately to the visually impaired people, without being frightened of such people, or, on the contrary, without being over-protective. The main thing is to perceive a blind person as normal and ordinary.

You see the blind man, there's no need run away from him like from a plague, or to take him by hand and lead him in the unknown direction. Let him go purposefully. But if you see such man standing at one spot for a long time, trying to find something with his cane, you should approach him and offer help.

I believe that federal work on inclusion should be carried out. I like it that in St. Petersburg there are plaques with Braille script, and a lot is being done for the people with disabilities.

On the Internet — accessibility of services for the blind at the legislative level, an update of the national state standard on adaptation of Internet resources and one order of the Ministry of Communications of Russia to oblige web sites and set deadlines would be enough.

Sign a petition to Yandex about the accessibility of their services for the visually impaired people

The more signatures we gather, the faster Yandex will react to the problem of the visually impaired people who use their services. Such functions will also help ordinary people to reduce the burden on eyesight and concentrate on things that are more important. The adaptation of services to the dynamic and multitasking world, in which you can solve problems by voice and with minimal effort, will happen quicker.