December 30, 2003, 12:00 AM

U.S. web sites inaccessible for the visually impaired, says Forrester

85% of 20 sites recently reviewed weren’t accessible to the visually and hearing impaired. But visual inaccessibility is affecting not only that group, but also an aging boomer population squinting to see tiny text online, says Forrester.

Of several tests recently applied by Forrester Research to the user experience at 20 major web sites, accessibility for the visually impaired was the biggest failure. 85% of the sites reviewed were not accessible to visually impaired and hearing-impaired users, showing that marketers are missing a bet by underestimating the size of a potential audience, Forrester says.

Of the estimated 54 million Americans with disabilities, almost 8 million are blind or visually impaired. But visual accessibility impacts a much greater population than that as it affects anyone who has difficulty reading small type. "As we age, that describes all of us," Forrester says. According to the research firm, 28% of consumers 65 and older already are online, and it projects that this percentage will increase significantly as baby boomers--already online in greater numbers--hit retirement age. In fact, of 29 guidelines for improving usability of web sites for the visually impaired that appeared in an outside study cited in a recent Forrester report, 17, such as writing in short, clear sentences and making text links descriptive, would improve usability for sighted users as well.

Online retailers can get a quick read on how their site fares on accessibility against guidelines such as Section 508 of the U.S. government’s Rehabilitation Act with software made to identify relevant errors. In addition, notes Forrester, site operators seeking help from creative agencies and developers should require those agencies to comply with accessibility guidelines in future site redesigns. Countries such as the United Kingdom and Japan are ahead of the U.S. in building such accessibility into web sites, according to Forrester, which notes that "American companies doing business in those countries will find themselves scrambling to catch up."

 

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