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The Conundrum of E-commerce and Web Accessibility

It’s nearing a year since National Federation of the Blind filed a class action lawsuit against Target. The latest development is that the case will continue despite Target’s argument that websites are not covered by the American with Disabilities Act. But has the lawsuit triggered any reaction from online businesses to start designing for accessibility? I’m afraid not.

Here’s a quick experiment. View a page source (Ctrl + U in Firefox) of an online store like Amazon.com and you’ll find that table tags are still being used for design.

Picture showing Amazon.com's page source using tables for layout

This is while the W3C recommends that tables should only be used to show tabular content. As the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines says:

Tables should be used to mark up truly tabular information (“data tables”). Content developers should avoid using them to lay out pages (“layout tables”). Tables for any use also present special problems to users of screen readers

Try this out with the many other large e-commerce sites. View their page sources and compare them side by side with the WCAG. You might find that the results wouldn’t be too encouraging for the disabled and the pro-accessibility initiatives as these sites are more or less inaccessible to them.

This leaves us to wonder why aren’t there any large-scale changes being made to redesign sites for accessibility. Do e-commerce sites really include disabled web users in their target market? No satisfied customer will ever file a lawsuit against a top-quality service provider.

Simple math says that 3.24 million disabled people in the UK access the Web. And yet Amazon.co.uk has the same design issues like the one cited above in Amazon.com. Is providing access to 3.24 million people a wise business decision or not?

Understandably, redesigning websites for accessibility will require resources and effort both in development and implementation. And redesigning doesn’t immediately guarantee sales. There is still the need for cheaper and readily available assistive technologies for the disabled. If the disabled public isn’t quite ready yet, then in terms of figures of sales vs. costs, a company’s immediate investment in accessibility will only be credited to social responsibility – something that apparently not all corporations are content to exhibit.

In business, numbers matter and no one wants to see a drop in profit. The profitability of web accessibility relies on numbers. It’s a gamble between 1) increasing sales to compensate for redesign expenses and 2) not investing on it at all to save on the costs. Business as per usual.

Many other people have taken sides on the issue pointing out that websites aren’t covered by ADA and the NFB will surely lose or that Target should lose to finally open the business sector’s eyes. The reality is: what’s legal isn’t always ethical, what’s ethical isn’t always profitable, and what’s profitable isn’t always legal – the classic conundrum of paper, rock, and scissors.

How everyone reacts will really test whether it is possible to balance business, the law, and humanity or not. But for now, we’ll just have wait until the NFB vs. Target case is slugged out in court and a decision is reached to find out.

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