Web sites need to be more accessible

A recent opinion column in the Finger Lakes Times on lawsuits regarding inaccessible web sites caught my eye.

Many web users find themselves fighting with poor web designs which make navigation difficult. Often they are sites done by people who care more about graphic impact than usability.

Imagine what challenges such sites pose to blind users.

Blind people have long been able to use the web by using special browsers called screen readers. Once there was a limited number of them available and they could be expensive. Now several free ones are available, including some which operate inside a standard browser such as Google’s Chrome.

If you have ever looked at the underlying code for web pages, you have seen how complex web page coding can be. If done poorly, the web pages can make the job screen readers have more difficult or even impossible.

As long as screen readers have existed, there have been recommendations about how to make it easier for them. Such changes rarely affect the visual look of a web page — instead, they require additional code which provides the readers with greater information.

For example, all graphics needs to have an “alt” text indicated, which describes what is depicted in the graphic, so the screen reader can read that.

When it comes to videos, the issue is more complex. Of course a blind person can listen to a video successfully, but some description of the video needs to be added for them. For those who are deaf, it’s recommended that videos include sign language interpretation.

Government agencies and contractors are required to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which specifies standards for accessibility which must be met. I’ve participated in online seminars organized by state agencies which they want to post on their web sites later. But they have to send them out to have the sign language interpretation done first.

Those rules don’t apply to private businesses unless they have government contracts.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed in 1990, requires that businesses make reasonable accommodation for those with disabilities, something which often means installing wheelchair ramps and related items. At the time the law was signed, the World Wide Web didn’t even exist. But it is being used by some lawyers to extract payments from businesses with web sites which the lawsuits claim are not accessible. Some lawsuits are resolved with a pledge by the site owner to fix the problems.

The difficulty is that there is no accepted standard for web sites to meet. So it’s nearly impossible for businesses to defend themselves against such lawsuits.

The World Wide Web Consortium, perhaps better known as W3C, works to standardize web programming. It has a standard called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The guidelines provide detailed recommendations on how to make sure web sites are accessible to those with disabilities. They have changed and been expanded over time to account for new web technologies.

In 2010, the U.S. Justice Department began to draft website regulations to set a standard which businesses could measure their web sites against. In December of 2017 the Trump administration stopped the process as part of the administration’s effort to reduce federal regulation.

Some members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have argued that the suspension of the effort actually is anti-business as it puts more burden on businesses that would benefit from knowing exactly what was expected of them. They have urged the Justice Department to establish a standard.

For those of you who do web sites, there are things you can do to make your site more accessible and to check the results.

More information on the W3C guidelines are available at: https://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG21/quickref/

I found many validators that you can use to check your site against the W3C guidelines, including free ones. The links to the validators tend to be very long and would be difficult to type. So if you want to try a few, go to www.toombs.info/fltimes/accessible.htm and you will find links there.

It’s best to run more than one validator and examine the results to see what is the most important to fix. The validators will give you differing results and they also vary by how much assistance they offer on methods to fix the problems they do find.

Many of the fixes are simple and can be done even if you use a program such as WordPress to do your site.