Site accessibility for the disabled may be required

Most E-commerce web sites pose challenges to the disabled. At least 75% of the sites tested in a recent survey fail to meet the basic requirements for accessibility that the World Wide Web Consortium has created. Sites that may be easy to use for most people can be difficult or impossible to use for those with physical handicaps.

Recent lawsuits against American Airlines and Southwest Airlines may change this. Both airlines are being sued because their web sites pose challenges for the disabled. Access Now, a Florida non-profit that promotes accessibility, filed suit against the airlines, claiming that the laws that ensure that the disabled can get into public places also apply to the Internet.

Unfortunately for web builders, it's unclear how these laws that promote accessibility apply to the Internet. Previous cases against companies such as AOL and Barnes and Noble have been settled out of court. In the United States, Section 508 laws require that Federal agencies' electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act may apply to public sites, but this is unclear. Internationally, it becomes even more complex trying to understand what is required.

Section 508 discusses Web-based intranet and Internet information and applications. It establishes criteria based on guidelines developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium. The standards apply to Federal web sites, but not to private web sites unless a site is provided under contract to a Federal agency, in which case only that web site or portion covered by the contract would have to comply.

It is clear that handicapped people want to access web sites and that they are a large audience. Companies can accommodate these users by understanding how their site works for the handicapped. Many minor changes can make big improvements in accessibility. Finally, companies can use content management systems to generate new or alternate pages with improved accessibility.

According to WebAIM, an accessibility website, there are five types of disabilities that affect web usage.

They are:

* Visual impairments

* Hearing impairments

* Mobility impairments

* Cognitive impairments

* Seizure disorders

Several web sites provide free tools for evaluating your site's accessibility. WatchFire provides a free web page test. It allows you to put in a URL and check for accessibility barriers. Human Factors International hosts a streaming audio presentation that demonstrates how a website sounds to a user of a screen reader. It contrasts how an accessible page differs from a typical page. Vischeck provides an online service that simulates how any web page will look to people with various visual impairments.

If you decide that you need to make accessibility improvements to your site, the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium is the place to start. They provide a variety of resources, and provide guidelines, check lists and other tools to help companies create accessible web sites.

Most companies can make accessibility improvements by following the W3's basic recommendations:

* Images and animations - Use the alt attribute to describe the function of each visual.

* Image maps - Use the client-side map and text for hotspots.

* Multimedia - Provide captioning and transcripts of audio, and descriptions of video.

* Hypertext links - Use text that makes sense when read out of context.

* Page organization - Use headings, lists and consistent structure and CSS for style.

* Graphs and charts - Summarize or use the longdesc attribute.

* Scripts, applets and plug-ins - Provide alternative content as needed.

* Frames - Use the noframes element and meaningful titles.

* Tables - Make line-by-line reading sensible. Summarize.

Unfortunately, it's very easy to understand what makes a web site difficult to use, but it can be harder to make a site accessible while also meeting all the other goals for the site. At many companies, there has not been anything pushing the need to make pages accessible. This may change, depending on how current lawsuits turn out.

Companies can hedge their bets by using a content-management system to generate their HTML. These systems allow you to tag pages semantically, and they will generate HTML or other code automatically. The benefit of this approach is that you can modify your page-generation templates for improved accessibility now. As accessibility requirements evolve, you can regenerate your pages using updated templates, or even create alternate templates for specific groups of users.

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