As long ago as 2000, a visually-impaired Web user testified at a Congressional hearing about the ADA:
“The Internet is not just a window on the world, but more and more the Internet is the world. It is where we talk, it is where we shop, and it is where we make our living.”
But it is a window that is shut for millions of disabled Americans who cannot use Web sites without certain accommodations.
While many Americans use the Internet with no trouble each day, visually impaired or blind users face significant hurdles. According to one estimate, they cannot access 98% of Web sites because of a lack of accessibility features. This “is a sad commentary on private industry,” said Glenn Smith, president of 2 B Accessible. Without these features, browsing can be disorienting and confusing at best to impossible in some cases.
Disabled consumers are severely limited in what sites they can use and where they are able to purchase from. According to Smith, “The buying power is very limited at this time. Many sites are unnavigable. The consumer is unable to locate the product or service on the Web sites.”
Kate May of Texas TERA said that she has relatively little problem accessing most Web sites with her motor impairment but that she has found that other disabled people are not so fortunate. These users have difficulty with mice and instead try to use the keyboard to tab or arrow through sites. But some sites are incompatible with this way of navigating, making them less accessible.
“As an assistive technology specialist, I find my students and consumers have difficulties accessing Web sites because they’re [un]able to operate a mouse. For instance, Web mail such as Gmail, Yahoo, etc. It isn’t easy to navigate through the site using the tab and arrow keys. For person who can’t use a mouse, navigation with tab and the arrow keys becomes imperative. These are the only sites that I have experience navigation issues with but I am sure there are others.”
Another example is that of target.com. Visually-disabled potential customers were unable to purchase from the site. In a recent, high profile court case, the National Federation for the Blind sued Target, accusing the giant retailer of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which no where explicitly mentions the Internet or technology, over this issue.
According to Smith:
“One of the issues with the Target Web site was that a blind person could navigate the site, select the item they wanted to purchase, but were unable to make the purchase at checkout. The consumer could not add their credit card information; they could not complete the billing and shipping address information.”
Unfortunately, many blind users encounter this problem with many Web sites, including Amazon. After navigating a confusing e-commerce site, they find they can’t complete the check out or log in procedures.
“The only way the transaction [on the Target Web site] could be completed is for a sighted person to complete the information for the blind consumer.”
Listing Inaccessible Sites
What other Web sites have you found to be inaccessible? Please email Kim, the site author, to share other problem sites you’ve found. I’ll list them here.
Private and Business Web Sites
Even without being mandated, there is the possibility that some companies and their Web developers choose to make site accessible. But only about 1 site out of 50 is sufficiently accessibility as to be easily usable for people from all backgrounds. Why?
According to Glenn Smith of 2 B Accessible:
“Most commercial Web site developers ignore accessible Web design… They are often reluctant to take the time to learn and apply accessible Web best practices. Companies expect a significant increase in development costs for accessible Web design. There is a slight increase in development time, but it is more than offset by the increase sales opportunities.”
Other Web professionals say that inaccessible sites are not usually intentionally created. Said Austin-based Web developer William Yarbrough:
“There are many business portals online that are simply built to work fast and quickly while looking the same over multiple browsers, the only scope of the project. There are only a few solutions that go above and beyond because they are informed.”
“Ignoring accessibility, I’ve found, is not about a malicious attempt to exclude nor a dismissal, normally, but simply a lack of understanding. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve explained how blind users use screen readers online and the response was, ‘Wow! I’ve never even thought about that!’”
Other groups are aware of accessibility features but don’t see them as immediately feasible. OtherInbox is an Austin-based startup that answers the question of how to sort personal and work emails from “newsletters, social networking updates, coupons and receipts from online purchases.”
According to Hoon Park, the company’s assistant community manager:
“OtherInbox is built with a very new programming tool, Sproutcore, and development has been focused on creating our application and developing new features that Sproutcore allows for. As a bootstrapped company, we are limited in how many different areas of development our developers can work on… In the near future, we hope to develop a basic HTML version of our application that will allow for increased accessibility for all users.”
Government and Government-Funded Web Sites
While Section 508’s goal is a great one, and its reforms would make it even greater, even the federal government’s adherence to it can be spotty. One wonders whether it is receiving the priority and attention it deserves.
For example, the Section 508 DoJ Web page, which is supposed to police federal Web accessibility every two years, is drastically out of date.
To further emphasize this point, many federal government groups simply don’t adhere fully to Section 508. An example of this is the home page of the Tuna Tracking and Verification Program, dolphinsafe.gov. The site does contain some of the features that are enumerated in Section 508 but it is by no means fully accessible and certainly does not follow the spirit of the law. Admittedly, Section 508 says that groups do not have to adhere if doing so would cause significant hardship but this is a government program that receives government funds. If the agency has spent the money to have a Web site built, they should have been sure that it was a fully accessible one. Any other action violated laws regarding procurement procedures regarding technology.
Learn something about the technical side of accessibility with an introduction to Making Web Sites Accessible.