I found an interesting news article on the IxDA list today concerning an accessibility lawsuit brought against Target by the National Federation of the Blind. One of the findings of the federal district court was that “web sites such as Target.com are required by California law to be accessible”.
Now, ever since the early days of the Americans with Disabilities Act, government websites have had to adhere to minimum accessibility requirements defined by the section 508 guidelines. In general this is a good thing – government websites should be accessible to all citizens regardless of their physical capabilities. However, privately owned websites were not, to my knowledge, generally considered to be under the same constraints. Following the section 508 guidelines was generally considered a best practice, but it was up to each private company or individual to determine how closely they needed to adhere to the guidelines for their business goals.
Although getting more websites and companies to take accessibility seriously is an awesome goal, I’m ambivalent about making section 508 mandatory even for private company websites. First off, we risk stifling innovation. Some sites use data visualization techniques that don’t translate well to screen readers, but make the experience much more comprehensible for the non-disabled users who view them. Screen readers often can’t process these techniques because they lag a bit behind some of the more modern web features, but in the future, screen readers may also pick up support for these features and provide a better experience for all users. But if these web innovators can get sued for failing to support section 508, this innovation may never occur for anyone
The second problem is that section 508 offers minimum guidelines for accessibility but doesn’t mandate a great experience for disabled users. All too often, designers and developers use accessibility checklists to adhere to minimum requirements at the expense of creating a great experience for able bodied and disabled users. Section 508 provides no incentive for providing some of the accessibility features most needed by disabled users. I discuss this in a bit more depth in the Flex Interface Guide article on Merging the Web and the Desktop. So forcing section 508 on private companies may make web experiences worse across the board for everyone for marginal gains for some disabled groups.
On the other hand, section 508 does at least guarantee a minimum level of accessibility for certain groups that rely on screen readers and other assistive technologies. Most web sites and web applications should take these guidelines seriously. But there is a big difference between “should” and “must”, and we should be careful about the unintended consequences of applying “must” too liberally.
I wanted to point out that, contrary to popular misconception, accessibility is not an issue of “HTML supports it but Flash does not”. The Flash Player has supported accessibility features equivalent to HTML for several releases now and this support is baked into Flex (although not, unfortunately, enabled by default – be sure to compile with the -accessible compiler flag or by setting the “Generate accessible swf file” option in the Flex Compiler page of the Flex Builder project properties page. Instead, it’s an issue of “rich” user experiences versus cookie cutter widget-heavy UIs. Widget-heavy UIs are easy to make accessible in Flex and HTML, but richer experiences built in AJAX or more fluid Flex techniques require more work to achieve minimum section 508 compliance. Yet it’s these very techniques that create more usable and enjoyable user experiences on the web.