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Federal regulations may be on the way that would require e-commerce sites be accessible to the disabled.
Like other standout sellers on eBay.com, Charlie Richardson knows how to maintain a Top Rated Plus designation. He quickly fulfills orders for products like classic LP vinyl records and women's purses, ships within one business day, lets customers track their orders, has a 98.2% positive feedback rating and, among other things, eBay Inc. says, he hits sales volume targets.
He also knows from personal experience the desire among consumers with disabilities to shop online. "People with disabilities want to shop online just like other consumers," says Richardson, who is blind and says he can perceive only light and shadows.
Fortunately for Richardson and his customers, he says, eBay supports assistive technology that makes web sites compatible with numerous software applications. Those tools—which include text-to-voice screen readers, mouth-activated devices for directing a screen cursor, and refreshable Braille display devices activated by web content—are designed to let people who are blind, deaf or otherwise disabled find and buy products on e-commerce sites and manage sites as sellers.
Getting retailers to make their e-commerce sites accessible, however, has been a long, tough road, advocates for disabled people say. They say there is technology that makes it relatively easy for merchants to adapt their sites, and point to some court decisions that put legal pressure on web retailers to adhere to existing laws on making places of business and products more useful to disabled people. Web accessibility experts also note that making web sites more user-friendly for disabled people opens sites to a large market of disabled consumers—accounting for some $200 billion in annual discretionary spending, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce—while also making sites better optimized for Internet search engines.
A major turning point could come as soon as this summer if, as many expect, the U.S. Department of Justice issues new rules under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, for making e-commerce sites and mobile sites and apps more accessible.
Although the Justice Department hasn't clarified when it might act, several experts say they expect it to issue rules this year, followed by comment and phase-in periods that could take another two years.
The department has already indicated that its rules could be based on existing web content accessibility guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium, (see sidebar below) which would build on web accessibility work that a number of retailers have already started, experts say. "That's what we're all hoping, that the W3C guidelines serve as the new rules," says Lainey Feingold, a Berkeley, Calif.-based lawyer specializing in helping retailers and other companies reach accessibility agreements with the American Council of the Blind and other advocates for disabled people.
New rules could force e-retailers to spend more on web accessibility. 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, according to site design firm EffectiveUI Inc. For web sites designed from the ground up, experts say the cost typically equals a small percentage of overall development costs.
"It's minimal, 1% to 2% at most," says Joshua Wood, a former web design consultant who has worked on web accessibility and is co-founder of Ozbo.com, a web-only mass merchant. "It's mostly just incorporating additional software tags." For example, while many web sites might use basic HTML code such as and to identify the boldface heading of a paragraph of product details, changing the coding to < h 1 > could tell a text-to-voice screen reader (which in this case doesn't need to know if text is boldfaced) that the coded line is the heading of the first section of product details, followed by < h 2 > for the heading on a second section of details.
But retailers also risk legal costs should they get taken to court for failing to comply with regulations. Target Corp., for example, agreed in a 2008 court settlement with the National Federation of the Blind to set up a $6 million fund to cover claims by litigants regarding the screen readers' ability to recognize content on Target.com.
The Target case helped online retailers become aware of the need for web accessibility, Goldstein says. For example, online ticket seller Ticketmaster and travel services site Travelocity.com LP reached agreements in 2011 with the National Federation of the Blind to make their sites more accessible to blind people, and CVS Caremark Corp., Staples Inc. and Major League Baseball reached similar agreements in recent years with the American Council of the Blind and other organizations. Each of these agreements was reached without involving lawsuits.
The pending ADA rules on e-commerce, however, could subject online retailers to more specific challenges related to site accessibility—such as making all web content accessible via a keyboard. While a number of larger retailers have taken steps to improve their sites' accessibility, many others have not.
Several small and mid-size retailers contacted by Internet Retailer said they were either unaware of the pending ADA regulations on e-commerce or were just starting to look into them. "I'd say less than 10% of sites have been coded properly," says Simon Dermer, managing director of Essential Accessibility Inc., a Toronto-based company that provides retailers like Macy's Inc. and Staples Canada with software that disabled shoppers can download to more easily use web sites.
But that is likely to change, especially as merchants realize that abiding by the ADA rules sooner rather than later will also make their web sites better optimized for Internet search engines, experts say.
"Making a web site accessible to disabled people goes hand in hand with search engine optimization, and can boost search rankings," says Wood of Ozbo.com. "A search engine spider is essentially a screen reader."
A project in the works to redesign Ozbo.com and its mobile site, he says, will make it easier for disabled people to use and, he hopes, boost overall traffic and conversion rates.