The big news right now is, of course, Target(.com) being sued: box of chocolates | Taking Aim at Target(.com).
I've looked around at a few threads, some within the web industry and a couple of legal sites. Some of the comments I've seen are appalling. People saying the suit is ridiculous, a waste of time, that nobody is getting hurt if Target's website in not accessible. The word "freedom" being tossed around to justify treating disabled net users like they're second class citizens.
I think I'll scream if I see one more person trot out the idiot line "blind people can't drive so let's sue the car manufacturers". Discrimination through ignorance is a galling thing.
it's discrimination, not free trade
One point people are missing is that we really are talking about discrimination. Making an inaccessible website means treating some customers as second-class citizens. Target is refusing to serve them, just as effectively as if they turned their backs on them instore.
This is not trivial, this is not some minor detail which really makes no difference to the people involved. The net has become fundamental to many peoples' lives. The net can allow a person to do a large number of mundane tasks from the comfort and safety of their own home. It can save huge amounts of time and leave energy for more important things in life.
Why should disabled people be denied this simple convenience? Not forgetting that for some users, shopping online goes beyond mere convenience, it could be the difference between needing assistance and being independent (at least for one more task).
it's the law
Now let's cast aside the moral highground, since it doesn't motivate business. Plain and simple, accessibility is the law. As Joe Clark has pointed out, Target is bound by law not to discriminate against someone based on skin colour, religion or disability. It's one of those rare laws which are based on enforcing some basic humanity on the free market.
Around the world, there are many different implementations of the basic concept; usually with a clause about not causing undue harship on the provider. There is no undue hardship on Target to make their website accessible. They have in fact demonstrated how easy it would be for a company with their resources to fix the problems, by fixing some of them within 24 hours.
so why does it still happen?
So if it's the right thing to do and it's the law anyway... why do we still see so many inaccessible websites?
In part, I think it's ignorance.
People don't know that it's the law, they don't understand why it's the right thing to do, they don't know that it's entirely achievable. Even if they are aware of the issue, many people think it's not serious or that it's too hard to do anything about it.
We, the advocates, need to inform the uninformed.
we already know
An accessible web would be a great leveller (would be, we're certainly not there yet). Online, who knows or cares if you have a disability? People can only see what you say, you can be judged on what you think without being judged on what you look like. You should be able to do anything and everything the same as anyone else who can access the internet. People can love and hate you for it, just like anyone else.
Advocates of accessibility and web standards are, obviously, convinced that these things are worthwhile. We know, in our hearts and minds, that accessibility is right. We know, because something has convinced us.
Perhaps we know someone with a disability, perhaps we've simply heard about the challenges they face. Perhaps it was enough to realise that the technology exists to make the web accessible to everyone.
we have to attack ignorance
Not only do we need to work on the technology that makes accessibility possible, we have to convince people that they need to use that technology. We have to find people who don't understand, yet could make a difference if they did. We need to show them, in ways that makes easy sense to them, why it's right and why it's possible.
If they still don't care, then we have to show them why it's the law anyway and they don't have a choice. Carrots and sticks, honey and vinegar, however you like to say it. People cannot be allowed to live in the blissful ignorance which lets them perpetuate online discrimination.
We also need to inform the bystanders, who quite clearly don't realise that this issue is important. This is difficult, since the default state of most people seems to be apathy; but with enough hard work even the biggest issues can start to turn around. Pushing for web accessibility would be just a little easier if the general public had a better understanding of what it's all about.
If we can attack ignorance, if we can inform enough people, then maybe one day the lawsuits won't be required so much any more. I suspect that sometimes the big stick will still have to come out, but maybe afterwards people will be more receptive to the carrot.