Amber Grant, 18, eats, sleeps, and breathes the Internet, according to her father, Garry Grant, CEO of Carlsbad (Calif.)-based technology outfit SEO Inc.. The company, which has 65 employees, often calls on Amber to use her prodigious Web skills to help with a vexing problem: checking to see whether its clients' Web sites are accessible to the blind.
"I give her tasks to go onto clients' Web sites, find a particular product, select it, purchase it, and get through checkout securely. If it takes way too long, or it's difficult or impossible, I know we need to do some work," says Garry Grant, whose daughter has been blind since birth. Amber is able to navigate the Internet using a "screen reader." This is software designed for individuals who are blind, dyslexic, or have low vision. The software resides on the user's PC and reads the text on the screen out loud, using braille-enabled keyboard commands rather than a mouse.
But changes to many Web sites over the last half-dozen years can stymie screen-reading software and make Web navigation difficult for the blind. Similar problems exist for the hard of hearing, who need captioning for training videos and other visual and auditory content posted online, and for people with limited dexterity or no ability to manually manipulate a keyboard. Flash animation, photos, videos, security systems, and spam blockers unwittingly make Web sites difficult or impossible for the disabled to use.
Key Class Action Pending in California
While the Internet has opened up tremendous possibilities for communication and convenience for those with sight, hearing, or mobility impairments, it can also be very frustrating for them if Web sites are not accessible, says Cynthia Waddell, executive director of the nonprofit International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet, headquartered in Raleigh, N.C. "People have been stripping accessibility out without realizing what they're doing," she says.
But the awareness that Web sites must be accessible, for both legal and practical reasons, is likely to grow over the next several years. One reason is a class action against Target (TGT) currently working its way through the California courts that was filed in 2006 in Alameda County by the National Federation of the Blind. It alleges that Target failed and refused to make its Web site accessible to the blind, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as two California civil rights statutes that concern disabled persons. This fall a federal district court judge certified the case for class-action status and ruled that California law requires Target.com to be accessible for the disabled.
While similar litigation has been brought against other large corporations over the last decade, most of the cases have resulted in private settlements, says Waddell, a Dublin (Calif.)-based lawyer and author who is an international expert on assuring disability access both online and in building codes. The federal access standards for electronic and information technology, often referred to as Section 508 of the federal Rehabilitation Act, requires that all federal Web sites must be handicapped-accessible, she says. That applies to private-sector firms that are doing business with the federal government.
Patchwork of State Regulations
For other private corporations and small businesses online, however, the rules are not quite so clear and court rulings have not been consistent. "The courts are having difficulty determining whether or not the Internet is 'a place of public accommodation' under Title 3 of the ADA," Waddell says, and the states have passed a patchwork of laws that do not always provide clear guidelines for Internet companies. The result is that many business owners are not aware their Web sites should be disabled-friendly.
Most entrepreneurs do not even know whether their sites can be accessed and navigated successfully by blind and deaf clients, says Grant: "If you tell a small business owner that making their Web site accessible for screen readers is one more thing they have to do, they'll throw their hands up and walk away. But it's really not expensive, and it's a win-win. If you code your site correctly, and put in correct attributes for people with screen-reading programs, you get new customers."
Doing the proper coding for disability access also has another side benefit, he says. Because the screen reader coding makes the site more text-oriented, it also raises a site's search engine rankings. "Not only do you have a new customer demographic who can use your site to buy your products, but your visibility on the Internet can go up dramatically once you do this," Grant says.
Hard-to-Find Qualified Web Designers
Having a large site revamped for disability access could cost $5,000 to $15,000, Grant says, but the return on investment from search engine optimization (BusinessWeek.com, 9/10/07) should recoup that cost fairly quickly. And if you're having your site designed from the ground up, it should not be prohibitively more expensive to have the designers make it compliant with disability guidelines from the start.
The key is finding a Web designer who is familiar with Section 508 compliance, says Waddell. For business owners and Web designers who don't know how to make a site compatible with screen readers and accommodate other users with disabilities, there are many good resources available online, including at her organization's Web site and at the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative. The federal procurement law is available here. In order to find out whether your company's Web site is accessible, you can run it through a free online evaluation tool.
The accessibility issue is likely to appear on the radar screens of small companies around the country in the next few years, at least in the form of customer complaints. And for small firms based in California and those that do substantial business overseas, recent court rulings mean that accessibility can no longer be ignored. "We're beginning to see that the laws overseas apply to the Internet," Waddell says, noting that a U.S. firm that grants professional certifications for project managers was sued in Britain when it failed to provide an accessible online examination.
Britain has national antidiscrimination regulations that applied in that case, she says. "There are going to be serious issues arising over geographic boundaries because the old paradigm that helped us manage where our rights and responsibilities stopped and started has gone away, and there is a lot of blurring of the lines going on with the Internet."
Waddell maintains a blog on global Internet accessibility at the Web site of the U.N.