Web Access Disabled by 90s Design

Peter Coffee: Whether or not a site is a "place," Web builders should design for universal access.

With its dubious victory this month in a U.S. District Court, Southwest Airlines won the right to continue its practice of 20th-century Web site design that wont meet future needs for feeding content to diverse devices--as well as to diverse users. The company would be wiser to behave as if it had lost.

The court defined the questions before it as "whether Southwests Internet website is a place of public accommodation," and whether Southwest must "make the goods and services available at its virtual ticket counters accessible to visually impaired persons." The plaintiffs argued that Southwests Web site is clearly a venue of "exhibition, display and a sales establishment." The court, however, found that these words were only used in the Americans with Disabilities Act as descriptions of the functions of specific types of physical public accommodation to be covered.

Congress, in its attempt to be comprehensive, wound up being restrictive: The judge determined that "the general terms, exhibition, display, and sales establishment, are limited to their corresponding specifically enumerated terms, all of which are physical, concrete structures, namely: motion picture house, theater, concert hall, stadium; museum, library, gallery; and bakery, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center, respectively. Thus, this Court cannot properly construe a place of public accommodation to include Southwests Internet website."

Its refreshing to see a judge declining the opportunity to make new law, telling Congress that if it wants the law to change with the times, it has to change the law itself. Its perverse, though, for enterprises seeking to serve the most customers at the least cost to pass up the opportunity to make Web sites available by every possible means.

Far too many Web sites are clearly victims of the Visual Basic development paradigm--define the appearance, then populate the visual interface with behaviors--when what they need to be is repositories of data and function that can readily be packaged for many different uses.

But judges dont write software and therefore only see the concrete aspects of the Internet metaphor. We could argue all day with the judge about whether a Web page is a place, and we wouldnt even begin to talk about the degree to which standards-based technologies are part of appropriate public policy.

If Web sites delivering government services arent usable by every reasonable form of access technology, then services are being offered in ways that implicitly favor certain technology providers and certain classes of citizen. Thats clearly unacceptable, but many will argue that commercial sites are in a different group.

But if a commercial site jealously guards its right to look nice, perhaps in only one specific brand of Web browser, that site may be giving up any number of opportunities for exposure. When Im searching for the best source for my next digital camera (Im currently inviting bids on a Sony DSC-F717), the vendors that are dynamically indexed by various customer-opinion Web sites (such as BizRate or PriceGrabber) have a significant edge. When Im looking for news sites, the ones that offer audio and Tagged-PDF download options for my Pocket PC (or my future mobile terminal?) will get more hits from me than those that assume a full-screen browser. Sites should be putting their talent and their bandwidth into delivering value, not pushing pixels.

If you sell IT products and services to the federal government, the Americans with Disabilities Act is not the only mandate that needs to be factored into your designs. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act also mandates accessibility, and in less vague terms: The government actively promotes acquisition of accessible products and services, and Im already starting to see Section 508 compliance documents included in software packages that I review.

Access technology marches on, and visual elements of Web sites may soon be available to visually impaired users through devices resembling electronic Braille readers as announced late last week by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

But even if visually oriented Web site design could be overcome by end-user hardware, that wouldnt make it a good way to think about the task of developing and delivering content on the Net.

Tell me how youre re-thinking content delivery