Be Prepared for the Visually Impaired

This is from an article someone forwared to me. I’m not 100% of the original source(although I’d guess it’s the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal)…

Ruling Has Web Designers Shifting Gears

Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal September 22, 2006 by Raksha Varma

Business has changed for America’s online retailers – and the Web design firms clustered in the Silicon Valley that build their e-commerce sites – thanks to a precedent-setting court ruling this month that says a retailer may be sued if its site is inaccessible to the blind.

A federal district court judge issued the ruling on Sept. 6 in a case brought by the National Federation of the Blind against Target Corp. The suit, filed in Berkeley, charged that Target’s site breaks a number of federal and state disabled-access laws.

The demand for blind-accessible sites is going to grow, according to local firms that construct e-commerce sites.

“Our firm does not get specific requests for that, so it’s a process I’d need to quickly become skilled in,” says Joel Slatis, head of Inc. “I think I’m going to see more requests for that.”

His San Jose firm constructed more than 50 sites last year for companies, such as Lisa Frank, and pulled in more than $250,000. He says the cost to build a small business’ site ranges from $2,000 to $10,000, depending on customer requirements, and he estimates that making a site blind-accessible could mean almost double the initial cost.

“There’d be an extra cost,” he says. “Especially if a business just upgraded their site only to redo it again to make it accessible.”

In order for a blind person to use a site, the person must possess the correct “reader” to access the site. Screen readers, such as Freedom Scientific’s popular model Jaws, can read aloud and output in Braille. These readers look for certain tags embedded in the site’s HTML code to interpret images and graphics, a process Mr. Slatis’ firm and others need to install – either when the site is created or in a later upgrade.

“All of a sudden, you’re not a site designer anymore,” Mr. Slatis says. “You’re an audio person, keeping in mind, OK the user cannot see this…Our firm might need to add staff trained in accessibility issues. That also raises our costs.”

John Pare, spokesman for the National Federal of the Blind, agrees that there is “extra cost and extra effort in making your site accessible,” and adds, “But it’s required…and it’s important.”

Prior to last month’s ruling, retailers weren’t required to make their sites blind-accessible. The Rehabilitation Act and Section 508, enacted as part of the act in 1998, only asks sites by all federal entities to be accessible. If businesses choose to build accessible sites, they look to industry standards and voluntary guidelines to make sure their sites are compliant.

“It should be a wake-up call to businesses that have not taken Web access into account,” says Mazen Basrawi, an attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, the Berkeley-based nonprofit law firm that represented the plaintiffs in the case. “Businesses would be very smart to begin to ensure accessibility is part of Web development from the get go.”

Some firms expect profits to go up from the anticipated surge in business.

“I expect to see an increase in demand,” says Skip Sanzeri, chief operating officer of M3iworks Inc. “A lot of businesses out there are going to need to determine plans to handle this strategy – it’s similar to Sarbanes-Oxley.”

The San Jose company employs close to 20 and built 193 sites in 2005. For larger businesses (e-commerce sites generating $500,000 to $1 million sales), the tab for site construction ranges from $25,000 to $200,000.

The ruling does not impact M3iworks so much, because it already builds accessible sites. In fact, its own Web site links to a page about disability acts, content accessibility guidelines and the benefits of building an accessible site. “Our company builds accessible sites from the get-go,” Mr. Sanzeri says. “It’s also a marketing tool. If your site is not accessible, you are shutting out a segment of the population that could buy from you.”

The company built an accessible site for Domus, a kitchen and home accessories retailer in Los Gatos.

“My store and site are compliant,” says Margaret Smith of Domus. “It distressed me to see a major suit that asked retailers to make their sites compliant. People should do this regardless.”

In order to make a site compliant, design firms consult industry guidelines – such as the World Wide Web Consortium’s standards and voluntary checkers like “Bobby” and AccVerify – that often refer to Section 508, but are completely separate.

“The cost of a suit, such as Target’s, really ups product prices for all of us,” says Ms. Smith, who is also a California attorney.

Other retailers out there who may not be compliant say the extra cost of an upgrade is a clear burden.

“I’m not sure if my site is accessible,” says Julie Sautter, president of, a Belmont company that sells beauty products and lingerie online. “No one has complained or requested it, but I guess that might change soon.”

“I do not possess the resources, though, of a Target…I hope it’s simple to install. If not, the costs could mean big differences in costs to small business.”