Improved Web access for disabled users benefits all

Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act mandates improved access to U.S. government Web sites for users with disabilities. Although the rules target federal Web sites, commercial and public Web sites could also benefit by improving accessibility.

Earlier this year, U.S. government Web sites were required to meet new Web accessibility rules (Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998) mandating better access to IT for employees and members of the public who are disabled.

While similar accessibility regulations have not yet been proposed for the consumer and business arena, it’s a very likely scenario.

The need to meet potential guidelines is only one reason CIOs should seriously consider revamping enterprise sites, both internal and external, to extend accessibility to the disabled.

In this article, we’ll discuss the business benefits that enterprises can reap, from improved customer service to expanding the customer base, if their Web sites are fully accessible to users with disabilities. We’ll also highlight how to approach the revamp effort and look at some tools and quick fixes you can use to support the effort.

It's more cost-efficient to revamp today
Section 508 has pulled Web-site accessibility issues to the forefront, and it’s likely that your partners and clients are concerned about making improvements for users who are disabled.

Planning and working ahead can only help an enterprise be better prepared for requests and accessibility regulations, which may come later. The effort to comply now can also prove cost-efficient, since projects undertaken today will cost less than if initiated later, due to typical inflation rates and rising costs for IT implementations.

Some experts use the analogy of today’s wheelchair accessibility rules. Initially, the U.S. government required that all federal buildings be wheelchair accessible. Later, the accessibility law was extended to include all public buildings. Today, all businesses and most multifamily dwellings are required to provide both wheelchair ramps and access-friendly entrances within a building.

Another reason to improve accessibility is tied to possible liability issues. If a user isn’t able to read site text or access information that’s only accessible either by clicking or keyboard movements on a public Web site, it could be determined that the company is illegally blocking access by disabled users. These public sites could be deemed anything from a company’s intranet to an e-commerce site to an organization’s informational home page.

James Warren, vice president of operations for an annual festival held in the Northeast United States, is involved with an organization that has already faced the accessibility issue.

“We were approached by an attorney who represented a group that wanted better access to our site’s information,” Warren said. “The point made to us was that our activities took place on public property and that every aspect of the event—the actual physical gathering and the online community—should be accessible to everyone.”

In response to the concern, and a possible legal battle, Warren’s organization revamped its site, and the group dropped the legal challenge.

It also makes good business sense to improve accessibility. According to the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation, about 10 percent of Web users are disabled. The disabilities range from impaired vision to physical limitations that prevent the use of a mouse or keyboard.

ICan, an online portal and community for people with disabilities, estimates that disabled consumers control about $188 billion in disposable income. For e-commerce organizations, disabled users who shop online and access information through the Web make up a valuable market segment.

Improving accessibility for this population will likely increase site traffic and could boost future sales and increase the client base.

Revamping site accessibility can be painless
When the decision is made to improve site accessibility, development teams have many tools and services to choose from, and some site adjustments are actually easy and inexpensive to implement.

Many companies are using the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web content accessibility guidelines as a starting point. The W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative has developed detailed specifications. Its technical group works on technology, guidelines, and tools to increase accessibility of the Web for people with disabilities.

Groups such as iCan offer accessibility consulting services and provide accessibility and usability evaluation and auditing services. The iCan auditing service tests a site for more than 88 possible accessibility violations

There are also various commercial software packages that a CIO can use to assess site accessibility and progress towards improving accessibility. One is Enterprise Solution, a Watchfire application that provides three levels of review on a site’s accessibility.

Improvements have widespread benefits
One of the least discussed benefits of making a site more accessible to users with disabilities is that the site is actually then easier for everyone to use.

“Many of the things you need to do to comply with Section 508, like adding tags to images, audio and video files, make a site much more search-engine friendly,” explained David Grant, product marketing manager for Watchfire Corp., a Web site management software company based in Lexington, MA.

Watchfire’s product provides a quick summary of what percent of the site’s pages have accessibility and usability problems. The IT manager can then drill down into the report and view pages with specific accessibility problems (e.g., tags missing from image files). The Web administrator can go yet a level deeper and see what elements on each page have problems.

In addition to using software tools, simple site development adjustments, such as captioning of audio files, can actually enhance overall machine indexing of content and produce faster search functionality, according to iCan.

Spending time and money to improve Web site accessibility for disabled users can help e-commerce sites boost sales. The effort can also make your site more attractive to all of your users.

Has your organization faced accessibility issues?
If so, share how you solved them with CIO Republic members.


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