Ignore Universal Web Design at Your Peril

All marketers want to make their Websites as user-friendly as possible, but the concept extends beyond clean design, fast loading, and intuitive navigation. Your site should comply with universal Web design — standards for engineering an Internet resource to be accessible and user-friendly for people with visual or mental handicaps. If it doesn’t, you could be sued.

The National Federation of the Blind is suing Minneapolis-based retailer Target Corp., claiming that even with screen-reading technology visually impaired people can’t access much of the information on the Website and can’t purchase from it independently. Target has asked for the case, filed in February 2006 in California Superior Court, to be dismissed, claiming that its stores are accessible to the blind and that civil-rights laws apply to the accessibility of its stores.

But this past September, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled that a retailer can be sued if its Website is inaccessible to the visually impaired, stating that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination in the “enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, or privileges.” Before this ruling, commercial Websites were not considered a place of accommodation and were assumed to not fall under the act — and in fact, Patel stopped short of ruling that Websites are required to be accessible. As of mid-March the case was still winding its way through the courts.

What you need to know

There are two primary sets of standards for developing accessible Web content. The first is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, developed by the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Access Initiative in 1999.

In December 2000, a second set of guidelines was published as standards in the Federal Register. Known as the Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards, these were developed by the Federal Access Board and are available online at www.access-board.gov/sec508/508standards.htm. They cover a variety of technologies, including Web-based intranet and Internet information and applications.

According to these standards, every nontext element — in other words, all graphics — must be labeled with equivalent text using an alt (short for “alternative”) tag so that users of screen readers, telephones, and other nongraphic technologies have access to the information provided within the graphic.

The presence or absence of alt tags is easily detected. And as we’ve seen, visually impaired users can file civil-rights complaints that can prompt investigation and bad PR. What’s more, labeling graphics with alt tags can help with your search engine optimization: Like screen readers, search engines can’t “read” images and Java- and Flash-based navigation, but they can read alt tags. And according to Sheryl Burgstahler, director of Accessible Technology Services at the University of Washington in Seattle, sites that follow universal-design standards tend to load a bit faster as well.

So why don’t more companies pay attention to Web design standards? Burgstahler says legal requirements surrounding universal Web design are “soft” and virtually unenforceable.

“Most people are not familiar with universal Web design,” she says, “and most people don’t even have any idea a blind person can use the computer. There is a big awareness gap. The legalities involve mostly broad legislation. The trouble is Websites are popping up all over the place and they’re not centrally controlled. Decentralized control of Websites is problematic.”

Better browsing for all

Rather than suing Websites that don’t adhere to universal design, Burgstahler says, the main focus should be getting Webmasters to develop their sites with universal design from the start.

“If they build it into their design, it’s not difficult,” she says. “But it’s more difficult to go back and retrofit a site to include it.” She likens retrofitting a Website to accommodate universal design to adding handicapped-accessible ramps to existing buildings: “It would’ve been easier to do before the building was built.”

Due in large part to the aging of the population, there are more people now with disabilities, including visual impairments, than there were before the dawn of the Internet, Burgstahler notes, which is all the more reason universal design should become, well, universal.

“The Web gives us the opportunity to spread the word about universal design,” Burgstahler says. “People who understand it are supportive of it.”

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