Independent Living Institute

A Vision of the Web

By: Dennis C. Hayes

Nine visually-impaired residents of Massachusetts have joined with the American Federation of the Blind to sue America Online because its software makes the online service virtually impossible for them to use. They say this is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that it is time for the Internet community to come to terms with the millions of disabled Americans it routinely ignores.

I agree.

In 1977, we sat at the kitchen table in my home in Atlanta, GA, and built the first production models of the Hayes asynchronous modulator/demodulator - the PC modem.  This device made communication between PCs possible, spawned the major online services (including AOL) and made set the groundwork for 100 million Americans to access the Internet today.  I helped to create this fast-growth, emerging world of entertainment and commerce, yet I am barred from using most of it.

A congenital and degenerative vision condition has reduced my eyesight over the years.  I haven't lost my sight, but do require additional magnification and other assistance to see well.  And on the Internet, that is a significant problem.  Many of the most important sites on the Internet are so poorly designed that they are difficult for the average viewer to navigate.  For the visually-impaired, they are impossible.

Some in the industry will view the action against America Online as simply another intrusion by Big Government into the Internet.  It is too much, they say, or too soon.  But that is nonsense.  This is not a new issue, it is not an unwarranted burden, and it is not premature.  Here's why:

1.      This isn't news to the industry.  Accessibility to information was one of the cornerstones of the ADA, and additional guidance for access to telecommunications was built into the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  A Federal task force addressed the issue of web accessibility last year, issuing guidelines that require all government sites - and the sites of companies that do business with the government - to be accessible to all Federal employees.  The World Wide Web Consortium, which issues the standards for web design and development, likewise released its recommendations more than a year ago.

We began working with Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon on this issue in 1998.  A leader in human and technology issues in Washington, Wyden introduced the legislation that brought the first legal guide dog to the floor of the Senate.  A coalition of advocates, including the American Federation of the Blind and our association, has been working through his office to increase the visibility of this issue for the past year.  Our first notice to the Internet industry, advising them to pay heed to accessibility, came more than a year ago.

Nor is this the first lawsuit to be filed over this issue.  There has been for some time a sense of anger within the disabled community over the unwillingness of the industry to implement even simple changes. That anger continues to grow.  Anyone caught surprised by the issue simply hasn't been paying attention.

2.      The changes required to make the sites and services more accessible are easy to implement.  The Web Accessibility Content Guidelines for doing so, released last year by the World Wide Web Consortium, fit easily on one side of a business card.

What is required is not major redesign, but rather that the web design team pay attention to a few simple guidelines.  There is even an evaluation tool, known as Bobby, that will help pinpoint exact recommendations on each page of a web site.  Bobby has been around since 1996.

What is required is that the designers be aware of the need for accessibility, and to make rational design decisions based on that need. Sadly, this is an issue that is rarely taught in web design classes, and even more rarely understood by programmers.

3.      Following the guidelines will make the site more accessible to everyone. Much like cutting the cornerstones of sidewalks ultimately was of benefit to mothers with strollers and delivery people as well as the handicapped, upgrading a web site will benefit users of every type. When we upgraded our site last year, we were concerned that the changes might make the site bland and unappealing.  Instead, it won rave reviews from industry insiders for its clean look, fast loading times and easy navigation.

Nor is the issue simply about the disabled.  Americans over 40 who use the Internet routinely complain of incomprehensible color schemes, microscopic print and ransom-note designs for web sites.  Imagine being one of the millions of Americans who is red-green color blind - and trying to view the Wired News site.

4.      It's an economic issue.  Anyone looking for justification for upgrading a site need only look at the demographics of disabled Americans who are financially independent and prefer to shop in the privacy of their own homes.  This market segment is substantial now, and will continue to grow as the population "grays."  Any savvy marketer will recognize an underserved market ripe for development in this.

It is unfortunate that America Online must suffer the embarrassment of the lawsuit.  But we support the action by the American Federation of the Blind, and those individuals and organizations fighting for a better, faster, more accessible Internet.  We believe it provides an excellent opportunity for AOL and other leading Internet companies to step up to the plate and do what they know to be right.

Accessibility to the Internet is an important issue at every level.  A nation that is willing to spend billions of dollars to ensure that a single child in a rural schoolhouse can access the Internet can ill afford to ignore the millions of disabled Americans who have the same need. Accessibility is an issue that is long overdue for serious consideration.

Dennis C. Hayes is chairman of the trade association US Internet Industry Association.