The Power of the Purse
One of the most effective tools for ensuring that accessible information technology becomes more widely adopted and employed is the ability to make purchasing decisions. We saw how Australian mandates support a healthy e-commerce environment that is fully accessible. Governments are increasingly requiring compliance to accessibility standards as they issue request for proposals to technology vendors. Companies, particularly W3C members like IBM, are developing and enforcing internal standards that they pass along to vendor companies. University systems and school districts can support accessible design by including these techniques in curriculum requirements and internal Web standards and templates.
Applying Standards to Federal Purchases in the United States
The statute that amended Section 508 also required the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council to revise the Federal Acquisition Rules (FARs) to incorporate the Access Board's standard within six months after it was final. Published in the Federal Register on April 25, 2001, the FARs were amended to define how businesses that contract with the federal government, regardless of their size, are required to comply with the standard set by Section 508. Included in the FAR ruling was the observation that "since the statute imposes private enforcement, where individuals with disabilities can file civil rights lawsuits, the Government has little flexibility for alternatives in writing this regulation. To meet the requirements of the law, we cannot exempt small businesses from any part of the rule" [Federal Acquisition Rules 2001, p. 20894].
Government agencies are huge technology customers. The U.S. federal government alone is the largest buyer of information technology in the world, so it is not surprising that the need for compliance with the standards established by Section 508 and conformance with WCAG 1.0 is currently driving much of the interest in Web accessibility. This has both beneficial and unfortunate aspects.
The Good News . . .
It is, of course, beneficial for attention and resources to be dedicated to ensuring that the Internet is accessible. In fact, it is our purpose to demonstrate in these pages that benefits accrue throughout the online community when sites are designed with access in mind. We believe that the federal government is demonstrating appropriate leadership in ensuring that everyone can participate as producers and consumers in the information marketplace. The benefits of accessible design, as we will see throughout this book, often extend beyond those afforded to people with disabilities and create favorable experiences for a wider group of users.
Throughout history, attempts to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities have led to technological advances. For example, the telephone and the transistor were both the result of inventors who were trying to help the deaf. Similarly, it turns out that accessible Web sites are more usable not only by people with disabilities but also by anyone who uses wireless or text-based browsing devices. Consider this scenario: Many businesses use graphic images of text particularly on headers and logos in order to maintain a certain look and feel. A prospective customer is on the way to your office and has misplaced the address and phone number. The customer accesses a wireless browsing device to find contact information. If you have wisely included alternative text along with the graphic image that contains the office address, your customer arrives on time and happy. If, however, you have failed to do this, your customer cannot get the needed information and may be unnecessarily frustrated. Perhaps the information is embedded in that graphic file but is also listed further along as text. Accessible design allows your customer to search, to skip redundant navigation, and to make choices about how to get the infor-mation in the way that is most personally usable. And, as appliances become more interactive, the adoption of common standards and protocols will foster a much higher degree of successful interactivity.
. . . And the Challenge
The unfortunate aspect of reliance on government mandates comes from the sense that compliance rather than maximum accessibility and usability is the goal. As we will see, an information technology system, such as a Web site, can be made strictly adherent to guidelines, standards, or rules and still not be usable by a significant portion of the population. Accessibility lies not in the document but in the experience of the user. Achieving maximum accessibility therefore requires input and feedback from actual users in order to be accurately assessed. So, although the regulations have spurred interest in accessible design, we will see that to meet the spirit of the law, we must go beyond both the regulations and the law.
There are also conflicting views about the roles that must be performed in order to achieve maximum accessibility. One point of view depends heavily on the tools the assistive devices to mediate and decode the technology for the user with disabilities. This attitude is willing to tolerate the lag time that assistive technology development will impose on users. Others, including us, believe that principles of universal design can be successfully applied to emerging technologies. Governments and other institutions throughout the world are finding that it is the will to invent new solutions that keeps society moving progressively forward. We urge you to use the principles, techniques, and tools presented within this book not only as you broaden the accessibility of existing applications but also as you develop new ones.