In 1990, with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and again in 1998 with the passing of the Section 508 amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Americans with disabilities won victories toward the better use of technology for all. Like curb-cuts outside office buildings or wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, the purpose of these acts was to enact laws which would (hopefully) guarantee many disabled members of society a more balanced and comfortable way to accomplish day-to-day activities that the majority of Americans take for granted.
Section 508 and the later WCAG–supplementary guidelines on accessibility from the governing group of the Internet, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)–are both instrumental in ensuring access to emerging technologies. With the importance of mobile, connective technology such as Web applications and company intranets, more and more Americans depended on technology to run their businesses and their lives. All of which mandated a certain level of Web accessibility to access information and perform tasks virtually such as email.
Most of the Web sites are currently (relatively) easy for Americans without disabilities to navigate. Visual clues, clean layouts, roll-over navigation, and streaming video are all commonplace technologies used to navigate the Web. Many of these, however, pose problems to Americans with disabilities: blind users cannot see where the navigation is on a page, deaf users cannot hear the content presented in a streaming video, users with mobility impairments cannot click on a news feed story before it scrolls away. These examples highlight the need to make the Web as accessible as possible now, while the technology is still fairly young. This is even more important as the Web becomes more and more a platform for social networking, open forums, and an online marketplace.
Last year, the corporate giant Target, was sued by the California Federation of the Blind (later the National Federation for the Blind) for discrimination. Target's e-commerce section of their site contained discounts on products not available in brick and mortar stores. Though most sighted users could find the deals and had little to no problem, blind users could not get their deals due to poor code and perhaps a lack of understanding on the part of Target's Web team (which happens to be run at least in part on Amazon.com technology).
Blind users use text-to-speech programs like JAWS or FireVox to navigate sites but must deal with the markup and code in a non-visual sense. Context clues such as "on the sidebar" or "at the bottom of the page" don't mean much if the code is all spat out at once without visual clues filled in. The case ended last month with Target acknowledging that their site was not accessible enough, paying a $6 million settlement, and agreeing to restructure their entire Web platform. Target was commended for their changes and sites like Amazon.com, eBay, and Wal-Mart are working furiously to bring their sites up to par.
This settlement marks the first time that accessibility has really come into play in the private marketplace. Laws like the ADA and Section 508 are mandatory for public institutions such as schools, government bureaucracy and state program sites. However, they had been difficult to mandate for individuals. Many e-commerce and social media sites are currently hard for many Americans with disabilities to enjoy. The Web is one of the last frontiers of deregulated space and is still very young. By making accessibility a priority, developers, businesses, and governments set the groundwork for future expansion on the good examples. It makes good business sense to reach as many end users as possible to sell more products. It makes good governmental sense to reach as many of your constituents as possible. Plus it's just a good, altruistic thing to do.
Even Google, one of the largest search engines on the planet, is "blind"– Google views content on a page in very much the same way a blind human user with a screen reader takes in information. It stands to reason then, that because everyone wants to make Google love them (and thus increase in the search rankings), accessibility is the way to go.
The late Dr. John Slatin, founding director of the Accessibility Institute at the University of Texas at Austin and a long-time contributor to the cause of accessibility, truly believed that by creating and shaping the Web to be as accessible as possible, usability would naturally follow suit. When a site is usable, information is easily conveyed to a user. This is something the creators of the Internet were always trying to accomplish better, faster, and easier.
By thinking about emerging technology in a way that will be easier–more accessible and more usable–for those who may have the most difficulty, all users will naturally benefit and the Web can unfold into a much better place for all.
William Yarbrough is a professional Web developer living in Austin, Texas.