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Accessibility in Law: Nothing New November 4, 2006 – 10:12 p.m. – Permalink

Or, “The Need for Accessibility” (working title).

What follows is the message I intend to convey in this article: accessibility should be made law worldwide. The nature of the Web these days is daunting to those people who require assistance when they browse from other programs or sources. It is for these disabled people that we need to fix the problems we have created and allow a fully accessible and universal Web, open to everyone, to thrive.

One prominent case regarding accessibility is Maguire vs. Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) in 1999. Joe Clark writes about it in an article from 2001 (these times give you an idea of how early accessibility has been notable) and offers: “This case teaches us that the legal need for accessibility is so clear-cut, and the means of achieving basic accessibility so straightforward, that even an unspeakably wealthy and powerful international organization can lose in a judicial proceeding.”

Joe Clark, you are absolutely right. Bruce Maguire, in June 1999, lodged a complaint with the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HCEOG), stating that the SOCOG’s site violated the Australian Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). Under the DDA, disabled Australians are protected against discrimination in:

  • employment
  • education
  • access to premises used by the public (including the Web)
  • provisions of goods, services, and facilities
  • accommodation
  • purchase of land
  • activities of organizations
  • athletics
  • administration of government programs

Maguire stated that, as he is legally blind, the site of SOCOG should be entirely accessible. He does not use a screen reader, but rather, a “refreshable Braille display.” However, images lacking an alt attribute were unable to be identified with his technology. SOCOG’s site, apparently, had many, and Maguire alleged that significant amounts of the site were unavailable for his use.

On August 24, 2000, the HCEOG announced that it would support Maguire and ordered SOCOG to provide, by September 15, an accessible version of its site, under the following guidelines:

  1. that SOCOG include alt text on all images and image map links on the site
  2. that SOCOG ensure access from the Schedule page to the Index of Sports
  3. that SOCOG ensure access to the Results Tables on the site during the Olympic Games

SOCOG ignored this order, and was consequently fined AUS$20,000. Throughout the case, SOCOG tried to hinder Maguire’s attempts to encourage the adoption of Web accessibility, not providing the following things, which Maguire requested:

  1. a sample page in electronic format from the proposed results table on the SOCOG Web site relating to the Olympic Games
  2. the current content plan for the Olympic Web site
  3. the number of templates to be used
  4. the details of the tools used to generate the pages of the Olympic Web site
  5. calculations of certain ballpark figures

William Carter, the commissioner for HREOC, stated, “I pause to mention that the relevant information has never been provided nor had it been provided by the time of the hearing on 8 and 11 August 2000. By letter dated 4 August 2000, the solicitor for [SOCOG] sought relief from the need to provide the requested information on the basis that it was ‘highly commercially sensitive information within the knowledge of SOCOG and its contractor.’ Its contractor was IBM.” (This is particularly ironic because IBM is an important commercial supporter of Web accessibility.)

SOCOG then made itself look completely idiotic, stating later: “the provision of the HTML source code of the Results Pages would not be made available because it was ‘highly commercially sensitive information.’ ” Ahem, “View Source” anyone?

It gets worse. SOCOG then made the mistake of saying that “access to the Index of Sports from the Schedule was available and had always been available by a different route; namely, by entering the URL for each sport directly into the Web browser.” Now, where would SOCOG be able to provide a list of said URLs? Would visitors be expected to know potentially lengthy URLs offhand?

In this case, Maguire won, and Clark states, “In any event, in the Maguire case we now have a firm worldwide precedent that inaccessible Web sites can be and are illegal.” Maguire vs. SOCOG occurred in Australia, but the United States and Canada are very close in nature. And this happened in 1999 and 2000. Where is the change? Why is there no increase in Web accessibility?

There is a case that was filed more recently and a lot closer to home. In 2002, a Florida judge ruled that a blind person’s lawsuit against Southwest Airlines for inaccessibility of its website’s virtual ticket counters was “emotionally attractive” but not “legally viable.” Is this not even the least bit atrocious? Meanwhile, in Illinois, a judge ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) did apply to websites, as opposed to our Floridian here. But according to Mazen Basrawi of the Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, the addition of websites to the ADA will not come until a Supreme Court ruling is made.

The Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and a California student Bruce Sexton sued the retail store giant Target for providing an effectively inaccessible website in February 2006, citing the following motives:

  • alt-text is missing from images, preventing screen readers from describing them to blind users
  • purchases cannot be completed without a mouse because keyboard controls do not work
  • image maps are inaccessible
  • headings are missing that are needed to navigate

As opposed to Bruce Maguire, whom we heard about previously, the NFB took a different approach, attacking the fact that Target offered a store locator, printable coupons, and an online pharmacy of sorts where customers could order drugs and then pick them up later at Target stores. The NFB alleged that the stores were accessible public accommodations and therefore they should be accessible on the website as well.

Judge Marilyn Hall Patel disagreed with Target’s argument that websites were not included by the ADA at all, saying, “The statute [in the ADA] applies to the services of a place of public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation. To limit the ADA to discrimination in the provision of services occurring on the premises of a public accommodation would contradict the plain language of the statute.”

Judge Patel ultimately decided that the case could proceed, but did not clarify whether the ADA also blanketed websites. This is not to say that there is not a single federal law that protects people with disabilities from inaccessible websites. One prime example is Section 508 (see Seraphic Zephyr’s accessibility statement, accesskey 1, for compliance, or validate Seraphic Zephyr under Section 508, accesskey 7), but this only applies to American government websites.

In the United Kingdom, however, Web accessibility is required on every site. They must be usable and accessible. There is no argument for such a law in the United States. After all, the United Nations recently published a draft International Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which includes provisions for Web accessibility.

One clause in the aforementioned Convention requires that countries “take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to ... information, communications and other services, including electronic services.”

Another clause reads, “Private entities that provide services to the general public, including through the Internet, [should] provide information and services in accessible and usable formats for persons with disabilities.”

Okay, so we should directly implement this into the ADA, right? Not so fast, says a spokesman for the US State Department, who stated that the ADA provides adequate protection and that they would refuse to sign the UN Convention. For heaven’s sake! Google has an accessible search option for the visually impaired! Forms of accessibility have been around since 1994! Why does the US not endorse Web accessibility?

What in the world has befallen the nation? Are we to discriminate against disabled people in such away that restricts their access to websites like completely insolent imbeciles? How dare we? After all of our efforts with the ADA, how dare we refuse access of websites to those who are disabled?

It should be entirely evident that the United States and the world need to provide effective provisions for disabled people on websites. It’s time to realize that we need Web accessibility. This is easily seen in the two cases that have been provided in great detail: Maguire vs. SOCOG and Sexton vs. Target.

Do we consider disabled people to be less than ourselves, us privileged users who have the ability to actually see the screen, rather than having it read for us? If we want to initiate inferiority once more in the United States, then let us ignore these rulings. Let us ignore the UN Convention. Let us ignore the proof. Let us ignore the fact that in a UK study, 97% of the sites under the jurisdiction of the European Union provide little to no concessions for accessibility. Let us ignore that blind European users are restricted to 3% of all sites in their countries.

I ask you: What is this not law yet? Why is there delay?

Acknowledgements

This article uses significant portions of “Reader’s guide to Sydney Olympics accessibility complaint” by Joe Clark, published October 30, 2001 and updated April 9, 2004. The content of “Target lawsuit tests limits of US web accessibility law” by OUT-LAW News from September 12, 2006 is also cited for portions of this article.

For More Information

On Maguire vs. SOCOG:

On Sexton vs. Target:

Other links: