|Accessibility: A Smart Business Decision|
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|
Last November Election.com
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, Election.com found improving accessibility to be a good
business decision, attracting more users and more potential customers.
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
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.
An Expanding Population
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.
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."
Web Accessibility Defined
Just what is an accessible Web site?
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.
How to Become Accessible
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.
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.
The Impact on Look and Feel
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.
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."
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."
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
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 Olympics.com 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.
State of the Market
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.
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."
May 1, 2001
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