June 30, 2008

Online Marketer Makes Web Sites ‘Readable’ for Visually Impaired

By Mowad, Michelle

Garry Grant, president and chief executive officer of Carlsbad- based Search Engine Optimization Inc., is doing more than improving his clients' visibility online.

He's helping them reach out to a new demographic, one that cannot navigate online or see Web sites without accessibility enhancements.

People who are visually impaired or blind, such as his daughter, Amber Grant, 18, are able to surf the Web by installing "screen reader" software on their computers.

This software reads individual Web page code and enables text to be translated into sound or described audibly in text-to-speech and sound icons.

Assistive technology software can also be used for Braille output or voice-recognition software to control navigation with verbal commands instead of a mouse.

But even with these types of software, Amber and the 10 million people in the United States who are blind or visually impaired often navigate their way on sites that are not optimally designed for visually impaired individuals.

"Companies and businesses need to make their sites more accessible," said Amber.

While spending several hours online each day she said she sometimes has trouble navigating through many Web sites and using online retailers' features.

Amber can find products online if text descriptions are attached to photos of products but she says she has difficulties checking out when making online purchases.

"I can get through the entire process, but when it comes to checking out. it isn't always reliable," she said. "You don't know if it is secure or not and you wouldn't really feel comfortable giving credit card information out to somewhere that you didn't feel is reliable."

Designing Company Web Sites

Grant has been urging companies to create a Web presence that is compatible with screen-reader software for several years now.

Making a site more accessible also makes it more visible and rank higher on search engines such as Google, according to Grant, whose search-engine marketing firm has assisted numerous businesses since forming in 1997.

His company with 62 employees had more than $10 million in revenues in 2007.

"It's a win-win situation for companies to make these changes and by doing so they not only broaden their visibility online, but they open themselves up to a completely new user demographic, ultimately, allowing for easier navigation and the ability to make purchases," said Grant.

Grant says his vision is to make people "handi-capable," not handicapped.

"You need to make accessibility part of your philosophy and part of your work ethic," he said, adding that sites can be made more accessible simply by tagging images with word descriptions. "This immediately gives you a boost in your rankings and visibility."

Grant said he tells business owners that taking proper steps in designing or modifying Web sites to make them accessible does not always entail a huge price tag.

He also said that companies with knowledgeable webmasters can update a site in-house or pay $5,000 for a consultant to make changes.

"People who are blind rely on the Web for all of the same reasons everyone else would: information, commerce, entertainment" said Paul Schroeder, vice president of programs and policy for the American Federation for the Blind, a nonprofit helping the blind and visually impaired.

Schroeder said that the advent of computers and the Internet brought information to the blind as quickly as it did for the sighted. He said those who are sight impaired no longer depend on someone transferring information from paper to audiotapes or Braille.

"For blind people the Web has all of the charm and capabilities that sighted people want from it, but it has an added component of really being a link that is irreplaceable to the information world," Schroeder said.

Bringing Down Barriers

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which sets accessible design standards among other things, states that inadequately designed Web sites can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities, just as poorly designed buildings prevent some people from entering.

Designers may not realize how simple features built into a Web page can assist someone who cannot see a computer monitor or use a mouse, the ADA's Web site said.

The ADA requires retailers, restaurants and other businesses to provide access to people with disabilities.

Lawsuits that have been filed over this requirement include legal action against Target Corp., operator of Target stores.

The National Federation of the Blind said screen-reading software cannot translate parts of Target's Web site, making it difficult for those with disabilities to use.

In April, a U.S. District judge from the Northern District of California granted class-action status to the lawsuit.

"The recent decision on the Target lawsuit is a major break in the case, for it tells Target that they will indeed need to change their Web site so that blind Americans will be able to shop there," said Robert Stigile, president of NFB's California chapter.

Although the case against Target has not yet been settled, Garry Grant said the magnitude of an award could influence other companies to update their sites.

Copyright San Diego Business Journal Jun 2, 2008

(c) 2008 San Diego Business Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.