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Website Accessibility is Now Getting Serious in the USA

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.
Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web

As a long time advocate of website accessibility and meeting web standards for accessibility, I was amused by the San Fransisco Chronicle News story about a blind student suing Target over the company’s inaccessible website. Amused because the same thing has been happening in England and elsewhere in the world for several years. Usually it is the United States that claims to be the leader of the pack, and now it seems they are behind the times.

I’ll get to the law and legal issues in a moment, but I wanted to share with you some of the intelligence and ignorance that is a prime example of the issues facing the blind, visually impaired, and other “disabled” people. Take a moment to read through some of the comments in the Digg Comments on “Target Sued Because Website Doesn’t Allow The Blind to See”. At last count before this post, there were over 260 comments. Here are a few “winners”:

You could also sue mime artists – they’re the worst, absolutely no consideration for the blind at all…

…Using websites is a privilege and not a civil right…

…WHY? Target is a private business, they can choose to sell to whoever they want. Should I sue a women’s clothing store because they don’t carry mens cloths? Or a steakhouse because I’m a vegetarian and they don’t sell tofu? If this were a public institution (say a public library website) then sure sue away. But it’s not. It’s a privately owned company! Should they make efforts for their site to be accessible via site readers and whatnot, of course, it’s good business and good PR. Should they be REQUIRED to with threat of lawsuit? NO. If this guy can’t use the service offered by Target maybe he should shop somewhere else. This is one case where I hope the Goliath ruthlessly crushes David and countersues him for all their legal expenses…

…i think its kind of dumb. if target doesn’t want to be accessible to the blind they shouldn’t have to be….

…Any blind people reading digg? I don’t think so…

…What people seem to be missing: accessibility costs money! Even on the web — you really have to sit there and test your site in each way it’s going to be presented. Audio only testing would almost certainly DOUBLE development time for most sites, and hence double costs….

…Many states have very broad public accommodation laws. Doing a lot of business in a state by selling on the internet instead of a brick-and-mortar store shouldn’t allow anyone to avoid those laws. Considering how easy it is to make html accessible to the visually impaired when properly implemented, I support the suit. Too many splashy web pages focus on flash and other “form over substance” crap. Maybe this will help people get back to basics…

…You kids are retarded. The Americans with Disabilities act is there to help people that have disabilities use real-world things. A lot of people like to buy stuff on the Internet, and a lot of people like to shop at Target. The fact that Target’s site isn’t accesible to the blind is a frikkin joke…

…The good news is that accessibility does not cost anything extra. It is better known as modern web design. Or good web design. Or, uhh, doesn’t-everyone-code-pages-like-this? web design. Hire good designers who know what they’re doing and you wouldn’t have this lawsuit in the first place….

…My website isn’t accessible to those who are blind – what are you going to do, sue me? Guess what: you can’t: I payed for it, I’ll do as I like with it…

…I agree… If the courts rule for the plaintiff, it will have a chilling affect on the entire web, government ‘wiretaps’ non-withstanding…

…This is insane. I don’t care if the blind are a “huge buying force on the internet” if Target doesn’t care to have their business online, then sorry Blindy McBlinderson, you’ll just have to take the bus to Target. Or better yet, STOP SHOPPING THERE! Obviously if they are not going to accomodate you of their own free will, you shouldn’t be purchasing from them and hence supporting them! Don’t sue. It’s a mockery of the justice system that these kinds of cases are even allowed…

There is much I could say about many of these comments, but the law is the law. You design accessible websites because it is the law, though the law may be different in your country.

Designing accessible websites has been the rule since 1999. If you are designing web pages today and are unfamiliar with the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), then you are seriously out of date and need to go back to school. Accessibility is the rule and goal of serious web page designers today.

The Law and Website Accessibility

Since the Internet and WWW is not a single government body with a single ruler, individual nations are tackling the issues of making the web accessible to everyone. In the United Kingdom, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) initiated the 1999 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) which includes guidelines and specifications for access to web pages by the disabled . In the United States, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires access to electronic and information technology like web pages.

Explaining how the UK Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) works, Webcredible summarizes the UK DDA Code of Practice as it relates to website design:

The Disability Discrimination Act makes it unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a disabled person by refusing to provide any service which it provides to members of the public…From 1st October 1999 a service provider has to take reasonable steps to change a practice which makes it unreasonably difficult for disabled people to make use of its services….What services are affected by the Disability Discrimination Act? An airline company provides a flight reservation and booking service to the public on its website. This is a provision of a service and is subject to the act…For people with visual impairments, the range of auxiliary aids or services which it might be reasonable to provide to ensure that services are accessible might include…accessible websites….For people with hearing disabilities, the range of auxiliary aids or services which it might be reasonable to provide to ensure that services are accessible might include…accessible websites.

Changes were made to the UK DDA law that took effect in October 2004 not only strengthen the law which compelled all UK websites to be accessible as of 1999, but to expand its coverage to include the following, as explained by the Royal National Institute of the Blind:

  • All employers are now legally obliged to make all their services accessible including websites, intranets and extranets accessible
  • Police and fire services are now also legally obliged to make their websites, intranets and extranets accessible. Previously they were exempt. The only area of employment still specifically excluded is the armed forces.
  • Service providers will have to make physical adjustments to their premises where these features make it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use the service they provide.

According to A List Apart – Web Accessibility and UK Law: Telling It Like It Is:

The law about accessible websites came into force on 1st October 1999 and the Code of Practice for this section of the Act was published on 27th May 2002. This means that the majority of websites are already in breach of the law.

Can You Be Sued for Lack of Accessibility on Your Website?

Can you be sued or fined or worse for the lack of meeting accessibility standards and laws on your website or blog? The answer is yes – and no. It depends upon the laws in your country.

A useful reference is the case brought against the International Olympics Committee in Australia in 2001 for “engaging in unlawful conduct by providing a web site which was to a significant extent inaccessible to the blind”. This resulted in a landmark decision against the International Olympics Committee (SOCOG), requiring them to pay $20,000 Australian dollars and implement changes to the site to make it accessible. In a good analysis of the Olympics case, one wrought with a lot of confusion, resistance and failure to comply from the International Olympics Committee, NuBlog – Reader’s Guide to Sydney Olympics Accessibility Complaint states:

To respond to the objection that this case, having taken place “far away” in Australia, is unrelated to Web design in other nations, we would suggest examining the similarities among the Disability Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Canadian Human Rights Act, not to mention provincial, state, and territorial human-rights codes. The legal principles of unequal treatment (“discrimination”; “unfavourable” treatment) and unjustifiable hardship (“undue” hardship or “burden”) are effectively identical in Australia, the U.S., and Canada, if not elsewhere, and the case of Maguire vs. SOCOG will inevitably come into play as precedents for legal cases worldwide.

The worldwide implications had already started. The United Kingdom was ahead of the game in enforcing the law to provide accessible websites, but this new suit in California isn’t the first in the United States. reported in “Travel sites settle New York accessibility investigation” that in 2002, a federal court ruled that a website was not a place of “public accommodation” and dismissed a lawsuit against Southwest Airlines. The judge’s conclusion was that the Americans for Disabilities Act applied to “physical spaces, such as restaurants and cinemas”. This limited view of “access” was overturned in 2004, by New York’s Attorney General Eliot Spitzer stating that the law was in place to protect accessibility rights because it “made reference to civil rights protections in state laws.”

…by failing to ensure that the PRICELINE.COM website is accessible to the assistive technology used by the blind and visually impaired, Priceline has not complied with the ADA, New York Executive Law or New York Civil Rights Law.

The laws are in place in the United States, and elsewhere, that require websites to be accessible. This requirement applies to all government or government funded websites, and different countries require accessibility standards on website from publicly and privately owned companies to all websites, depending upon their laws.

The issues around individual country laws and the international experience of the web makes this a little more complicated. If you are sitting in Britain and reading this blog which is written by me, in the United States (at the moment and subject to change), hosted on a server which I think is also in the United States (but might be in Ireland or elsewhere – it’s, not a host I have a paid agreement with), whose law covers this blog? Website viewing, except in China, is not limited to only country-specific websites.

Can someone living in Britain with a disability sue me in the United States for non-compliance with Britain’s laws for access? Can they sue the site host for non-compliance? Can they sue the designer of a WordPress Theme for non-compliance in the areas uncontrolled by the user? Figuring out who is responsible for what, and what laws will stand in which jurisdiction gets complicated. This is where the issue will really be tested and the impact on the web really experienced, not for simply requiring web standards and accessibility standards be met.

Want to know what the laws and initiatives are in your country and around the world? The World Wide Web Consortium, better known as the W3C has set up the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative – International Initiatives, Standards, and Laws.

The Price and Effort of Designing an Accessible Website

Designing accessible websites isn’t hard. It isn’t costly, and in fact, as one Digg commenter says:

The ADA seeks to provide a minimum level of accommodation to those who need a little help and it is a very small price to pay. The sacrifices we have to make to meet those accommodations are small and have an uncanny ability to help EVERYBODY, not just those with disabilities. Wheelchair ramps help those with strollers. Closed captioning is handy when you need to mute the TV or in a noisy bar. Making a web site accessible to screen readers can help those using mobile devices to access the web. Making things accessible benefits all of us, and companies that refuse to do so are shooting themselves in the foot.

An accessible website has another major benefit. Search engines “read” your site like the blind and visually impaired, looking for text in links, images, and content. Well-designed accessible sites help search engines visit your site and gather the information they need to rank the page in search results. You want good SEO (Search Engine Optimization), then meet the standards for website accessibility.

Accessible web pages are designed and coded to allow web page readers (verbal) to read the content with ease. Every graphic and photograph should have a description to help those who can’t see the picture to “hear” the picture. Font sizes need to be relative font sizes so the fonts can be larger or smaller, meeting the needs of the user and not be forced upon the user by the designer. This isn’t just for the disabled but for the growing population of older adults whose eyes need the larger font sizes. Colors should be chosen to help the large percentage of men who are color blind as well as for those suffering from other color-associative problems.

Being “blind” doesn’t mean the “absence of sight”. The majority of people classified as “legally blind” have some form of vision. They can see light and/or see with magnification, close up, from a distance, through a pinhole in the darkness, or only around the edges, and every variation in between. There are also many methods available for accessing the Internet, including text magnification, audible reading programs, braille readers, and browsers that overwrite colors and fonts to enable better viewing. Designing a web page for accessibility means taking the simple steps that allow these other programs to function better. No different from testing your web page design on Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Safari.

Estimates vary, but approximately 25% of Internet and web users are visually impaired or disabled. They are not your only audience. Today, people view web pages on cell phones, handheld computers, projectors, Web TV, and miniature laptops, among the many new technologies available. Meeting accessibility and web standards means helping make your website viewable by all, not just those sitting behind a computer using a traditional browser.

In examining the “costs” associated with designing for accessibility standards, the NuBlog – Reader’s guide to Sydney Olympics accessibility complaint summarizes the cost and manpower associated with converting the website to meet accessibility standards. They say that while the SOCOG told the courts that approximately 55,000 pages would be generated in the course of the Olympic Games and that to reformat the site would “in effect require the development of a new or separate site.” They said it would take one highly specialized and skilled person working 8-hour business days totally 368 days to complete the task “properly”, adding up to $2.2 million in addition to labor costs.

The courts brought in expert witnesses and a commission determined that it would cost very little and take “a team of one experienced developer with a group of 5–10 assistants could provide an accessible site to [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] Level A compliance in 4 weeks” for the more realistic number of 1,295 template web pages, since the information is generated from a database.

NuBlog – Reader’s guide to Sydney Olympics accessibility complaint explains:

SOCOG attempted to present the line of reasoning we usually encounter with corporations: Our site is too big to make accessible. Perhaps interestingly, such sites are never too big for all the other infrastructure the corporations decide is worth the money: Database back ends, professional graphic design, custom JavaScript and Java applets, expensive content-management systems…

…In any event, it is manifestly clear that adding accessibility tags, while more complicated in a retrofit than it would be to add them in the first place, is not qualitatively different from adding all the other tags necessary to make a large database-driven Web site work. The fact that some of those tags might be reproduced six billion times during the course of the Olympics merely means that six billion pages will be transmitted accessibly.

This is the most important point: “adding accessibility tags, while more complicated in a retrofit than it would be to add them in the first place”. Put them in when you design and you are covered from the start. And save money.

The determination by the courts ordered the SOCOG to comply with the following:

Accordingly, the complaint is substantiated and it is proper for the Commission to make the following determination pursuant to s.103(1) of the DDA…

     (i) including ALT text on all images and image map links on its web site;
     (ii) providing access to the Index of Sports from the Schedule page; and
     (iii) providing access to the Results Tables to be used on the web site during the Sydney Olympic Games.

In short, put ALT text on all images and links and provide access from the main page to the most popular and “useful” links to website visitors. For the latter, “don’t make them search for the most popular pages” sums it up. Is this a hardship for website and blog designers, developers, and administrators? No. It’s a requirement.

Website Design and Accessibility Resources

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  1. Posted February 28, 2006 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi Lorelle, perhaps you’ve mentioned this somewhere else in your postings. But I expected the link to turn up here aswell. To your resources list on ‘Accessibility’ you should add Watchfire’s Webxact validation Service conforming to 508 standards. Quite a handy tool to keep track on your website’s Accessibility according to WCA standards.

  2. Posted February 28, 2006 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    I thought Watchfire was in this list and I guess it isn’t. They are brilliant. And I have listed it other places. Thanks for catching that.

  3. Posted March 1, 2006 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Okidoki. Always willing to keep you on your toes, grin… Bytheby…I have checked my site at Watchfire and it turned out tobe ‘Single A’ compliant. I am wondering, offcourse I could check but I’ll leave that to you, how Lorelle’s site is graded. As a website-blogging consultant how do you feel about a Single A grade? Does is say something? What does it say. I find that Accessibility is a kind of “greymatter” (pardon the pun). Like to hear from you.

    Oh Lorelle, when I post comments at postings here, is there a simple way for me to keep track? Or do I have put a knot in my hanky?

  4. Posted March 1, 2006 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    To track comments on this blog, you can subscribe to the comments feed. It doesn’t feature a per-post subscription.

    As for checking Lorelle on WordPress, all blogs on are only as compliant as the WordPress Theme author and blogger’s content area permit. I currently add titles to all my links, but strips them. Why? They used to. You’ll have to ask them. I still add them for the day when software will also allow them again.

    It’s a hard thing for and other blogging services users to be, shall we say, “victims” of the designers. We aren’t responsible, nor do many want to be, for the lack of accessibility standards on the Themes we choose. We want pretty and functional and “expect” the designers to know their stuff when it comes to designing themes and web page designs to meet web standards.

    My main site meets accessibility standards because I have total control over the content and the design. All my web page designs meet web standards and have done so for many years. It’s THAT important to me. What the client does with it afterwards, well, I do what I can. 😉

    It is critically important to me and my work to meet or rise above the standards, and the laws. Accessibility isn’t “grey matter”. It is the law. Unfortunately, the law isn’t always clear and specific.

    As for which level of accessibility you attain, it’s up to you to choose your stopping point. If it is important to you to get the highest score, then go for it. If you don’t score at the lowest level, then fix it. The law doesn’t look at the finite details…yet.

    I want to also point out that the end design has absolutely nothing to do with accessibility standards. Putting titles in links, alt descriptions in images, and meeting the bare bones of accessibility standards says absolutely nothing about how the end result of the web page design should look. Just check out what is possible in web page design at CSS Zen Garden. I believe that the core HTML file meets web accessibility standards, and that is not changed in all the different web page looks. Only the CSS stylesheet is changed, changing the design.

    When you think about all the things that are possible with web page design, meeting accessibility standards is the smallest part. It’s so easy. It’s more expensive and time consuming to build ramps and automatically opening doors.

  5. Posted March 1, 2006 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Wow Lorelle, that certainly gives me a moment or two to ponder about 🙂
    I’ll let you know… Thanks for the ample (or is it ampel) reply on this. You are still one of my faves 😉

  6. Posted July 1, 2006 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    These are awesome information !

  7. Clive Wilson
    Posted January 8, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    I seem like every one is trying to set limits for what you can or canot see on te internet I’ve found many sites I used to be able to access in the US are blocked and no longer available thanks for the great post.

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  2. […] accessible your web page structure is even without the pretty, reminding the world that it is the law that your website must accessible by everyone using any method to access your […]

  3. […] action lawsuit to people who are blind in California for failure to have a accessible website. The Olympic Committee for Australia was also held responsible and lost in court when their site was found to not meet web standards for accessibility. Laws are […]

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  9. […] or physically impaired and classified as “disabled”? What are you doing to help them access your blog? Do you think about the average age of your audience and how they will respond to certain font […]

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