For the Blind, a Welcoming Web
By Sarah Lacy
Lainey Feingold is trying to use the carrot instead of the stick in her dealings with America's big financial institutions. Feingold, an attorney in Berkeley (Calif.), specializes in brokering agreements between corporations and advocates for the blind, who think companies aren't doing enough to make their bank machines, brochures, and Web sites accessible to the vision-impaired.
Having spent much of her career writing letters in support of ATMs that talk, her latest cause is Web-site accessibility. In 1999, the World Wide Web Consortium, known as W3C, which sets computer-programming standards for Web-related technologies, issued voluntary guidelines to help the blind access Web sites.
To Feingold, who says vision-impaired customers should have the same access to online banking as they do ATMs, it's a key issued. "You wouldn't put up a Web site and say, 'to enter, you need blond hair,' but if you don't code the pages so that a [vision-] disabled person can access it, you may as well have that kind of sign," she says.
Feingold is one of many advocates for the blind trying to woo -- not sue -- companies into compliance with the W3C's accessibility guidelines. The issue came to the forefront in the late 90s, when banking sites started appearing on the Net. By now, many industry watchers expected there would be a law requiring Web sites to adopt the W3C's standards.
So far only a handful of countries, Britain foremost among them, have turned those guidelines into law. In 1999, Web accessibility was included in the Britain's Disabled Discrimination Act. The Web accessibility portions just went into affect on Oct. 1.
The U.S. hasn't ignored the issue, but it lags behind Britain. In 1998, the federal government amended the 21-year-old Rehabilitation Act to include Section 508, which requires all federal agencies and companies doing business with the government to comply with some basic Web-site accessibility guidelines. Section 508 has received mixed reviews. Many companies seeking federal dollars are still confused how to abide by with the law. And some advocates say many sites are technically compliant under Section 508, but still difficult to use.
Instead, most advocacy groups say the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination by employers and businesses, should be the legal benchmark for Web site accessibility. But that's yet to be tested in court. "There's a misunderstanding that the ADA automatically applies to the Web, and it's not clear at all that it does," says Bradley Hodges, technology accessibility manger for the National Federation of the Blind. "Reasonable people disagree on this."
Count on Eliot Spitzer to use the stick if Web sites don't come through with more options for the nation's 10 million blind and visually impaired. In July, New York's crusading attorney general announced Web accessibility agreements with Ramada.com and Priceline.com (PCLN ). Spitzer sent a letter to the companies in January and launched an investigation, but they complied before he filed suit, and even reimbursed the New York attorney general's office for the cost of the probe. Spitzer had argued that making a Web site that's not accessible violates the ADA.
Priceline didn't argue and started working on its site right away, says spokesman Brian Ek. By the time the August announcement was made in Spitzer's office, the airline-ticketing part of the Norwalk (Conn.) discount e-tailer's site had been recoded to be easily read by screen readers. These PC programs typically read sites like a page of a book -- left to right and top to bottom. They allow a blind person to hear, rather than read, a Web site. "Once we were made aware of it, we did it because it was the right thing to do," Ek says.
Nonetheless, advocacy groups say they want to keep this fight out of the legal system. "We'd rather not have Congress tell anyone how to design their Web sites," Hodges says. "We'd rather work collaboratively to make it happen."
Web accessibility can be tricky, and guidelines have to constantly be updated. For the visually impaired, it's really all about making sure that the programming code used to build the site is friendly to screen readers. That's why many banks now have login information on the top right-hand corner. Before, a blind user would have to listen to everything on the page before they could log in to check account balances.
Advocates say they want Web site usability, not mere compliance. Hodges, who is blind, says he's able to use more sites than he could a few years ago, but says few are flawless. By playing nice with companies, organizations like the NFB and other groups hope they can consult with big companies, rather than bicker with them. And because blind people are weighing in, advocacy groups say the results are better. By Sarah Lacy
By all accounts, the amicable approach is working for Feingold, too, who often represents advocacy groups such as the American Council of the Blind. Just last summer, she wrote a letter to Citizens Bank, of Providence (R.I.), asking for talking ATMs and blind-friendly improvements to its Web site. Citizens Bank agreed, and three months ago detailed its plans for both by the end of the year. She's helped negotiate similar agreements with more than a half-dozen other financial institutions, ranging from Bank of America (BAC ) to Citibank, part of Citigroup (C ).
For all the friendly talk, the advocates' attorneys are hardly powerless. There's a potential for lousy public relations if a company ignores them. Many believe that the ambiguities of the ADA will be better defined in the courtroom. And companies are always reluctant to lock out potential customers. "We really don't even have an idea how large a market it potentially represents," says Priceline's Ek.
Nonetheless, adding accessibility for blind people to a Web site can be a costly process. If a company isn't starting a site redesign, retrofitting can be cost about $160,000 estimates Forrester Research. In the case of Sovereign Bank, Andrew Peterson, vice-president of Internet and emerging technology, says there was tremendous pressure to create a flashy, glitzy site -- the sort that aren't as easily comprehensible to screen readers. "If we hadn't be contacted by an advocacy group," Peterson says. "I'm not sure we would have addressed it."
So why do it? Feingold hopes common sense wins out. By making a Web site accessible to a blind person, the bank wins fans and keeps lawsuits at bay. And it's not always expensive -- at least if a site is already undergoing a redesign. In the case of Philadelphia-based Sovereign Bank, complying with accessibility guidelines carried just a 5% to 10% addition to the budget when it launched its new site late last year.
It's hard to say exactly how many Web sites are becoming more friendly to blind people. Watchfire Corp. a Waltham (Mass.) tech outfit that makes tools to measure how well Web sites work and comply with various regulations, says its software is selling fast. Sales of its accessibility product, Bobby, are projected to increase 79% this year. Agency.com and Avenue A/Razorfish, a division of aQuantive (AQNT ), say more than half of big corporate customers ask about Web accessibility for the blind. Just a few years ago, it was no more than 10%.
However, Jakob Nielsen, of the Nielsen Norman Group, doubts it's that high across all businesses. His firm does usability studies for Web sites and says every year companies with accessible sites increase by about 4%.
Advocacy groups aren't insisting sites be perfect. Most just want a signal that companies are trying. But make no mistake -- it's serious business. The NFB wasn't around when the printing press was invented, but "we're around today, and we do believe the Internet should be accessible," Hodges says.
The friendly letters are working. But if the carrots can't encourage more progress, expect the lawyers with their big sticks to get to work.
Lacy is a BusinessWeek Online reporter in Silicon Valley