By Brian Bowling
Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, 11:03 p.m.
For most people, surfing the Web consists of a quick glance to find a link, followed by a mouse click.
For Phil Glotfelty and other people with impaired or no eyesight, Web browsing requires listening to screen-reading software describing each element on the page until it reaches the right link. The process can take several minutes.
“You bored yet?” he asks while demonstrating the software at his Ross business, Game Masters.
As tedious as it is, it gets worse when a website’s design doesn’t allow the reading software to work.
Glotfelty, 47, of McCandless often runs into problematic vendor sites, such as a wholesale grocer’s site with separate buttons to reach its dairy, bread and other sections. When his software reaches the buttons, he hears “button, button, button” with no clue what each button does, he says.
In other cases, he spends time filling out an order form only to find out his software can’t see the final button to submit it. Or, if he enters the wrong value in a box, the website rejects it and resets.
“These programs are pretty sophisticated, but they’re useless unless you set up the site” to be accessed by them, Glotfelty said.
Businesses that fail to make their websites accessible are coming under pressure from the Justice Department, advocacy groups and, increasingly, private class-action lawsuits. Four such lawsuits have been filed in Pittsburgh federal court in the past two months, including one by Michelle Sipe against Toys R Us.
Sipe and her attorney, R. Bruce Carlson, couldn’t be reached for comment. The company declined to comment.
One problem Sipe’s lawsuit identifies with the Toys R Us site is a lack of alternative text to describe images on the screen.
“As a result, visually impaired individuals are unable to determine what is on the website, browse the sites, look for store locations, review discount programs and specials and/or make any purchases,” the lawsuit says.
Glotfelty, who is not a party to the lawsuits, says that’s a problem he encounters constantly. Many commercial websites put phone numbers in images, so he has to find phone numbers through a separate search.
The lawsuit seeks a court order that would require Toys R Us to hire a consultant and bring its website into compliance with guidelines established by the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C.
The legal theory underpinning the lawsuits is that websites offering goods and services fall under the section of the Americans with Disabilities Act dealing with “places of public accommodation.”
Starting with a 2006 lawsuit by the National Federation of the Blind against Target Corp., most courts have agreed that businesses with physical places of public accommodations, such as stores, have to make their websites accessible.
Courts have split on whether the requirement covers Internet-only businesses, such as Netflix and eBay.
The Justice Department has taken the position that all commercial websites are covered by the law, but it has confused the issue by delaying the release of regulations, originally promised in 2010, that would spell out the accessibility standards for commercial sites.
The lack of regulations hasn’t kept the agency from intervening in several of the website accessibility lawsuits.
The agency joined the National Association of the Deaf in suing Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology for failing to provide closed captioning with online courses. H&R Block in 2014 entered into a consent decree to resolve a lawsuit by the National Federation of the Blind over its website after the government intervened.
In those lawsuits, the government contends that companies have to meet the standards published by W3C.
The consortium is an international Web standards organization hosted by MIT, the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics, Keio University in Japan and BeiHang University in China.
The group’s Website Content Accessibility Guidelines were published in 1998 and the current version, WCAG 2.0, has been out since 2008.
“It’s a fairly stable guideline,” said Judy Brewer, director of W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative.
The standards are voluntary, and W3C isn’t a party to any lawsuits, she said. The group doesn’t do audits to determine how many websites follow the guidelines, though they are widely used.
“A lot of organizations want to make sure that they’re reaching as much of the market as possible,” Brewer said. “Very few organizations want to deliberately exclude a segment.”
Although that’s true, many companies are hesitant to spend thousands of dollars to redesign their websites if the government might release different standards in another year or so, said Kristina M. Launey, managing partner of Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s Sacramento, Calif., office.
This is the only time she’s aware of that the government has sought to enforce a disability standard that hasn’t gone through a rule-making process. The Justice Department is “basically trying to legislate through enforcement actions,” she said.
An audit to see whether a website complies with the WCAG 2.0 standards can cost $10,000 to more than $100,000, depending on the size and complexity of the site, she said. The company then has to spend thousands more to have someone develop and implement a plan to fix the problems, she said.
Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.