A lawsuit contending that Southwest Airlines Co. violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because its Web site was inaccessible to the blind has been rejected by a US federal judge.
But the advocacy group that filed the suit and a blind individual plan to appeal the decision. The group Access Now Inc. and Robert Gumson contended that Southwest's online virtual ticket counters are "extremely difficult" -- but technically possible -- to use.
At issue: Web site accessibility and whether sites created by companies fall under the aegis of the ADA law.
In one of the first court decisions on the applicability of the ADA to the Internet, a U.S. District Court judge in Florida said the ADA concerns physical spaces, not virtual ones, and left it up to Congress to decide whether to broaden the law to include cyberspace.
But in a footnote to her 12-page decision, Judge Patricia Seitz expressed surprise that a customer-focused company like Southwest didn't "employ all available technologies to expand accessibility to its Web site for visually impaired customers who would be an added source of revenue."
When asked about the dispute, Southwest spokeswoman Christine Turneabe-Connelly acknowledged that some screen readers -- software that converts on-screen text to audio or refreshable Braille display -- may have had problems with the company's Web site and said that Southwest is "exploring some possibilities" to make "our Web site more user-friendly" for the blind or visually impaired.
"We do everything we can, obviously, to make this Web site user-friendly. That's always been our focus for every customer," said Turneabe-Connelly.
Problems with Web site accessibility aren't uncommon, and accessibility is strictly a matter of whether a Web site designer "programmed it for people who are blind," said Access Now President Edward Resnick.
Many companies rush to create Web sites without considering accessibility and may later balk at spending money to retrofit their sites. As a rule, building in accessibility during a Web site's design costs only a quarter of the amount needed to retrofit a site later, said Jennifer Vollmer, a research analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.
Accessibility "should be part of the overall Web content strategy," Vollmer said. "It should be a no-brainer. But it has not just been a priority for companies."
Web accessibility can be provided without sacrificing a site's features. The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) has published accessibility guidelines, and many involve simple rules, such as using markup and style sheets properly; avoiding the use of color alone to signal something; and allowing viewers to stop or pause moving, blinking, scrolling or auto-updating objects or pages.
In 1998, Congress amended the federal Rehabilitation Act to require U.S. agencies, government contractors and others receiving federal money to make electronic and IT services accessible to people with disabilities. The rule is known as Section 508. The ADA, however, was approved in 1990, before the Web was an issue for lawmakers.
Improving accessibility also means improving the awareness and training of programmers, said Gerry Santoro, an assistant professor of information sciences and technology at Pennsylvania State University.
"In general, programmers write for themselves" and are interested in only designing a system that works, said Santoro. "The same is true of Web designers; they tend to design for themselves," he said.