Thursday, October 4th, 2007

Two rulings that could improve web accessibility

Category: Accessibility

<p>A recent press release by the National Federation of the Blind discusses two rulings that could have a dramatic impact on accessibility requirements:

A federal district court judge issued two landmark decisions today in a nationwide class action against Target Corporation. First, the court certified the case as a class action on behalf of blind Internet users throughout the country under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Second, the court held that Web sites such as target.com are required by California law to be accessible.

Accessibility has been a hot topic but with no real laws in place to enforce it, many developers have considered it an afterthought. These rulings could be a real wake up call for those that have overlooked the need for accessible websites and if taken further, could have a dramatic effect on existing businesses who would need to extensively revamp their Internet initiatives.

The President of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Marc Maurer, commented on the court’s ruling: “This is a tremendous step forward for blind people throughout the country who for too long have been denied equal access to the Internet economy. All e-commerce businesses should take note of this decision and immediately take steps to open their doors to the blind.”

If you’re interested in learning more about accessibility, Max Keisler has a posting listing over 40 tutorials and articles on accessibility. In addition, the Illinois Center for Information Technology Accessibility has created a Firefox plugin that can help you in testing your web applications for markup and structural adherence to functional web accessibility.

Finally, The Ajax Experience will have two presentations presentations regarding accessibility:

I ask that Ajaxian readers post links to good web accessibility reference material to help those unfamiliar with this topic become more aware of the considerations in making accessible web applications.

Related Content:

Posted by Rey Bango at 6:30 am
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Wow. This could be a really bad ruling for computer developers in general. Imagine, if websites must be accessible, what it really means in terms of development: for every rich internet application, you must develop a non-rich, text based internet application. For example, Flash applications aren’t represented in markup, so flash content cannot be read by a screen reader. Since they are not ‘accessible’, we as web developers and designers will no longer be allowed to use them as application platforms, only as animated graphics.

What about sites like YouTube? Surely the government doesn’t want an audio description of each YouTube video running in the background for blind users, or have close captioning installed on the video for deaf users, right?

I understand people’s need to have access to ecommerce, but the website that the suit is under is Target.com. If you haven’t ever visited the site, it is a bunch of textual links and image links (with alt-tags), and there is one Flash Dynamic Lead advertising their ‘best’ products this week.

Sure, the front page is mainly navigation, so it would be tedious to listen to on a screen reader, but does that mean that sites need to pair down the amount of content and links on their pages too to avoid getting sued.

Also, I am not sure it is legal to have two versions of a product, one for disabled people and one for non-disabled people. So does that mean that we can only design/develop websites for disabled people’s browsers? What about javascript support in those browsers? If my page has an error that prevents accesibility requirements from being met for a short time and a disabled person visits it does that mean that I can be sued in California?

Why just stop with the web? Why not start suing all software manufacturers that don’t enable a screen-reading version of whatever application it is.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for allowing the highest amount of users to access any content that I design or develop, but with some RIA’s there is no way to present all end-users with a similar experience. If this suit is won, those type of media-presentation RIA’s may have to go the way of the dinosaur.

Comment by Jack Viers — October 4, 2007

I sometimes questions the enforcement on web pages here– it’d be one thing to say your website must be accessible to everyone if that’s the only place the service/information was contained. In the case of sites like target.com or gap.com, they do have physical stores– so in the ‘all encompassing’ sense, their products and services have always been accessible.

Comment by Jacob Hookom — October 4, 2007

Here’s two links:

http://www.newearthonline.co.uk/article/138

http://www.newearthonline.co.uk/article/32

Comment by David G. Paul — October 4, 2007

@Jack: You miss the point of accessibility. Nobody is saying you have to build 2 versions of the same site (and all the problems that can cause)… this affects businesses offering eCommerce (not all web sites). You make a lot of bandwidth, but this just says that you are ill informed about the topic. Read the wonderful links and understand the scope before you wade in and make a bit of a tit of yourself.

As a web developer I look on this as an opportunity to get a lot more work – surely that’s a GOOD thing?! It will also encourage more developers to “get with the program” when it comes to standards compliance. Designers will have to adapt – but that doesn’t necessarily imply compromise.

Comment by Jeff — October 4, 2007

I’d just like to address a few of the things said in the first post:
1. For example, Flash applications aren’t represented in markup, so flash content cannot be read by a screen reader.
Just because it isn’t represented in markup doesn’t make it inaccessible. While it may be unusable through JAWs, flash can be created in a way that makes its directly accessible (e.g. provide keyboard navigation and audio feedback). To their credit people at Adobe/Macromedia have spent a lot of time and effort making flash more accessible. While Flash content/apps are often inaccessible, that’s due to the developers and creators – not the flash environment itself. Take some time and look into the accessibility features offered, but rarely used. http://www.adobe.com/resources/accessibility/flash8/

2. Sure, the front page is mainly navigation, so it would be tedious to listen to on a screen reader, but does that mean that sites need to pair down the amount of content and links on their pages too to avoid getting sued.
No – Accessible != Equivalent
Accessible just means usable by. Rarely do two people experience the same ease of use. Some things may take me longer to do than you, regardless of disability.
3. Also, I am not sure it is legal to have two versions of a product, one for disabled people and one for non-disabled people. Having two versions of the same thing is never a good approach, although it’s often the most common.
Summary:
Good accessible implementations are simpler for everyone (Bad ones aren’t). Features that make sites and apps more accessible should also improve their usability by everyone. That’s because no one is average and no one 100% able, and we all use things differently.

Comment by Matt K — October 4, 2007

This is ridiculous that the government is making laws about accessibility of websites. Big companies like Target should WANT to make their websites accessible to reach even more consumers, but MAKING them do it is a whole other deal. And as Jacob said, they are already accessible by their B&M store.

And to Jeff, it certainly does imply compromise. Screen readers are definitely not up-to-par with rich web applications, and you’re limited in what type of dynamic functionality you can provide.

FYI, according to afb.org, approx. 10 million people in the US are visually impaired (not necessarily blind). That’s only 3.3% of the US population, and 5.5 million of those are 65+ (1.8%). Now how many of that percentage shops online? Are we down to

Comment by Joseph — October 4, 2007

(got cut off above). less than 1% of the US population now? So let’s make (no, FORCE) our websites tailored to a 1% demographic.

Comment by Joseph — October 4, 2007

Don’t confuse Accessible with Usable by Blind people. If you do you’re only accounting for a fraction of your users who would benefit from improved accessibility. Realize that over half the country is over 65, and most of them are visually impaired (low-vision = wear glasses/contacts). Consider also that blind people aren’t the only ones who benefit from keyboard access. Other users include: people who prefer to use a keyboard because it’s faster (e.g. tab through fields), people who have carpal tunnel, people who are mobility impaired, and people who don’t have a mouse (e.g. laptop or mobile device). Those are all examples of an accessibility feature which benefits a much larger group of users.

Comment by Matt K — October 4, 2007

Jack:

Accessible != Plain HTML. With toolkits like Dojo and YUI working with the upcoming ARIA spec and the various vendors involved, we can do *better* by the disabled (of every kind) by using DHTML-driven UIs than plain old HTML ever could. We can tell screen readers that something is a tree (not just a list), or a tab panel (not just bunch of divs), and we can inform them when content changes. The difference is night-and-day for assistive technology users who have been continually shafted by HTML’s impoverished semantics. Better yet, Dojo auto-detects high-contrast mode and switches to a theme designed for it, giving users with vision impairments an experience that’s better than if plain-old HTML without those affordances built-in had been used. Oh, and keyboard navigation “Just Works” because we spend a lot of time making it behave correctly. With “rich” technologies, we can do better by all kinds of users. You just have to care. Obviously, we’d prefer it if HTML had tags for this stuff and if all browsers natively handled these concerns, but until they do, you can know that you don’t have to pick between rich and simple. You just have to pick between good and bad tools.

Joseph: I think it’s fair to judge a society by how they treat those who can’t fend for themselves on every occasion. At Dojo we view the work done to support these requirements, in part, as an investment in our own future. I’m getting older every day (don’t know about you), and it seems like folly to assume that I’m going to be in perfect health every day until I die. More importantly to the public policy debate, though, is that the populations of most of North America are greying at a quick clip. That 1% you cite doesn’t begin to capture the entire spectrum of users that can benefit from assistive technologies. And those numbers are set to rise at an amazing rate. “The market” hasn’t encoded for these externalities yet, so arguments that it somehow will seem short-sighted (if not downright wrong). People get hurt in those gaps. If you think the blind don’t shop online, consider how much harder it is for them to shop when trying to navigate they physical world.

Principles are those things you’ll give up something you want in order to protect. In this case, these rulings point to a desire by our society to pay more than lip service to the principle of equal opportunity. As someone getting older every day, I say “huzzah!”

Regards

Comment by Alex Russell — October 4, 2007

If any of you have paid attention to the way ADA lawsuits are used to extort money out of small businesses these days, you will know where we are headed. If NAB establishes the precedent they desire, you can expect most people who own domain names with active websites to recieve a complaint from some disabled lawyer with an eye to big bucks. It will officially be the end of web 2.0, because all the companies who now barely have a business model could now be sued for creating websites and services that are not accessible. Not to mention that the “accessibility” guidelines that W3C publishes are in no way a safe harbor, and already require substantial compromises (such as SGML conditionals) to accomplish.

Comment by Dennis — October 4, 2007

Another case of Big Brother and his Big Ideas for “equality.” Haven’t they ruined enough buildings with their ridiculous ramps? Now they want to double the cost of software development?

Comment by Little Brother — October 5, 2007

Dear Little Brother,

1) What are -your- Big Ideas of equality? They seem to be: “if Little Brother doesn’t need it, no one else does, either”.
2) Ramps: as an architecture student at my university, you can check out a wheelchair for a day, to experience a little what it’s like to use one. Quickly you learn: Ramps don’t ruin buildings, ramps make it possible for people to -use- buildings by getting in and out of them. And I guess you always take the stairs, instead of using an elevator? Why are stairs good enough for you outside, but not good enough for you to get the 10th floor?
3) Cost-doubling: clearly not true for many reasons, or the software developer is remarkably inefficient.

Maybe Little Brother needs to grow up. Don’t be afraid of learning new things, and changing your mind. You might like it. :-)

Comment by Ketchkemet — October 5, 2007

It’s a shame that such a simple concept of making web sites usable by those with impairments have to be forced upon developers. The concept of enabling others to benefit from the experience of a website or a web application is such common sense and it’s not really hard work.

Particletree has even produced an article on how to achieve this: The Hows and Whys of Degradable Ajax

Comment by Shahid Shah — October 5, 2007

I have no problem with creating 2 versions of websites, the second one being accessible (and perfectly SEO-able). Then my primary webs can be Flash, SVG, JS, whatever. Besides, maybe I will have to use the accessible versions one day. It comes quickly when it comes.
@to the 1st post: you are over-dramatizing – you’ve based most of your post on the argument of – “Also, I am not sure it is legal to have two versions of a product…” – which you are not even sure about. Well I’m not sure about it either, but I assume nobody will sue me if I will be providing exactly the same information at those 2 sites. What would be the reason to sue for? “Of your two data-identical sites, I cannot access the one that is not built to be accessible”? That’s like suing a building with a ramp that I cannot use stairway with my wheelchair.

Comment by ypct — October 5, 2007

Some have mentioned that Accessibility is not equal to Help The Blind People only. There are a range of disabilities out there in the world and for quite a few it’s very simple to address their issues. Not only that but by making the site accessible may help even those people who don’t see themselves as having a disability. For instance I worked on accessibility issues for a user who had only 1 finger and a thumb on one hand and was missing his right arm entirely. By accomidating him in changing key chords we improved the efficiency of the rest of our users. Likewise there are benefits for the average user in making content easier to access via the keyboard, making text more readable, simplifying content, and reducing overall cognitive load. And you don’t have to have a degree or any special tooling to get all of this stuff done.

Comment by Nhavar — October 5, 2007

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