Interview for Cisco customer magazine (2001)

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Accessibility: A Smart Business Decision
Making your Web site accessible to people with disabilities can increase your customer base today and prepare you for technological and potential legal changes in the future.
By Talila Baron

Article Contents:
Article Summary:
As the online world grows more graphical, it becomes less accessible to people with disabilities. Savvy Web businesses are grasping the opportunity to reach this market, realizing that making a company's Web sites accessible makes good business sense for both legal and economic reasons.
Last November made technology headlines when it announced it would implement changes to make its Web site more accessible to voters who are legally blind. More than good philosophy, found improving accessibility to be a good business decision, attracting more users and more potential customers.

As the Internet market matures, a growing number of companies is noting the advantages of having a universally accessible Web site. By giving access to the disabled population—approximately 54 million people in the United States and 750 million worldwide—a Web site can attract and retain more users and gain an advantage over the competition.

That's because consumers with disabilities control more than $175 billion in discretionary income in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. And, like all consumers, disabled users are more likely to patronize businesses where they feel welcome.

Multiple Accessibility Incentives
Web sites that fail to offer access to people with disabilities are not only missing out on marketing and revenue opportunities but may also face financial pitfalls from civil rights-generated litigation. Both Bank of America and America Online recently faced legal action by organizations for the blind, which resulted in the companies needing to make their Internet products accessible to those with impaired sight.

Making a Web site universally accessible also increases its flexibility and usefulness in different technological and user environments. "Improving accessibility is a good business decision because it benefits not just those with disabilities but also those who access the Web in new ways. For example, a voice browser will benefit a person driving in a car as well as a sight-impaired person," notes John Whitehead, business development manager for new markets and technologies at Cisco Systems.

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An Expanding Population
If companies define "disability" as a permanent or temporary restriction on a person's use of sight, hearing, or motor skills, many users could be defined as disabled—at least to some degree. And even those who aren't disabled may find themselves in situations that could benefit from an accessible Web site design: Perhaps a user's system has low bandwidth, making it tedious to download images, or a user is in a noisy environment that drowns out the audio features of a particular Web site.

Then there's the rapidly growing population of seniors to consider. After age 65, approximately 70% of the U.S. population acquires some form of access-related disability. Further, according to Jupiter Research estimates, seniors and older adults are expected to become the fastest growing online population through 2005.

Although quantitative business advantages to making Web sites accessible are currently hard to come by, Randy Souza, an analyst with Forrester Research, says it's clear that sites giving access to the disabled population can drive more revenue. "In addition," Souza adds, "earning revenue from disabled users—who can't buy from your competitors due to their lack of accessibility—will enable a Web site to gain competitive advantage. Such a Web site can also save a company money associated with customer-support costs. That's because Web-based customer support is always more economical than phone or in-person support."

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Web Accessibility Defined
Just what is an accessible Web site?

"It is one which, regardless of your disability, lets you accomplish your goals: retrieve data, purchase a product, communicate with a company or with an online community," says Souza. Such sites address the needs of a diverse disabled population, including users with low or no vision, a reduced sense of hearing, impaired manual dexterity that doesn't allow them to use a mouse, or cognitive or neurological disabilities.

Recent U.S. legislation has raised public-sector awareness of this issue. Take, for example, Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act. Enacted by Congress in 1998, the act calls for making information technology accessible. Though Section 508 applies exclusively to Web sites operated by government agencies and to vendors doing business with the federal government, many companies believe legislation for the private sector can't be far behind.

Section 508 provides a comprehensive checklist of standards. For instance, it mandates that government agencies and their private-sector vendors provide Web pages in such a way that information conveyed with color is also available without color, or that an agency offer a text equivalent for every nontext element (video, images, and so on).

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a standards group with more than 500 members worldwide, has a Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) that leads the way in providing companies with the information they need to make their sites accessible. WAI includes 14 guidelines that are general principles for accessible design, including creating tables that are easily made linear and providing captions for audio elements. The W3C site also provides information about government policies regarding accessibility in different countries.

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How to Become Accessible
Although governments can help create the right policy environment with mandates such as Section 508, it is ultimately private-sector companies that must design, develop, and market accessible products and services, says Marco Sorani, president of SSB Technologies, a company that provides software and consulting services that enable corporations and government agencies to comply with U.S. accessibility technology laws.

To become fully accessible, different kinds of Web sites require different levels of redesign. "For very simple HTML-based sites, addressing accessibility may require things such as descriptions of images. For more complex sites—those that have a great deal of video or have forms that must be filled out by users—this may mean more in-depth redesign and scripting language changes," says Sorani.

Web accessibility initiatives have some influential backers, and some high-tech companies have already made progress. Microsoft is actively involved in the development of Web-accessibility guidelines and works with W3C's WAI. In addition, the company is establishing accessibility guidelines for use internally and by third-party developers; working with the disabled community to solicit and incorporate feedback when planning and developing products and services; and addressing known accessibility issues as it updates its existing products and services.
At IBM, similar efforts are under way. The company says it has set forth three basic principles when developing new software for the Web. First, the software must support the user's choice of input methods, including keyboard, mouse, voice, and assistive devices. Second, it must support the user's choice of output methods, including display, sound, and print. Third, it must provide consistency and flexibility by making the application synchronize with the user's choice of system behavior—colors, font sizes, and keyboard settings.

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The Impact on Look and Feel
As companies continue to pour time, money, and labor into their Web sites, they may worry that addressing accessibility will radically alter the look and feel of their sites. But such is not the case. For the most part, making a site more accessible will have little or no impact on the way it looks and feels to the user.

"Accessibility does not require a redesign of the Web site such that the graphical or presentation aspects would be changed," says Mike Paciello, CTO and founder of WebABLE, Inc., which provides consulting, software development, workshops, and seminars for companies trying to address this issue.

"It's a huge misconception that you must employ austere-looking interfaces, big typeface, or bold color schemes," he says. "What it does mean, however, is that companies need to code their sites differently."

For instance, one key element of Web site accessibility is a feature known as an "alt tag"—HTML information that is attached to elements of a Web page. Using an alt tag, a developer can attach a caption to an image. This caption is invisible to most users viewing the site, but can be read aloud by specialized browsers used by people who are blind or dyslexic.

"The easiest, most efficient approach is to move toward a template-generated Web site," says Paciello. "That means you design templates, or a series of templates, for your Web pages. However those templates are generated—whether through low-level authoring tools or scripting languages—creating templates that are inherently accessible means everything else you post to the site will replicate that accessibility."

If companies don't already have a template-generated Web site, then they must start developing core templates, he adds. Once templates have been developed, companies can have users test them and can incorporate feedback on an ongoing basis.

Predictably, designing a Web site to be accessible from the outset is generally easier and less costly than fixing problems after a site has launched. For example, retroactive accessibility fixes to the Sydney Organizing Committee's site were estimated to cost about $2.2 million, according to Forrester Research.

"Going back to reformat a site can be very expensive and time-consuming. However, if you're building a site from scratch, or adding new content, all you do is make simple coding adjustments to make it accessible," says Souza.

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State of the Market
Despite the huge market potential for new customers and new revenue—as well as the fear of litigation—relatively few private-sector companies have implemented changes that address Web accessibility.

In fact, Forrester Research discovered that just 25% of the 140 sites it surveyed during the past 18 months met even WAI's minimum recommendations for accessibility.

Other organizations offer an even more aggressive estimate. "We estimate that a full 90% of all Web sites need some kind of work to make them accessible to the disabled," says Sorani.

The Web has been praised as an ideal medium for increasing communication and access to information among all groups of people. But to meet the Web's potential, business leaders must think about how—and whether—their Web sites come across to all visitors. As Cisco's Whitehead points out, "Improving accessibility is a wise business decision because it benefits not just those with disabilities, but all of us. And as we continue to increase our modes of accessing the Internet—and as we age—the benefits will only increase."

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May 1, 2001

About the Author
Talila Baron is a computer industry writer and editor based in San Mateo, California.
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Further Reading
High-Tech Paves the Way
Telling Numbers
Where to Find Guidelines
Carrot or Stick?

Telling Numbers
In September 2000, the CEOs of 45 prominent high-tech companies, including Adobe Systems, Inc., America Online, Inc., AT&T, BellSouth, Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Company, and Microsoft Corp., committed to providing more accessible products and services. In a letter written to former President Bill Clinton, the CEOs affirmed the fact that increasing the accessibility of their products will help not only people with disabilities but also mobile professionals trying to access the Web on handheld wireless devices.

Telling Numbers
A Harris Poll recently found that adults with disabilities spend, on average, twice as much time online as adults without disabilities—20 hours per week compared to 10 hours per week. Further, adults with disabilities are much more likely to report that the Internet has significantly improved the quality of their lives—48% versus 27%.

Where to Find Guidelines
The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) offers "Bobby," a Web-based tool that analyzes Web pages for their accessibility (based on W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines). The tool helps companies identify and repair accessibility barriers and also provides a list of additional resources.

WebABLE's Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Mike Paciello, is the author of Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities, a robust resource that provides development tools, utilities, HTML examples, and information about U.S. accessibility law and requirements of the disabled.

Carrot or Stick?
"Businesses will respond either to the carrot or the stick. The carrot means understanding that by increasing your Web site's accessibility, you are broadening your market and gaining access to lots of new potential customers, as well as new employees and partners. The stick approach, of course, means facing possible litigation by civil groups."
—Marco Sorani, president, SSB Technologies

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