Ranting about web accessibility

In March 2013, the Wall Street Journal published an article on lawsuits then in progress to force businesses to ensure that their websites were accessible to people with disabilities: Disabled Sue Over Web Shopping.

The article contained a few errors of fact such as ‘That could mean websites will be required to include spoken descriptions of photos and text boxes for the blind, as well as captions and transcriptions of multimedia features for the deaf’, but these paled into insignificance beside the claims made in the comments. I’ve brought together a few of the comments and added  my responses.

Costs and benefits of addressing accessibility

It’s too expensive

‘A site like Amazon has over a billion (yes, with a B) catalog pages. Updating them all will take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, thus raising prices for everyone.’

Response

Many of the images on amazon.com (at least the sample I tested) already have text equivalents. Perhaps Amazon has integrated accessibility into at least some of its business processes.

Also, as the article noted, building in accessibility as you go adds very little to the cost of publishing a website. Retrofitting it is much more expensive.

Businesses should be free to choose

‘A business should be free to make the cost/benefit analysis for itself, not have it forced..’

Response

Governments impose all sorts of obligations on businesses – to protect workers, customers and the environment, and to achieve any number of other goals. Their right to do so comes (in democracies) from the voters.

Business will do it if the ROI is there

‘If there was a ROI, then there would be no point in governmental involvement:’

Response

Businesses, like individuals, tend to keep doing what they’ve always done even when change would be beneficial. Making websites accessible generally also makes them leaner, faster, and easier for Google and other search engines to index.

Alternatives for people with disabilities

Persuasion vs litigation

‘Why can’t these people simply ask, suggest, or otherwise persuade these web-based companies to have a more user friendly portal? Why the hell does everyone have to sue?’

Response

I’m not aware of any case where a person or organisation has sued without first asking the business nicely. If anyone can cite an example, please add a comment (with citation).

Accessibility software

‘…there is 3rd party software that does this job extremely effectively.’

Response

The tools used by people with disabilities vary as much as their disabilities do: someone who is both deaf and blind might use a refreshable Braille display; someone who is blind might use a screen reader which, as the name suggests, reads out the text on screen. However, all these tools rely on the text content of a website – they cannot (yet) analyse an image and work out whether it is a button labelled ‘Search’ or a decorative image of a dancing cat.

Red herrings

Languages other than english

‘What about non-English speakers? … [It] is the beginning of a slippery slope.’

Response

While the inability to speak English in a society like the US or Australia is certainly a disadvantage, it’s not a disability.

What about driving?

‘What I’m surprised about is that no blind person has sued a car company for not making a car they can drive.’

Response

Allowing a blind person to drive a car (using current technology) would put others at risk. Whose safety is compromised by using current technology to make it as easy as possible for a blind person to use your website?

General insults

Those demanding access are ‘takers’

‘It seems we’ve turned into a nation of takers, no matter the reason’

Response

Making websites accessible to people with disabilities makes it easier for them to contribute to society – learning, working, shopping, paying their taxes. People who want to be able to do things for themselves are hardly ‘takers’.

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