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Published on February 21st, 2008 | by Rahel Bailie

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US courts enforce accessibility legislation

A U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruling issued Sept. 7, 2006 raises the bar for online businesses, requiring them to meet the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act just as offline business have been required to do since the law’s passage in 1990. The court ruled that retailers may be sued if their websites are inaccessible to the blind. The ruling was issued in a case brought by the National Federation of the Blind against Target Corp. The suit charges that Target’s website is inaccessible to the blind and therefore violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, and the California Disabled Persons Act.

Section 508 (in effect since 1998 in the U.S.) and Canada’s accessibility laws (which, according some have more teeth than the U.S. ones) have been on the books for but until now, private industry hasn’t really felt a pressing need to comply. Asking about accessibility is a question I automatically ask when going to see a new client, and the responses have been great (yes, we’re working hard to comply and any information you have is appreciated) to dismal (no, that doesn’t really apply to our users) to disinterested (what’s that? uh, no, we don’t really do that usability stuff here) to disdainful (and give up the Flash – you must be joking).

This ruling is likely to get the major retailers thinking about the growing segment of users with disabilities – as baby boomers age, their ability to read tiny, grey print of a fixed font size becomes harder each year, perhaps the mildest form of visual disability – on a faster track. It has been encouraging for me to visit a number of major sites – eBay, Amazon, Intel, New York Times – that are giving users the ability to resize text, though with some implementation flaws – for example, one site’s navigation bar disappears behind a large Flash graphic as the print size gets bigger.

But dig just a bit deeper and you’ll find serious design flaws. Run any of these sites through validation software such as and watch the Failure flags fill up the page. After all, accessibility guidelines are more than just sizable text. The regulations include wide-reaching provisions such as 508 Standards, Section 11942.22, which states:

  • A text equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided (e.g., via “alt”, “longdesc”, or in element content).
  • Equivalent alternatives for any multimedia presentation shall be synchronized with the presentation.
  • Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.
  • Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.
  • Redundant text links shall be provided for each active region of a server-side image map.
  • Client-side image maps shall be provided instead of server-side image maps except where the regions cannot be defined with an available geometric shape.
  • Row and column headers shall be identified for data tables.
  • Markup shall be used to associate data cells and header cells for data tables that have two or more logical levels of row or column headers.
  • Frames shall be titled with text that facilitates frame identification and navigation.
  • Pages shall be designed to avoid causing the screen to flicker with a frequency greater than 2 Hz and lower than 55 Hz.
  • A text-only page, with equivalent information or functionality, shall be provided to make a web site comply with the provisions of this part, when compliance cannot be accomplished in any other way. The content of the text-only page shall be updated whenever the primary page changes.
  • When pages utilize scripting languages to display content, or to create interface elements, the information provided by the script shall be identified with functional text that can be read by assistive technology.
  • When a web page requires that an applet, plug-in or other application be present on the client system to interpret page content, the page must provide a link to a plug-in or applet that complies with §1194.21(a) through (l).
  • When electronic forms are designed to be completed on-line, the form shall allow people using assistive technology to access the information, field elements, and functionality required for completion and submission of the form, including all directions and cues.
  • A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links.
  • When a timed response is required, the user shall be alerted and given sufficient time to indicate more time is required.

It’s unfortunate that legal action had to be launched for this issue to come to a head. Like many other situations, when the impact on the bottom lines becomes too risky to ignore, the executive sponsorship needed to make a difference finally kicks in. Maybe a generation knowledgeable about their accessibility rights and used to getting what they need, now empowered by this court ruling, will make Web developers look deeper than the “splash and panache” that too often glazes an unusable site, and content management vendors and integrators look at the ways their systems assemble and display content for public use.


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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,



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