Surfing the Web Should be Easier for the Blind

Updated: March 7, 2016 3:01 AM EST
Associated Press
Inquirer editorial: It’s too easy to ignore the needs of the disabled. Just ask blind Web surfers who for years have been waiting patiently for new federal rules that would make it easier for them to navigate the Internet.

Since 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act has ensured access to places and opportunities for all Americans regardless of their physical limitations. The World Wide Web was first programmed that same year. But since then, the Internet has evolved rapidly while rules to make it more accessible have lagged behind. In fact, guidelines added to the Workforce Rehabilitation Act in 2001 often take precedence over the ADA.

In 2010, the Department of Justice announced that it would release guidelines for greater web accessibility by 2012. But after several delays, last year the federal agency pushed that deadline back to 2018. Blind Americans shouldn’t have to wait that long.

More than 3.4 million Americans 40 years old and older are legally blind or visually impaired, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Screen readers and Braille displays can help them access the Internet, but some sites are still too difficult to navigate. Tasks become even more challenging when buttons and screen readers don’t work and sites crash.

The Justice Department laid out a timeline last year, which promised that the next regulatory step – a “notice of proposed rulemaking” for local and state government websites – would be released “early in fiscal year 2016.” But the federal government’s 2016 fiscal year began in October and no such notice has been released.

A more accessible website might include software that produces spoken descriptions of photographs, text boxes for the blind, and transcriptions of multimedia features for the deaf. Some companies worry that such upgrades would be expensive. But taking that view ignores the benefits of making their websites accessible to a larger audience.

“The market share you gain is more than the costs of making your site accessible,” said Daniel F. Goldstein, an attorney for the National Federation of the Blind. The NFB and National Association of the Deaf have won earlier court rulings that extended the ADA to the Internet. Target, Netflix, eBay, Monster, Travelocity, and Ticketmaster are among companies that have since improved their websites’ access for the disabled.

Now it’s time for the Justice Department to move the ball. A petition drive to prod the Justice Department ended last month far short of the 100,000 signatures needed to reach President Obama’s desk. Ironically, that same day Obama asked the Senate to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty, which will make published books more accessible to the blind worldwide. The president should put just as much emphasis on improving the Internet’s accessibility.

Published: March 7, 2016 3:01 AM EST The Philadelphia Inquirer

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