Why a landmark court case could force you to redo your whole Web site

Is your Web site accessible to people with disabilities (PWDs)?  Particularly to those with impaired vision?
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

Is your Web site accessible to people with disabilities (PWDs)?  Particularly to those with impaired vision? Do you even know what the definition of such accessibility is? Probably not.  But you may have to thanks to a landmark case now getting underway between the National  Federation of the Blind and Target.  According to ComputerWorld:

[Bruce Sexton, who is legal blind] has joined the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) as a plaintiff in a lawsuit that charges Target with violating the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and California's Unruh Civil Rights Act and Disabled Persons Act....The lawsuit, scheduled for a hearing next month at U.S. District Court in San Francisco, could have a broad impact because Target's site is hardly the only one that could be accused of having access barriers, according to attorneys for the plaintiffs....The allegations made against Target by the NFB and Sexton have set the stage for a court showdown that could finally clear up the murky legal question of whether the ADA, which was enacted in 1990, before the dawn of the Internet era, applies to Web sites....The lawsuit claims that because Target's site is difficult if not impossible for the blind to use, the retailer is denying them equal access to the goods and services it provides to customers without disabilities. The NFB this week plans to file a motion for a preliminary injunction, asking the court to order Target to make its Web site accessible promptly.

I contribute to one of the most popular Web sites in the world.  Web 2.0-based sites that are nothing but dynamically generated content take the problem to a whole new level. One that, based on the emails I sometimes get, falls short on accessibility.  And even though I've gone deep on the issue of accessibility and learned more about it than most (in the context of my reporting on the OpenDocument Format), accessibility to me is unfortunately a bit like CPR.  As a very non-regular practitioner, I forget how to do it and need a refresher course.  I'm not proud of this.  But that's the way it is in a lot of companies because of the additional time it takes to make a Web site fully accessible to PWDs and the opportunity cost of spending that time on Web site accessibility versus some other task that may produce more ROI. 

At a bare minimum, to make basic HTML-driven sites more accessible to PWDs, authors of Web content need to program an alternative text tag into their hyperlinks. For example, if you mouse over the link to ComputerWorld above, you should see how I've programmed the alternative text tag to say "Story about disabilities lawsuit between NFB and Target."  When Web authors do this, the text-to-voice screen reading software used by many PWDs puts those PWDs on a level-playing field with people whose sight isn't impaired and who can intuit the purpose of the link based on what they see.  In other words, people with impaired vision need to hear what people without such impairments normally see.  By not religiously using the alternative text tag on all links, you're basically leaving PWDs that rely on text-to-speech assistive technology in the dark.

For many, hyperlinking is already a drag.  So much so that some people don't do it.  Some, like Steve Gillmor, even come up with plausible explanations why you shouldn't bother with  linking (at least from blogs).  But, as a blogger that often quotes the work of others, I feel an obligation to give credit where credit is due and link to the work as I've so far done in this blog entry.  It also does a service to readers.  If you don't read Steve Gillmor regularly and you just saw me say that he has plausible explanations for why it makes sense not to link, you might want to find out what those are without having to spend 10 minutes using Google.  Whatever their reasons  are,  there's a whole class of people who already take as little time as possible to create hyperlinks.  Telling them to add alternative text tags, especially when the authoring software they're using may not make that the simplest of tasks (Wordpress makes it pretty easy), could push them over the edge.

The problem gets worse.  As hard and time consuming as it ease to make plain old HTML more accessible to PWDs, other forms of Web page authoring that result in dynamically generated content may not even have the provisions that straight HTML authoring has.  For example, take any page on your site that's dynamically generating content from links and content found on another Web site that's out of your control.  In that case, you don't have access to the source HTML.  There's no way for you to reliably include meaningful alternative-text tabs.  Web 2.0-based Web sites that are nothing but dynamically generated content take the problem to a whole new level.

The case is a reminder to all of us that we should do what we can to make our sites more accessible (as I have done in this blog post with the links I've included).  I know I will try harder and I'll also discuss the issue internally with the IT staff and designers who have access to many of the links on ZDNet that I don't control.  And, I can fully appreciate the position of PWDs who are demanding equal access to Web sites much the same way they demand and should have equal access to many buildings.  But I can't advocate stretching the American Disabilities Act to cover Web sites.  Given the state of the state of technology (tools, Web 2.0), the Web, technologically speaking, simply isn't equipped to make compliance with such a precedent law possible.  Shame on Target for not making its sites more accessible. Shame on me too when I haven't done it (again, I will try harder).  

But, by not making its sites accessible to PWDs, Target is relinquishing a segment of customers to competitors who are willing to go that extra mile.  Making Target's physical stores ADA-compliant makes sense.  If a PWD makes his or her way to a Target store only to learn he or she can't get into the building to shop, they've sacrificed a significant amount of their personal time (and maybe money in terms of gas or busfare).  But, on the Web, the cost of going to a merchant that's more accessible than Target is the cost of a click. If Target wants to turn its back on an important customer segment, that's Target's problem (and business decision).  Not the court's.

Update: I was in Cambridge this morning and saw Dan Gillmor.  When I told him about the story, he asked if all the items sold in physical stores are marked with Braille.  Precedent set.

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