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Nathan Safran, director of research at Conductor, a search engine optimization firm, adds: "The approaches for building an underlying framework for accessibility and for search engine spiders are very similar in that the code is attempting to structure data in a manner that will make it easily digestible for machines, namely search engine spiders and accessibility software."
Technology options for making web sites more accessible, meanwhile, have continued to improve, experts say.
Such programming languages as DoJo, JQuery, Drupal and HTML5, they say, provide more built-in coding for web site accessibility, making images, for example, easier to be wrapped with text and read by screen readers. "Three years ago that was not the case, but it's becoming more of the norm," says Mike Paciello, founder and president of consultancy The Paciello Group.
Essential Accessibility lets retailers subscribe to software that they can offer to consumers from their web sites. Once downloaded by a consumer, the software makes a web site's mouse and keyboard interface with a wide range of accessibility tools, including alternatives to the conventional hand-activated mouse, Dermer says. Essential Accessibility charges monthly fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars, based on a retailer's number of web pages and sales volume.
Macy's has made free downloads of the Essential Accessibility technology available to consumers on Macys.com and Bloomingdales.com. An icon for the service appears on the footer of every web page. It has also deployed on Macys.com the Easy Web Browser application from IBM Corp., which lets visually impaired people for no charge use a mouse to point to a section of a web page to enlarge text and activate an audio file of the text. Macy's declined to comment. IBM, which offers a free test version of the software, did not return a request for information on the software's cost.
HiSoftware, a provider of technology and services for making sites more accessible, reviews web pages for accessibility weaknesses and shows how to fix problems. That includes highlighting software code a retailer must adjust to render page content in an accessible way. A typical project might review 50 pages and cost about $2,500, says Ken Nakata, director of consulting. HiSoftware also sells licensed software for companies that want to conduct their own testing, starting at a one-time fee of about $10,000; an Internet-hosted subscription model starts at $7,500 per year.
EBay has also taken several steps to make its web pages easier to use by online shoppers, as well as sellers with disabilities, following the W3C guidelines. It inserts alt-text into HTML code to describe images for screen readers, for example, and increases the contrast between text fonts and background colors to make pages easier to read. EBay declined to say how many sellers or customers take advantage of such features, or to note the volume or growth of related sales.
Richardson, the eBay seller who is blind, took a weeklong course sponsored by eBay at the National Federation of the Blind in 2011 to learn to use screen readers and other tools to list items for sale. He became a top-rated seller the following year.
Richardson uses Apple Inc.'s VoiceOver screen reader, which turns content on his iPhone into audio files, to take a photo of a product, such as the Joe Cocker LP album he listed last month. He then uses Dropbox, a web-based file-sharing system, to automatically load it to his PC, where he uses his JAWS (or "job access for Windows and speech") screen-reading software from Freedom Scientific Inc. and other tools to manage his eBay.com listings.
Richardson also uses an eBay mobile app that forwards him messages from shoppers, including questions about products and shipping. "When I get messages from people on eBay, I take care of them wherever I am," he says.
With the right blend of technology and service, eBay and other online retailers can stay ahead of pending regulations that could help bring disabled people into the mainstream of retailing.
Making Web Sites Accessible
Following is a partial list of web site and mobile accessibility guidelines created by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the Internet standards group, World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, which accessibility experts say are likely to serve as the base of pending regulations expected to be issued later this year under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
After a review period, the guidelines, which are available in extensive detail at www.w3.org/TR/WCAG20, will likely become regulations either late this year or next year, followed by a phase-in period of up to two years, says Mike Paciello, president of consultancy The Paciello Group.
Although the W3C guidelines don't specifically mention mobile sites or apps, they provide a basis for applying similar rules to mobile content, says Jonathan Avila, chief accessibility officer at consultancy SSB Bart Group.
Web accessibility guidelines include:
- Provide text alternatives for any non-text content, such as product images, so that it can be changed into other forms, such as large print, braille, speech or symbols.
- Provide text alternatives to time-based media, such as audio and video files.
- Make it easy for users to see and hear content. This primarily involves providing contrast in visual content to distinguish foregrounds from backgrounds, such as making sure a product name displayed in blue letters can be seen against a green background, and variations in audio content to distinguish between foreground and background sounds.
- Provide ways to help users navigate, find content and determine their location on a web site.
In addition, the Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 requires mobile browsers to be accessible by disabled people; although it doesn't specify how mobile browsers should be made accessible, Avila says. He says more specific rules may be forthcoming.