As with most Web sites, the click-on-me buttons in the banner ads for America Online Inc.s online service read with simple, understandable interfaces. "Tell me more," they say, or "No thanks."
If youre reading this story as text online or on paper, thats fine. You can easily choose the correct button to get out of the limbo of ad banners. But if youre visually impaired, youre stuck because your text reader sputters out the uninformative words "button ... button."
Thats just one of a slew of complaints the National Federation of the Blind outlined in a case lodged in a landmark lawsuit against AOL in November. The suit claims AOL violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide access for the disabled to its site. The NFB hopes to make an example of AOL to convince other companies to make their sites accessible to the disabled.
The NFB chose to sue AOL because "theyre big-upwards of 22 million," said Curtis Chong, director of technology for the NFB, in Baltimore. "Because theyre so big, they could be a trendsetter, a standard setter. Theyre influencing the way Internet services are packaged and provided to customers."
According to an NFB lawyer, Dan Goldstein, of Brown, Goldstein and Levy LLP, in Baltimore, the sides are now trying to hammer out a settlement that will achieve accessibility on the one hand and make good business sense for AOL on the other.
The lawsuit is just one example of courts and regulators beginning to push for more Web site access for the disabled. Whereas the jurys still out on AOL, the verdicts already in on a new federal regulation that will require government agencies to make sites accessible. Posted late last month, the Section 508 amendment to the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 mandates that federal agencies purchase only accessible software and that federal sites be made as accessible as possible. It goes into effect Aug. 7.
So, what does such a regulatory skirmish have to do with commercial sites? For one thing, the U.S. government is the nations biggest consumer of technology, so if technology vendors want to keep selling to that valuable client, theyll have to accommodate Section 508.
Similarly, if AOL is forced by courts to improve access for the disabled to its site, plenty of other inaccessible Web sites could be sitting ducks for lawsuit sharpshooters.
"Given the number of sites weve been seeing that dont pass [Forrester Research Inc.s proprietary accessibility] test, Id say that if the blind community wants to press this, theyll have the opportunity to hit something like one out of three sites," said Harley Manning, an analyst at Forrester, in Cambridge, Mass.
Whats ironic is that AOL technicians were aware of the problems a full six months prior to the lawsuit. AOL itself had invited The CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media to come on-site and advise programmers, developers and managers about designing for accessibility. According to Larry Goldberg, NCAM director of media access, in Boston, the nonprofit group conducted seminars to raise awareness, followed by an analysis of the client software to pinpoint fixes.
Goldberg said that the reaction from programmers was not only positive, it was also tinged with guilt as they realized that their work was flawed.
If front-line technicians recognized the problem, why wasnt anything done about it? Both Goldberg and Chong think that it might amount to a simple lack of internal communication. "Its a big organization," Goldberg noted.
Whats the moral of the story? Front-line technicians are an enterprises eyes and ears, so management better not be deaf to their recommendations.