The world is forever changing and nowhere is it more evident than in the field of technology. For all of us who have been on the Web for the past decade, the internet of today is a far cry from its humble beginnings. In the past few years Web pages have gone from text based to technological wonders full of flash animation, photos, videos, security systems and spam blockers, all of which have made Web sites more difficult or impossible for the disabled to use.
Back “in the day” we were faced with the obstacle of how to make web pages accessible to disabled users. This necessitated the need for “text only” versions of web pages. Today, individuals who are blind, dyslexic, or vision impaired access the Internet using a “screen reader”. The software reads on screen text out loud and uses a braille-enabled keyboard. But advances in Web design can severely inhibit the use of this software.
For those hard of hearing, the advent of audio/visual material presents its own obstacles. Most Web sites do not offer closed captioning for their audio/visual content. For those with limited dexterity there is the additional challenge to manipulate the keyboard in traditional ways and many Web sites do not opt to set alternative means of navigation into their sites.
The recent class action suit filed against Target may change the way the internet works. The suit was filed by the National Federation of the Blind in 2006 and contends that Target violated the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as two California civil rights statutes. While Federal Web sites are required to be handicap accessible, Section 508 of the federal Rehabilitation Act requires that all private-sector firms that are doing business with the federal government comply as well.
Several states have passed laws requiring that online businesses provide access for disabled persons. However many of these laws do not provide clear and consistent guidelines for accessibility and many online entities are not aware of the requirement that their sites be accessible to those with disabilities.
Its a win-win situation for businesses who choose to comply. The same design elements which make a Web site more accessible are the same elements which make a Web site search engine friendly.
Interestingly, as global markets become more the norm, pressure from overseas may change the way Web sites are constructed because many countries have very clear laws about accessibility and these laws apply to the Internet.
It is clear that the problem of Web accessibility will be an important issue in the coming years. There are currently major movements to establish a set of guidelines for accessibility for the Web. The most well-known is The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which is part of the World Wide Web Consortium. The WAI developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 which explains how to make Web content accessible to people with disabilities. These initiatives will address problems with Web accessibility including visual, auditory or cognitive impairments, motor or mobility problems and seizures.
The final goal is to assure that sites are correctly built and maintained so that all of these users can be accommodated while not impacting non-disabled users.