MINNEAPOLIS: Surfing the Web is an entirely different experience for someone with a physical disability.
Something as simple as buying an outfit online or sending messages to co-workers can be challenging on many sites and web applications for someone who can't see the screen or has trouble moving a mouse.
"It's pretty rare for me to go to a website and not encounter any accessibility issues," said Aaron Cannon, a website developer who is legally blind.
Last fall, Cannon seized an opportunity to help change how the disabled experience the Internet when he and several others started a Minneapolis consulting group that helps companies and their web developers make their sites more accessible.
The company, called Accessible360, audits and tests websites to determine how accessible they are and recommends improvements.
With a staff of about a dozen people, Accessible360 provides training for technical staff to share best practices. It also offers a subscription service to continually monitor sites and help make sure they stay accessible.
Some common accessibility pitfalls are when sites don't have PDFs that are readable so that screen readers can pick up the text and when text is embedded in images in a certain way that it also is not able to be read. For those with motor skill difficulties, the "tab" key is often used for navigation to highlight different elements of a web page, but sometimes that function is disabled. Many of these are easy fixes that a developer who is versed in accessibility can avoid before they become problems.
"The fundamental issue is that there is a lack of understanding by the people building the websites in the first place," Cannon said.
Nearly 20% of Americans live with a disability, according to recent US Census data. Some are born with a condition while others develop disabilities as they age.
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in physical areas such as schools and at workplaces, but, when it was written in 1990, the World Wide Web was not even a consideration.
Amended regulations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require government and school sites to be accessible and the ADA also applies to the accessibility of online job applications from any company, but there still aren't concrete laws that pertain to all websites and apps. Internationally, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, also known as the WCAG 2.0, are viewed as the standard.
The US Department of Justice is expected to provide more clarity on rules for website accessibility in 2018. However, that hasn't prevented the battle for accessibility to be fought in the courtroom during the interim. Many businesses have been sued for reportedly failing to have accessible websites with several courts often ruling that the ADA does apply to websites. Many of the cases ended up settling.
Target Corp was sued by the National Federation of the Blind in 2006, for what the organisation called "systemic civil rights violations" by the retailer for allowing its website to be "literally impossible for blind users to even complete a transaction," according to the class-action suit. The parties reached a settlement in 2008. Aside from the monetary award, Target also agreed to improve the site, and Cannon said it is now a great example of an accessible site. The retailer has an internal team dedicated to digital accessibility.
"In a strange way, these lawyers who are filing these suits are actually helping correct an issue," said Mark Lacek, Accessible360 co-founder and president.
Lacek, a Twin Cities entrepreneur who started marketing agencies the Lacek Group and Denali, said he was given the idea to start Accessible360 by a law colleague who told him last year about all the companies that were being sued for not being accessible.
Lacek said he hopes in the near future it won't be the threat of lawsuits that drives many companies to action but the idea that it makes the most business sense to make their websites available to everyone and the fact that it is just the right thing to do.
"This is a social issue that can be fixed," Lacek said.
Accessible360 has started to work with clients from across different categories that are trying to be proactive about accessibility.
Several members of the Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota have started to take the issue of web accessibility more seriously as they have become more educated with the help of the association and Accessible360, said Doug Krukowski, chief operating officer for the banking group. Told about accessibility issues, many have tried to make changes to their sites. Some banks have even decided to change web developers to better address accessibility concerns, Krukowski said.
"If accessibility isn't enough motivation, you can look at it from a dollar-and-cents perspective," he said. "Once you create an accessible website, it also works better with search engine optimization and other things so people will find you faster."
The Minneapolis Institute of Art is also at the beginning stages of tackling accessibility and is in the process of trying to prioritize what to do first with the help of Accessible360, said Douglas Hegley, chief digital officer for the museum.
"The word 'accessible' is in our mission statement. ... For us (in terms of) accessibility, we have work to do primarily because our website is full of images and that is difficult," he said.
Marketing firm GoKart Labs is having Accessible360 train its developers, designers and project managers in accessibility principles.
"They can help us as a company embrace our beliefs and act on those and more importantly help our developers build their own skills to make sure the experiences that we provide for our clients are really high quality, have integrity and are keeping up with the regulations and the laws," said Jim Cuene, president at GoKart. — Star Tribune (Minneapolis)/Tribune News Service