Accessibility: No Longer an Option

February 19, 2006

When I look around the web, I'm astonished at the number of web sites that make little or no effort to comply with web standards or accessibility guidelines. And some of these folks...well, you can't help but think they ought to know better. For instance, this week it was announced that Target is being sued for violating the California Disabled Persons Act because its web site isn't accessible to visually impaired customers. You've got to wonder if this was much of a surprise to them. Is there anyone familiar with the web who didn't think lawsuits weren't coming? I'm just amazed it took this long. Now, I'm no accessibility expert, but even I know there's no excuse not to build accessible web sites today. The percentage of web users who have some visual disability has been estimated to be as high as 10%. You can't ignore those kinds of numbers. And if you do... Well, look at Target. Not only are they being sued, the number of customers and sales they've lost over the years because of inaccessibility must be huge. Target and other brick-and-mortar operations have long taken for granted the requirement to provide handicapped parking, entrance ramps and accessible bathrooms in their buildings. Providing equal accessibility to their web sites should have been a given. So, why wasn't it? Why are so many sites still inaccessible? Is it because designers don't want to take the trouble to learn how to write standard-compliant code? Yes, that's part of the trouble. But only part. Even designers who know how simple it is to make a site more accessible are often frustrated in their efforts by concerns about browser (particularly backward) compatibility. Yes, you can build an accessible web site, but chances are it will look like crappy in Internet Explorer 5. From my point of view, this is not a problem. The choice is: I can write code for the 5% of people who could but haven't bothered to download a new version of their browser or I can write code for the 10% of people forced by disability to use assistive devices. I'd call this a no-brainer--get off your butt and upgrade your browser. As I've said, I'm no accessibility expert. My own designs aren't nearly as accessible as I'd like them to be. And I'm feeling an increasing sense of urgency about that. Because accessibility isn't just about making web sites that can accommodate the disabled--it's about creating sites that can accessed by all devices, including cell phones and PDAs. Writing accessible- and standards-compliant code is the only way to ensure that a page will render well in these devices. More importantly, it's the only way to design for the future. It's going to be a world of wireless, handheld devices and sophisticated aggregators sooner than you think. In that world of smaller screens and new technology, all our old non-compliant sites are going to look like Cubist mistakes. At that point accessibility isn't going to be an option. So my question is--why wait?