Accessibility Issue Comes to a Head

Target lawsuit could be a test case; new wave of apps concerns blind users

Bruce Sexton Jr. wants to be able to access the same Web content that anyone else can. Because he can't, he now finds himself at the center of a potentially precedent-setting legal fight over Web site accessibility.

Bruce Sexton Jr.

Bruce Sexton Jr.

Sexton, who is legally blind, relies on software that reads his PC's screen from left to right and top to bottom, skipping ahead when he uses keyboard-based shortcuts. When he visits Target Corp.'s Web site, a robotic voice announces staccato-style the presence of alternative text to describe images of the retailer's logo and its "Target dog" mascot.

But the screen-reader software doesn't read the weekly list of special offers on Target's Web site, Sexton said. He can't tell whether the numbers he hears on other parts of the home page correspond to products, files or something else. Deeper into the site, he doesn't know which item goes with which price. "It's difficult to find anything," Sexton said. As a result, he no longer tries to buy goods from the Target site, which for a long time he couldn't do anyway because, he said, it required the use of a mouse.

Sexton has joined the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) as a plaintiff in a lawsuit that charges Target with violating the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and California's Unruh Civil Rights Act and Disabled Persons Act.

The lawsuit, scheduled for a hearing next month at U.S. District Court in San Francisco, could have a broad impact because Target's site is hardly the only one that could be accused of having access barriers, according to attorneys for the plaintiffs.

Web 2.0 Challenge

The move from text-based to visually oriented Web content has been tough on the blind, and now there's a new threat on the horizon. The shift to dynamic "Web 2.0" technology, which Gartner Inc. predicts will be pervasive by the end of next year, could exacerbate the problem of inaccessible sites.

A Web 2.0 application might make use of Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) and Dynamic HTML to update information in a table without having to refresh an entire Web page. But screen readers, magnifiers and other assistive technology may not know which parts of the page have changed unless developers take steps to make sure the tools can glean that information.

Jeff Bishop, an application systems analyst at the University of Arizona in Tucson

Jeff Bishop, an application systems analyst at the University of Arizona in Tucson

"It's very, very, very scary," said Jeff Bishop, an application systems analyst at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "Before, so what? You had a missing [alternative-text] tag, but at least you knew there was an image. You could click on it, and maybe you could figure out what it was. Now, you don't even know where to click. You don't know how to interact."

Bishop, who is blind, and other advocates for people with disabilities aren't expecting an immediate fix. "We want to make sure companies are at least hearing what our concerns are," he said. "I'm not looking for a solution tomorrow. Even if it takes two years, that's fine with me, as long as I know they're working on it."

But it's unclear whether many companies are doing so.

IBM, joined by other vendors, is leading a dynamic accessible Web content initiative within the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). One proposal outlines a development syntax for mapping information about the elements of Web applications to an operating system's accessibility API so screen readers and other assistive technology will know what has changed on a Web page. A second proposal details the means for adding semantic role information to a Web application so screen readers can identify rich objects, such as menus and tab panels, on pages.

But the proposals are still in draft form, and adoption remains uncertain. The Mozilla Foundation added support for the technology starting with its Firefox 1.5 browser. Microsoft Corp., however, has said its upcoming Internet Explorer 7.0 release won't support it, and the company has made no commitments for future editions of the browser.

Gartner analyst Ray Valdes has found that Fortune 500 companies have a very low level of awareness about making their public Web sites accessible. Most haven't modified their Web design and production methods and aren't thinking about fixing their current sites because they assume that doing so would be too costly, he said. They also haven't bothered to buy tools that could help them improve accessibility, Valdes said.

The W3C released accessibility guidelines for Web authoring tools more than six years ago, and it isn't aware of a single product that is fully compliant, said Judy Brewer, director of the consortium's Web accessibility initiative. But Brewer added that many of the newer authoring tools do have features that provide more support for producing accessible content. "And users should demand even better," she said.

Slow Demand

There are also evaluation tools that can assess a Web site's accessibility. One of the leading vendors of evaluation tools, Watchfire Corp., has no more than 70 U.S.-based corporate customers and 30 international users, largely from the governmental and financial sectors, for its enterprise-grade tool, according to Mike Weider, the Waltham, Mass.-based company's chief technology officer.

"We've long expected the accessibility market to grow more than it has. It really hasn't taken off," Weider said. But the NFB-Target case could change that, he added.

The allegations made against Target by the NFB and Sexton have set the stage for a court showdown that could finally clear up the murky legal question of whether the ADA, which was enacted in 1990, before the dawn of the Internet era, applies to Web sites.

The lawsuit claims that because Target's site is difficult if not impossible for the blind to use, the retailer is denying them equal access to the goods and services it provides to customers without disabilities. The NFB this week plans to file a motion for a preliminary injunction, asking the court to order Target to make its Web site accessible promptly.

Target two weeks ago updated a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the laws in question don't apply to Web sites because they aren't "physical" places of public accommodation. The Minneapolis-based retailer further claimed that applying the California statutes to its Web site, which is accessible to consumers countrywide, would violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Mazen Basrawi, a lawyer at Berkeley, Calif.-based Disability Rights Advocates, a co-counsel for the plaintiffs, contended that the ADA applies to any public place where commercial activity occurs -- including Web sites. And even if the law didn't provide such blanket coverage, it would apply to Target's site because is integrated with the retailer's brick-and-mortar stores, Basrawi said.

Secil Watson, senior vice president of customer experience for the Internet services group at Wells Fargo & Co., said a good time for a company to think about making its site accessible is when it's planning a major redesign. It's "the right thing to do," she said.

San Francisco-based Wells Fargo four years ago began its accessibility push for people who are blind or visually impaired by making improvements to its most popular pages. But Watson said it was a major restructuring a year later that produced the most critical improvement: template-based pages that helped to enforce design and development consistency. "What was good for the people with disabilities was good for everybody," she said.

Wells Fargo used the W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), but Watson said the Web team didn't stop there. It added site-specific details to the more general WCAG directive and created a training document for the company's designers and developers to apply to both internal and external sites.

In addition, some of the bank's user-interface designers have been trained in the use of screen readers so they can see the bank's external site from the perspective of a blind customer. "We're not just trying to make the site accessible," Watson said. "We're trying to make it a decent experience."

Like other companies, Wells Fargo is interested in exploring the use of DHTML and AJAX to create Web-based applications that could offer an even better online experience to end users. But Watson said that first the bank will have to figure out how to make the new technologies accessible.

Finding the Time

Nate Koechley, a senior front-end engineer at Yahoo Inc., which has already taken the AJAX and DHTML plunge, said learning to build accessibility features into applications developed with those technologies is mostly an issue of finding enough time, given the intense, almost frantic atmosphere of Web development. "Preserving and enriching accessibility is just another constraint of Web design and engineering," he said.

Koechley added that the development team at Yahoo has a great in-house resource -- Victor Tsaran, the company's accessibility program manager, who is blind himself. "Now we can go over to his cube and say, 'Hey, does this work for you? Check it out,' " Koechley said.

Mike Paciello, founder of The Paciello Group LLP, a Nashua, N.H.-based consulting firm that works to enhance the accessibility of software, said he is optimistic that the process of making applications accessible won't lag with technologies like AJAX and DHTML to the degree that it has with other technologies in the past.

"Technology that supports people with disabilities is so far behind," he said. "Whenever they start to get caught up, they get thrown back another five steps. [But] with AJAX, I don't think it will be five steps back because we already have a handle on it. We're probably one or two steps back."

For Paciello, the lack of a dynamic leader to raise awareness about the need for increased accessibility remains the larger problem.

And there's still much more work to be done, according to advocates for people with disabilities. Sexton, for one, said that he still can spend hours trying to figure out whether a Web site is just difficult to navigate or not accessible at all.

"It's frustrates me to no end," he said, "and it makes me feel that I'm not able to do something that everybody else can."  

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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