Friday, January 12, 2007

Giddey-up, giddey-up 508

There's nothing like the threat of being sued to force companies into "doing the right thing."

A lawsuit against the Target store chain, claiming that their website fails to meet the minimum standard of web accessibility, has put a lot of companies in panic mode. At my place of employment, the push for accessibility compliance has led to the reevaluation of almost all web-based products and software.

Web users with special needs (blind, impaired vision, deaf, cognitive difficulties, etc.) can use assistive technologies like screenreaders to help navigate websites. But if, as is usually the case, the site was designed and constructed with this group of users as an afterthought, those technologies are of only limited value.

Here's an analogy -- The designer of a beautiful new hotel realizes that wheelchair users require a ramp to gain access to the lobby from the street. He finds a way to do so without disrupting the design vision he's already established by locating the ramp in the rear of the building. Legally, he's covered. But these special needs users must go around to the back the building to get to the ramp, then navigate numerous hallways simply to get to the check-in desk. Has accessibility and accommodation really been achieved?

And the issue goes further than accommodating the disabled. As we're reminded almost daily, the graying of the US population is going to mean big changes in all facets of everyday life, and websites will not be immune. Older users means more consideration must be given to accommodating users with diminished vision, hearing, fine motor skills, memory, information processing, and spatial abilities. Forget about meeting government mandates -- failing to accommodate these users will mean risking a significant portion of overall sales markets.

Trouble is, there currently is no set minimum standard. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (1998) provides a mandate for government websites and is most often used as the de facto standard for private enterprise, but even this is imprecise. In the end, companies are left to do what they can given various forms of suggested guidelines, accept that trade-offs are eminent, then make a decision for themselves as to whether they are at a point where they can reasonably argue that they have met the 'minimum standard of web accessibility" (whatever that ends up meaning).

To test your favorite sites, use one of the following tools:

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