Web Blind Spots

The disabled community is potentially a big market. So why is it ignored?

Put a Web developer up against a wall and demand why his or her site isnt accessible to the disabled. Youre likely to get a response something like this recent anonymous posting to online techie news site slashdot.org: "Im sorry, the burden is on the user," the correspondent sniffed. "Im not going to dumb down the graphics on my site for anyone!"

Obviously, theres more than one way to be blind.

Like the anonymous e-mailer, many Web developers either have written off online disabled users or are unaware of how to go about making their sites accessible to the disabled. Between 95 percent and 99 percent of sites are inaccessible to the visually, hearing- and/or mobility-impaired, according to studies. Problems are so common that analysts attempting to evaluate sites for disabled access have been overwhelmed. "The way weve been looking at evaluating sites is a triage approach," said Harley Manning, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. "Weve been so overcome with errors."

But, say analysts, ignoring the issue of disabled accessibility is not only unnecessary, its bad business. For one thing, the disabled community represents a large-and largely untapped-online market. For another, companies that fail to make their sites accessible to the disabled may soon face legal and regulatory challenges. The good news is that making it possible for disabled consumers to access your site doesnt necessarily require large expenditures of time or money-nor does it mean making the site unattractive to non-disabled users.

There are a couple of keys: First, justify the need to invest in disabled access primarily in terms of expanding market share, and second, design sites from the beginning using techniques that can easily support technologies that allow for access by the disabled. Technologies for enabling Web site access for the disabled and tips on how to use them are, for the most part, easy to find and use. One of the most useful tools is the so-called Alternate tag (ALT tag) standard, supported by HTML and most browsers. Web programmers use ALT tags to assign brief text descriptions to images such as screen icons. With a text reader, a visually impaired user can get an audio description of the ALT-tagged icon and can navigate a site. The World Wide Web Consortium is currently pushing tool vendors to support accessibility standards such as ALT tags.