Technology

Web demand by the disabled likely to increase: Accessibility rally aims to boost Internet access

April 18, 2005

There are 54 million Americans living with disabilities. Apparently, most U.S. businesses don't want their e-commerce.

Right now, universal Internet accessibility is a distant dream for the blind, deaf, handicapped and otherwise-disabled. According to local assistive-technology provider Attain Inc., less than 10 percent of Web sites are built with their needs in mind.

But Attain is hoping to help change that.

On June 11, Attain will stage a local "Accessibility Internet Rally" in conjunction with the national event's original organizers in Texas. Before the event begins, Attain will form teams of volunteer Web developers during the week of May 16. The developers will be trained about federal access mandates and accessibility design tools and techniques.

Once trained, the developers will then apply their skills to not-for-profit agencies' Web sites at the June 11 rally. The winners will receive trophies and gift certificates.

Increasing the Web-site access for disabled users makes good business sense for both charities and businesses, said Attain Development Director Kelley Romweber.

"Web accessibility benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities," she said. "It's a win-win situation. There's a million people, just in Indiana, that have some form of disability. That opens up a lot of customers for them."

What's more, she said, disabled customers are often loyal to the businesses that make the investments necessary to universally enable their Web sites. And, if done at the outset, that investment is much less than attempting to tack accessibility on later.

David Schleppenbach, CEO of West Lafayette-based assistive-technology provider Gh LLC, said incorporating universal accessibility is easier than most people think, if done from the start. Thinking beyond the keyboard and mouse for inputs, or the screen and speakers for outputs, involves recognizing how a disabled user might interact with a site. The changes can be as simple as alterations in color or text size. Or they might mean using emerging XML standards so content can be translated to the latest assistive devices.

Right now, Schleppenbach acknowledged, the demand for universal accessibility from most businesses is low. But just as wheelchair ramps were once uncommon, he expects regulatory requirements to increase. So executives should incorporate universal accessibility before it's mandated.

"Something that might cost $5,000 or $10,000 extra to get it done from the start becomes a million-dollar retrofit project," he said. "In three years, [companies that don't incorporate universal accessibility] are going to regret it, because of the cost of compliance."

And that market of 54 million people is increasing each year, Schleppenbach said, as the baby boomers creep up in age. Used to using computers and the Internet for years, they'll expect accommodations for their changing needs.

"You can see the handwriting on the wall. This is the next civil rights movement, the disabled rights movement," he said. "Eventually, there will be a market need as an aging population requires these kinds of innovations. Give it another five years, and this will become an ordinary process of developing a Web site."

Ron Brumbarger, president and CEO of Carmel-based Web developer BitWise Solutions Inc., said his firm has added universal accessibility to sites in the past. But he confirmed that it's far from common practice. Most clients think of it as an investment with an uncertain return, he said, like translating their site into Spanish.

"Good, bad or indifferent, it does cost a little more money," he said. "Therein lies the decision-making criteria."

But like Schleppenbach and Romweber, Brumbarger expects universal accessibility to become a common expectation of Web sites in the years to come.

"I applaud the efforts of doing this [rally]," he said. "[Accessibility] will mirror the multilingual sites. Five years ago, it was unheard of. Now, every third site we build is being translated."

For more information about the rally, contact Romweber at kromweber@attaininc.orgor visit www.knowbility.org/airindy.
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