RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Is designing for blind worth the trouble and cost?

November 27, 2006

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a potentially groundbreaking lawsuit stewing in the cauldron of a California federal court. There, the National Federation of the Blind has been allowed to go forward in its suit against Target Brands, which runs Target department stores, claiming that Target should have to make its Web site as easily accessible to the blind as its brick-and-mortar stores. I thought it would be an obscure case, but it's been puffed up into something of a cyberspace cause célèbre.

The issue isn't even new. The online services giant America Online dodged a similar suit in 2000 by promptly complying when confronted by the same organization. The dilemmas of accessible Web design have generated books such as "Accessible Web Sites" from Glasshaus, published in 2002.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has been with us for many years, as has the grudging movement toward compliance with that legislation. Yet the current case has stirred up controversy in several quarters, not all of it with tender regard for the blind.

My own advocacy for accessibility began at a conference I attended some years back, when I met some handicapped folk who were giving a session on how to design for the handicapped. They pointed out that, for the most part, designing for the handicapped benefited everybody else, too. Wider aisles, nonskid floors, better signage and simple Web site pages could make everybody happier. I came away changed.

Now I'm learning that the world seems to be roughly divided between two kinds of people: those who have known the handicapped, and those who haven't. Those who have, seem to be accessibility advocates. Those who haven't, argue the point.

I saw this split on the hugely popular technical blog Slashdot (www.slashdot.org). This is where Web designers hang out, and when the simple question, "Should online stores be subject to ADA?" was posted, it generated some 500 responses, which is a truckload of talk even for Slashdot, a site that has been responsible single-handedly for the emergence of the adjective "slashdotted" to describe a site that is mentioned on Slashdot and then overwhelmed with eager visitors in vast numbers. Slashdotters are the technerati who build some of the world's most complex Web sites, so they know what they're talking about.

The two sides formed up immediately. Frustration and irritation oozed from messages lambasting the ADA, accessibility standards and the desirability of catering to a small fraction of users. Slashdotters are not known for being diplomatic. Many remarked that the blind should use the telephone to order goods, that the tiny minority of users who are blind should stop trying to compel the majority to reduce their own visual pleasure, and that compliance would make their jobs so much harder that costs would soar. I happen not to believe most of that, but let it pass.

Interestingly, ADA advocates frequently mentioned in their posts that they supported the lawsuit because they knew somebody who was disabled, often a friend, spouse or other relative. It was often a personal contact that stirred their consciences and made them put commercial frustration behind ethical considerations. It's exactly the way I felt, too. I had no particular interest in accessibility before that conference.

Still, there is an opposing point to be heard, and refusing to design for the blind is not always the equivalent of kicking a puppy. Walter Olson states the case pretty well in a now-vintage 2000 post on his old blog ReasonOnline (www.reason.com/news/show/27697. html).

He mentions that, while ADA compliance might not be overwhelmingly difficult, it's probably more than the smallbusiness owner can handle on his own, necessitating yet another professional on retainer even for tiny Web sites. Multiuse, noncompliant content, such as a white paper or press release that was never designed for online use would also become a problem for screen readers that the blind use. While costs likely wouldn't rocket skyward, they would undoubtedly climb a bit.

And as is often the case, the proportional cost would be far greater for small businesses than for large companies. I know of a small family restaurant whose owners sold out rather than take on the cost of remodeling bathrooms to ADA standards. A chain is in the building now.

I recently finished the book "The Americans: The Colonial Experience," by Daniel J. Boorstein. In it, Boorstein contrasts the Puritans of Massachusetts with the governing Quakers of Pennsylvania. While he admires the Quakers, he says they did a poor job of running the colony, and eventually had to abdicate, because they couldn't find the balance between idealism and pragmatism that the Puritans did. It strikes me that the issue hasn't changed a bit, and the challenge today is still to find that balance. Do we idealistically serve the tiny disabled populace or pragmatically turn away?

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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