Companies like pharmaceutical company Merck that sell to government agencies are leading the way with the latest versions of web design and “assistive technologies” to meet new government standards for making websites accessible by people with disabilities.

Websites have come a long way since the last time the United States Access Board—the independent federal agency that took the lead in making wheelchair ramps a common fixture in public buildings—filed standards and guidelines in the Federal Register designed to make websites more accessible to disabled people. When it filed those standards and guidelines in 2001, websites were more text-heavy than today, and the guidelines centered mostly on providing text-to-speech technology that blind or visually impaired people could use to absorb web content.

But that was then. Today e-commerce sites are far more colorful and interactive, with more helpful features for finding products, viewing specifications and demonstrations, placing complex orders and communicating with customer service personnel.

And that may make it more difficult for companies selling online to government agencies to comply with new guidelines that take effect tomorrow.

The National Federation of the Blind is pleased with the new Section 508 regulations.
Chris Danielson, director of public relations
National Federation of the Blind

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, has general standards for accessibility that have been applied to places of public use, including websites, retail stores and government offices. Although the U.S. Department of Justice last month discontinued a years-long effort to establish new ADA rules that would set new standards for making general websites more accessible to disabled people, many websites have nonetheless become more user-friendly in recent years, and the results of several court cases have supported plaintiffs that have complained of a lack of accessibility.

But to ensure that government agencies are abiding by the latest accessibility standards—including for the websites they operate and the information and communication technology (ICT) products like laptops and mobile phones they purchase for their personnel—the Access Board filed new standards and guidelines a year ago that become effective Jan. 18—tomorrow. The new standards and guidelines—which the Access Board refers to as the “ICT Refresh”—basically require government agencies to abide by the latest web accessibility standards under Section 508 of the federal Rehabilitation Act.

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And to make sure people with disabilities—whether related to sight, hearing, motor skills or other needs—can effectively absorb a modern website’s information and use its features, including making purchases, the latest web standards are based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, more commonly referred to as WCAG 2.0.

“The National Federation of the Blind is pleased with the new Section 508 regulations,”says Chris Danielson, director of public relations for the NFB. They repeatedly reference WCAG 2.0 Level AA, which we believe is the appropriate accessibility standard for websites.”

Among dozens of companies contacted for this article, few commented on Section 508 and what, if anything, they have done—or planned to do—to meet its standards. But a number of companies have it in their sights. Cardinal Health Inc., a major distributor of pharmaceutical and medical products that sells online to healthcare organizations as well as consumers, is still in the early stages of dealing with Section 508 but plans to address it comprehensively, says Matt Wingham, director of e-commerce.

“Website accessibility is important to us and we are impacted with Section 508,” he says. “We want to provide a good experience to all customers, including those with disabilities. While we haven’t acted on this yet, our plan is to include customers with disabilities in our customer testing to get feedback from them on how we can provide an experience that is useful for them. Once we collect that feedback, we will be assessing how we can include it in the digital experience.”

SapientRazorfish, an internet technology systems integrator for large corporations, addresses web accessibility guidelines as part of its standard process when starting new client technology projects, says Rob Howl, an e-commerce expert and senior director of strategy in the firm’s Transformation Acceleration Group.

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Tim Creagan, web accessibility specialist, Access Board

The Jan. 18 deadline for Section 508 was intended as a wake-up call to government agencies that they’ll be expected to follow the WCAG 2.0 guidelines when purchasing new ICT products, developing or upgrading websites, or purchasing products from online commercial e-commerce sites, says Tim Creagan, a senior accessibility specialist at the Access Board. “Presumably government agencies have already been doing this with earlier guidelines, but now they need to use the new standards,” he says.

It’s up to each government agency to take responsibility for adhering to the standards, Creagan and others say. Each agency typically has its own Section 508 manager, with a staff of accessibility specialists, who are charged with ensuring that procured ICT products and the agency’s websites meet accessibility guidelines, he adds. The Section 508 staff also must inform their suppliers that their products—and the sections of their e-commerce sites used by the agency’s procurement agents—must meet the agency’s accessibility needs.

Enforcement of these policies—similar to that under the ADA for general websites—are kicked off when online users file complaints, which can be followed by legal action pursued by the Department of Justice. But though there have been a number of web accessibility cases brought under the ADA, legal action has been uncommon under Section 508. “Litigation doesn’t happen much with Section 508,” says Richard Hunt, a principal with law form Hunt Huey PLLC, which specializes in ADA and fair-housing litigation.

Litigation under the ADA, however, has gotten the attention of some online companies.

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Aaron Leon, founder and CEO of ink, toner and office supplies e-retailer LD Products Inc., says the attention some of the recent ADA lawsuits have received put the new accessibility requirements on his company’s radar. The e-retailer, No. 267 in the Internet Retailer Top 1000, operates a trio of e-retail sites and has a dedicated “government” portal and help desk for orders from government agencies.

Fortunately for his company, Leon says the adjustments haven’t been a huge issue because the website’s product descriptions are mainly text, which can be easily translated into spoken words. “We have a straight-forward offering of printer cartridges, so it is mostly just text lists with product information,” he says. “We don’t have a ton of lifestyle imagery that we need to create text tags explaining it to the visually impaired.  We had to do some minor adjustments and tickets.”

In a practical sense, WCAG 2.0 provides a deep-dive into a software toolkit that identifies web accessibility issues and shows in detail how to make content more accessible and run a test to show that it does. For example, the WCAG 2.0 guidelines, developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, explain in detail how color contrasts should appear in a 4.5 to 1 ratio, to enable visually impaired people to see the difference between two colors. Prior guidelines simply called for color contrast, without describing how much contrast was required or how to create it. With WCAG 2.0, Creagan says, software developers can view specific details on how to code content to provide the right level of contrast, then use an online tool  included in the WCAG site to test their work.

Making such adjustments to web content makes websites more usable by people using assistive technology applications—such as software that allows someone without use of his arms to use head movements to move a cursor on a web page and click a product or Buy button—says Simon Dermer, managing director of Essential Accessibility Inc., a Toronto provider of such applications that works mostly with U.S. online companies.

One example of a company that uses Essential Accessibility technology is Merck & Co., the big pharmaceutical company, which sells to government agencies as well as businesses and operates the e-commerce site Merck.com. The top right section of Merck.com displays a wheelchair logo indicating that the site offers tools that disabled people can use to navigate the site and make purchases. Such tools include electronic lines that a person using, for instance, a head-movement-activated mouse can make pass over a web page, then make a cursor travel along one of the lines to the point on a page she wants to click. Merck is No. 31 in the B2B E-Commerce 300.

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Modifying a web site to support assistive technology applications like screen-reading software can cost anywhere from around $100,000 to $2 million or more, depending on a site’s size and complexity, according to site design experts. For web sites designed from the ground up, experts say the cost typically equals a small percentage—about 1% or 2%—of overall development costs.

The investment is worth it, advocates say, and not just because websites become more accessible to people with disabilities—it makes them more loyal customers. In addition, many of the techniques that make websites easier for disabled people to use, such as reducing clutter and optimizing color contrast—also can make a site more user-friendly for all users.

Allison Enright, editorial director of Internet Retailer, contributed to this article.

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