Disabilities Do Not Have to Broaden the Digital Divide

Justin Thomas
Last Updated: September 21. 2009

Frequently my choice of which restaurant, mall, or friend to visit is based on my knowledge of the prospects for finding parking. Am I alone in this? Consider then the infinitely greater issues and constraints faced by people with physical disabilities.

The issue of accessibility is not only limited to the physical world. In recent years there has been a growing appreciation of accessibility’s implications in cyber space. Anyone who has tried to access a website mistakenly rendered inaccessible by an Etisalat firewall might have experienced some mild frustration.
Consider then the visually impaired individual attempting to access information on the web. Time and again the desired information is available, but rendered inaccessible by the thoughtless design of websites.

Without getting too technical, most web browsers have features that allow users to magnify text. However, in the name of aesthetics, some web designers
circumvent this functionality to preserve the look and feel of the website. They place beauty before duty.

To make a website less accessible, you actually have to go out of your way to do so. To make it more accessible for people with visual impairments takes very little effort all. In many nations the failure to appreciate this point has lead to several organisations falling foul of disability discrimination legislation.

One such landmark case was brought under Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act where Bruce Maguire, a visually impaired sports fan, triumphed over the organising committee for Sydney’s Olympic Games. The committee was found to have engaged in conduct that was unlawful by virtue of their website being
inaccessible to Mr Maguire and many others like him.

Another case in the US saw Bruce Sexton, a blind man from California, take on the US retail giant Target in a class action representing 1.3 million visually impaired Americans. The Target website had a simple code omission that essentially barred the use of the assistive devices that enabled visually impaired people to view content on their website.

Target.com eventually settled the lawsuit out of court in August 2008 and agreed to pay $6 million in settlements. Target also promised to improve the accessibility of their website in line with the National Federation for the Blind’s (NFB) web accessibility certification. In a statement Mr Sexton said the settlement
“marks a new chapter in making websites accessible to the blind”. Similarly, the president of the NFB Marc Maurer said he hoped “other businesses providing goods and services over the internet will follow Target’s example”. The implications of such a case are huge and the message is getting louder; in commerce or public service, every effort must be made to make the web accessible to all.

Legal action has been the stick but there is also a carrot that is driving changes in web accessibility. The international standards organisation (ISO) recently updated their standards for the ergonomics of human-system interaction, including a focus on web usability and accessibility. Many companies and organisations want to claim that they work according to “international standards”. To achieve ISO certification in this domain will soon require websites to be accessible to people with many different types of disabilities.

You can test the basic accessibility level of a website easily. Simply go to the view menu on your web browser and select Text Size and then largest. If the font size on the page doesn’t grow then the site fails in one of the key areas of accessibility. I tried this test out on several of the UAE’s prominent websites. Among those failing this basic test were sites for major health-care providers and even a national newspaper but not The National newspaper, which passed the test with flying colours.

From a public service perspective, improving accessibility to information is synonymous with serving a larger portion of the public. For media and entertainment sites it increases audience size and for commercial sites it increases the pool of potential customers.

Unlike cities, websites are forever being updated, revamped and overhauled. Let’s make sure the next round of updates factors disability into their design.

Justin Thomas is a psychologist in the Department of Natural Science and Public Health at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

Reproduced from http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090922/OPINION/709219907/1080/FOREIGN