"One of the common issues is the lack of alternative text around pictures. This is important because the text would allow a visually impaired individual who uses a screen reader to interpret what the image is conveying."
Mark Shapiro is the founder and CEO of Accessibility Now, an alumnus of the Betaspring startup accelerator that has built a Web-based scanning service to identify potential violations of Internet accessibility standards established under the U.S. Section 508 amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
Shapiro spoke with Providence Business News about the importance of Internet accessibility standards and how his company is helping websites fix their accessibility issues.
PBN: Why are the Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 standards for Internet accessibility so critical?
SHAPIRO: Public information from websites needs to be equally available to everyone. It is considered discriminatory not to provide for people with special needs, such as visual or audio impairments. For example, if your website uses audio files to explain or instruct the user on a particular topic, a person with an audio impairment would not be able to hear the information, and could therefore not understand it. Additionally, visually impaired people will have a difficult time understanding a descriptive picture that has no text describing the content of the image.
Accessibility standards such as Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 sets forth the guidelines to help website operators understand what they should consider to make their website accessible to everyone, be it including closed captions for those with hearing impairments, a text description of an image to aid those with visual impairments or overall website structure.
PBN: How did you become personally engaged in this issue, and what led you to found Accessibility Now?
SHAPIRO: At my last company, we built and managed state, federal and Fortune 500 companies’ websites. We were responsible for ensuring their sites were compliant under a variety of standards including website accessibility. We could not find any website accessible tools or services that could scan an entire website, prioritize the issues, explain what needed to be done to fix the issues and ensure compliance. Because of this, we spent a great deal of time and resources getting familiar with website accessibility “best practices” and interpreting the data from our own manual website accessibility scans.
I saw a tremendous opportunity to assist website operators with an affordable compliance service that was simple to use, but the service did not fit within our business mission at that time. I started Accessibility Now, branded as The Bureau of Internet Accessibility, as a personal side project that I self-funded. The underlying technology took a team of programmers three years to develop.
PBN: What are the most common website accessibility issues, and how can they be fixed?
SHAPIRO: One of the common issues is the lack of alternative text around pictures. This is important because the text would allow a visually impaired individual who uses a screen reader to interpret what the image is conveying. It is very easy for website administrators to add a description of pictures in an “Alt” tag. Not only does this information make the site more accessible to visually impaired people, but it also bolsters a higher ranking for that page in search engine results.
Accessibility Now has made checking websites for accessibility compliance easy. We offer a free graded and automated assessment of any website at www.boia.org. There, just enter a website’s domain name into the box to check its level of accessibility.
PBN: What websites are subject to the Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 standards, and what are the penalties for failure to comply with those standards?
SHAPIRO: Target Corp. paid out 10 million dollars after losing a website-accessibility lawsuit. The Department of Education, Charles Schwab, Southwest Airlines and many others have also been sued.
All websites are obligated to provide their information equally to everyone. In addition to the Federal Law (Section 508), the Justice Department is currently discussing the addition of specific website accessibility language to Title 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act which will provide additional clarity.