All access: is your website accessible to consumers with disabilities? If not, you might be missing out on a valuable audience

HANDICAPPED access has changed the way brick-and-mortar retailers design their stores. Now it's e-tailers' turn. Changing market conditions and regulations are driving the internet's transformation into a friendlier environment for the disabled.

America's estimated 54 million disabled persons are already a significant and growing market, says the National Organization on Disability--and they're turning to the net to shop. Jay Leventhal, editor of AccessWorld (www.afb. org/aw), an online magazine published by the American Foundation for the Blind, says that when his publication first started in 2000, it wasn't practical because few blind people had web access. "But there are a lot more now," he says.

The blind population is greatly influenced by word-of-mouth advertising. When blind consumers hear about an accessible site, "they will pass it on to a few hundred people on one listserv, and somebody else will pass it on to another," Leventhal says. "That could turn into thousands of people using a website." And given their significant transportation problems, blind consumers are loyal to accessible sites.

Last year, both and agreed to make their sites more accessible to the blind and visually impaired after a settlement was reached with the state of New York. The New York attorney general launched the action, making the case that the Americans With Disabilities Act requires that private sites be accessible to blind and visually impaired users.

But there are other reasons to make your site accessible. Your site will also be easier for people using PDAs and cell phones to access. Handhelds work best on sites with small images and limited amounts of Flash and JavaScript. Users with older hardware and text browsers, or computers set to view text-only will also benefit. The fact is, the same techniques that make a page accessible to the disabled increase its usability level for all visitors.

"As websites are designed for accessibility, they have become better sites overall," says Mary Elges, creative design consultant at Tallan Inc., a Glastonbury, Connecticut, provider of web and tech solutions. "While modifying your site may only appear to help visitors who might have physical, sensory, cognitive or work-related constraints, others do benefit."

Keep It Simple

It's best to follow accessibility standards authored by the Web Accessibility Initiative ( of the World Wide Web Consortium, an organization that recommends internet standards. A critical guideline involves making sure all images include alt tags--descriptive text added within the image's HTML tag. Since an alt tag contains text, it can be accessible to screen-reader software, which converts text into speech. When sites show graphics unidentified by text, readers can't capture their information.

Without these tags, "I can pick a book on Amazon, but I can't find the button that says 'add this book to your cart,'" says Leventhal, who is blind and uses screen-reader software.

Other guidelines include making sure pages have contrasting colors so information can be viewed by people with color-viewing disabilities, ensuring clear navigation, and using text links that describe where a user is going when he or she clicks. The guidelines also recommend using Flash or JavaScript cautiously and providing alternatives to auditory content for the hearing-impaired. To test one of your web pages for compliance with accessibility guidelines, try Watchfire's free online service at http://bobby.

Who's Accessible Now?, a one-stop shop for wire management products, redesigned its website about a year and a half ago to remove barriers that were giving customers--both disabled and not--difficulty. "Making your site accessible is good for two reasons," says Paul Holstein, 40, who co-founded the million-dollar Fort Lauderdale, Florida, business with his wife, Valerie, 31. "You help people who use screen-readers, but you are also making your site more compatible for the different web browsers out there."

Improving accessibility is easier than it seems. Holstein uses alt tags and avoids using Flash and JavaScript. He did the upgrade in-house, which took about 40 to 50 hours of work. Some of the work was also subcontracted to a graphics professional.

Perhaps it's time you considered making your website accessible to the disabled. Not only will you increase your potential audience, but you'll also avoid lawsuits and have a site that's responsive to text-based technologies like cell phones and PDAs. Surely that's worth a little effort.

MELISSA CAMPANELLI is a marketing and technology writer in New York City.

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