Ignored aspect of digital divide

Disability: Making the Web fully accessible to the impaired is the democratic thing to do — and it makes good business sense.

By Beth A. Haller, July 22, 2001

Beth A. Haller, Ph.D., is assistant professor of mass communication at Towson University in Maryland. She has researched and written exten sively on media and disability is sues.

A CRUCIAL DEADLINE to make the world of cyberspace more accessible to Americans with disabilities passed unnoticed by the U.S. media last month.

It may be the media’s fault for not covering disability issues thoroughly, but more likely it is the government keeping the deadline quiet because its agencies are not yet in full compliance.

The Section 508 Standards for Electronic and Information Technology, which are an amendment to the federal Rehabilitation Act, required accessibility of federal agencies’ computer and information technology for all people with disabilities by June 21, 2001.

This means all federal information should now be accessible. However, in the world of cyberspace, federal agencies do not have to completely change their Web
sites, but must try for basic compliance with Section 508.

Although I understand the financial aspects of 508 compliance, I believe that full Web accessibility should be the goal of the federal government, because so much of its information is on the Web. This Web information is part of our democratic process and citizens with disabilities should have access to it. If we are not vigilant in maintaining full Internet accessibility for all citizens, we could cut off segments of society from a primary mode of communication and information.

The San Diego-based Center for an Accessible Society says Section 508 is a natural extension of federal civil rights laws for people with disabilities that have included the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and sections of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

“Our nation is now witnessing a rapid convergence of these traditionally telecommunications technologies with new and advanced electronic and information
technologies,” the center explains. “As our federal government becomes increasingly reliant on these convergent technologies, Section 508 will ensure that individuals with disabilities will be able to reap their many benefits.”

In addition to ensuring people with disabilities have equal status within our democracy, a more accessible Web reaps additional benefits for disabled individuals. In a Harris poll last year, many more adults with disabilities (48 percent) than adults without disabilities (27 percent) reported that the Internet significantly improved the quality of their lives. When people with disabilities have access to new technologies, they can fulfill more of their employment potential, which means many may transition from government-subsidized programs to becoming taxpayers.

For example, a program in Tennessee called Computers for Homebound and Isolated Persons (CHIPS) is helping David, a quadriplegic man, use voice input
software for word processing. He is writing a grant proposal and working as an advocate for other people with disabilities.

Many good reasons exist for bridging the digital accessibility divide. It creates what Steve Jacobs, director of the Association of Access Engineering Specialists, calls an “electronic curb cut” that benefits everyone.

What he means is that creating computer technology and Web designs that are accessible to everyone assists more than just people with disabilities, just like sidewalk curb cuts are used by everyone, not just wheelchair users.

Thankfully, many Web developers are aware of the accessibility divide for people with disabilities. In 1997 an international community of Web developers and computer scientists, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) joined with government, the business community and nonprofits to create the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) for people with disabilities worldwide.

Because the Web has no geographic borders, WAI is trying to make sure the Web is accessible to the 750 million people it estimates thathave disabilities
worldwide. Michael Paciello, founder of WebABLE Inc. and author of Web Accessibility for People with Disabilities, says the inaccessibility of the Web
environment was not intended.

“The Web followed a very typical development process based on standard engineering processes that, all too often, do not include considerations for people with disabilities,” he said. “Subsequently, most advanced technologies are not accessible to people with disabilities.” Therefore, he advocates that Web developers and programmers take a holistic approach by making sure Web interfaces can be used by anyone, regardless of ability to see or hear or use hands for typing.

For example, for people with visual impairments, the graphics-oriented Web erects the largest number of barriers. Web developers need to make sure their sites are compatible with software that reads text aloud, converts it to Braille, or that their sites have audio description.

Even novice Web developers can make their sites accessible. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), a nonprofit organization that tries to expand
opportunities for people with disabilities through innovative uses of computer technology, developed a tool called Bobby that assesses the accessibility of Web sites for people with disabilities.

Some might argue that it is not worth their time or effort to make their Web sites accessible for a “niche” such as people with disabilities.

However, Paciello counters: “The Web has become a commodity that everyone has to have and everyone needs to use because it is built upon the most important
commodity of the next millennium: information.”

Bridging the digital accessibility divide is just good business. It may actually encourage more innovation and future product sales.

“This gives companies something else to use to compete against each other,” Ken Nakata, trial attorney with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, said in Electronic Engineering Times. “The one that builds in the most features and comes closest to the [Section 508] standard will have an edge in procurement.”

Paciello adds that the Web may be even more important to consumers with disabilities if architectural barriers make some brick-and-mortar stores inaccessible or communication barriers make getting questions answered difficult. With or without a disability, Paciello says, “the convenience factor alone is enough reason to shop online.”

Savvy businesspeople will see that reaching 750 million disabled people worldwide with their products and services makes sense. The President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities reports that U.S. consumers with disabilities represent $175 billion in discretionary income.

Online e-commerce continues to explode, with the U.S. Commerce Department reporting sales reaching $25.8 billion last year.

However, commerce is not the only reason for Web accessibility; potential lawsuits are another. America Online avoided a lawsuit from the Baltimore-based
National Federation of the Blind last year by agreeing to retool its software to be compatible with programs that change digital information to speech or Braille.

A number of court cases have also interpreted sections of the 1990 ADA as applying to the online accessibility. In 1998, Randy Tamez, who is blind, filed a complaint under the ADA against the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in San Francisco, asking that the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) District’s Web site be made accessible for blind people.

His successful argument was that the Web site disseminated transportation information to the general public, and an inaccessible Web site was a violation of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in “places of public accommodation.”

“A Web site is like a public building,” Tamez told the San Francisco Examiner. “You open it up to the public, and you can’t discriminate against people who can’t get up the stairs.”

Finally, bridging the accessibility divide is crucial, according to enlightened Web developers, because as new technologies explode, everyone may soon be interacting with the Web in exactly the same way as some people with disabilities. The development of the hands-busy, eyes-busy, always-on-the-move professional will mean many more nondisabled people who never touch a keyboard or who need a Web site that literally speaks to them.

Therefore, it is people with disabilities who are poised to be at the cutting edge of the way we all interact with computer and information technology. They can best guide us toward making computer technology usable by all citizens.

Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun

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