Your four most important users are blind

If you are a web developer, and haven't heard of National Federation of the Blind v. Target, you will soon. Last week Federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled that retail companies can be sued if their websites are not accessible to the blind. The ruling allows the case to go forward and opens the door to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits against other web sites as well-perhaps yours or your employer's. Web accessibility is one of the big, scary monsters that has been lurking under the bed for years - issues that undermine how a lot of people make web sites. Something many web developers and site designers don't know about, or don't want to think about. Now as scary as this ruling (and a possible future decision in favor of the National Federation of the Blind) might sound, this is actually a good thing. This is a win-win situation, because the your four most important users are blind, and you may have been ignoring them for years. You might not think you have any blind users, but you do. The four most important users of your site, who (hopefully) visit every single page on a regular basis, are Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask. The techniques that make your site available to the blind are the same that make your site available to search engine spiders like Googlebot, and allow your site to show up on Google searches. Luckily, making your web page accessible is not that hard to do. If you write valid HTML or XHTML you’re almost done. Some of the things you need to avoid, like using .gif files for text instead of, well, text, actually make maintaining a web site easier in the long run. Using CSS for your presentation rather than deprecated FONT tags and layout tables will have productivity payoffs almost immediately. In fact, most difficulties in implementing it will be organizational problems - having a complicated internal process that requires huge lead times for any work, having such a small organization that any changes to the site are a significant cost, having tied yourself to some proprietary solution that spits out crappy HTML. What about web 2.0? A little bit trickier, but there is an answer: unobtrusive JavaScript. The HTML you serve to the client is valid, accessible code, with external JavaScript files that adds AJAX goodness to your page. It looks something like this: 1) Test for JavaScript and the XMLHttpRequest object. 2) Have an event setup function that adds onchange, onsubmit, and other calls to your page. 3) If a user without JS clicks a button, the page reloads and the content is given to them the old fashioned way. 4) If a user clicks the same button with JS on, the event is triggered, your AJAX functions are called, and updates can be made to the page with no reload. Writing relatively static or database-driven web sites to be accessible is not really an additional cost - in fact it will encourage good practices that will save time in the long run. Writing accessible AJAX will be a bit more difficult, but doing AJAX in the first place is still a bit of an experiment. It's not impossible, and it will also solve some of your search engine optimization problems. Of course, there are other blogs commenting on this, including a few like Eidelblog that disagree with any government-mandated accommodation. Do you think this is a positive step forward, or government interference? Post comments below.

  1. Supporting the blind – Accessible AJAX with unobtrusive Javascript

    I posted earlier about how a federal judge has ruled that the ADA applies to web sites, and that a lawsuit against Target can go forward. I mentioned that it wasn’t too hard to support the blind, and that through the mojo of unobtrusive Javascri…

    Unsought Input
    September 12th, 2006 at 6:38 pm

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