Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

Most businesses design their websites to be accessible to the masses. But one large population they often fail to consider is the disabled.

About 85 percent of websites aren’t fully accessible to this audience, experts estimate. For example, a person who is blind or deaf could not access all the information on a site, even with the use of assistive technology.

But that may change, once the U.S. Department of Justice issues proposed rules on Web accessibility. The long-delayed rules, in the works since 2010, are now slated to come out in 2018.

“Most IT experts and CEOs have no clue about accessibility,” says Bellport resident Albert J. Rizzi, founder and CEO of My Blind Spot Inc., a Manhattan-based nonprofit that has advocated for Web accessibility for a decade and provides training and consulting to organizations to support their accessibility initiatives.

The access issue impacts people with varying disabilities ranging from visual to cognitive to neurological.

Rizzi, who is blind, says he finds it difficult to navigate a significant number of websites and mobile apps because they aren’t coded to accommodate assistive technologies like screen readers that read aloud printed text. Many sites also won’t accommodate magnifiers for people with limited vision, or speech-to-text tools, he said. And many are not fully functional without a mouse, creating a barrier for people who can operate a keyboard but lack the motor control to use a mouse.

Rizzi has been trying to make strides locally and was instrumental in helping get legislation passed in 2013 to make Suffolk County’s own website accessible for the disabled community.

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But he says a lot more needs to be done.

And businesses that fail to make their products and services accessible are missing out on a big market.

Nearly one in five people report that they have a disability of some kind, according to U.S. Census figures. The Return on Disability Group, a research organization, estimates that Americans with disabilities have a disposable income of $645 billion.

Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act requires that places of public accommodation be accessible to the disabled. While the law, passed in 1990, does not specifically address websites, the Justice Department has maintained in court filings that they are covered under current ADA regulations, explains attorney Minh Vu of Washington, D.C., head of Seyfarth Shaw’s nationwide ADA Title III specialty team. Still, there’s no formal standard for private businesses, she notes.

There are privately developed guidelines for Web accessibility created by the World Wide Web Consortium, but outside of airline websites, those guidelines haven’t been adopted in the form of any regulations that apply to public accommodations, says Vu.

The Justice rules would “adopt a legal technical standard for what is an accessible website and clarify what the obligations of public accommodations are with respect to websites,” she says, adding final rules may not take effect until possibly a year after proposed rules are issued.

But in the meantime, the DOJ appears to have shifted its enforcement position in court filings to the stance that it doesn’t need rules in order to require websites to be accessible, Vu says.

Still, the issue isn’t clear-cut.

There’s disagreement among the courts over standards for websites that “don’t have a nexus to a physical location where customers are served,” such as Netflix, says Vu. Court rulings have differed as to whether the ADA applies to those websites.

And litigation continues.

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Since Jan. 1, 2015, 61 lawsuits alleging that a defendant’s inaccessible website violates Title III of the ADA have been filed or removed to federal court, according to Seyfarth Shaw.

A DOJ ruling would help clarify the situation, and this latest delay certainly doesn’t help, experts say. The DOJ did not respond to requests for comment.

Regardless, companies should start educating themselves on website accessibility, says Mike Caprara, chief information officer at The Viscardi Center in Albertson, which is creating a website accessibility training program for Web developers and others that should be available later this year.

Viscardi already offers a service that converts text PDFs into a format that works with screen reader technology.

Multiple facets go into creating an accessible website. For one, choose content management software that supports Web accessibility and choose templates, plug-ins, or widgets that are accessible, Caprara advises.

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Other measures to take include:

  • making sure you’re properly using “alt text” — alternate text for the images throughout your Web pages — so users with a screen reader can have a full description of what the image actually is;
  • using headings correctly to organize content so screen readers can navigate the website in the proper reading order;
  • providing links throughout your Web pages with unique and descriptive names. For example, avoid “click here;” instead, use “If you would like more information, contact us;” and
  • making sure all video content on your website includes text captions and transcriptions.

In general, it’s less costly to take these measures when you’re first creating your website rather than having to make the fixes later, says Rick Bowes, executive consultant for Tech For All Inc., a Wellington, Florida-based accessibility technology consulting firm.

The cost to diagnose and fix accessibility issues can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the site, and then you have to keep it up to par as you add content.

Even without the DOJ’s proposed rules, there are voluntary guidelines that private businesses can follow, notes Philip Voluck, co-chair of the employment-law department of Woodbury law firm Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck, which has developed a specialty in Web accessibility.

The World Wide Web Consortium’s latest voluntary guidelines are “the de facto standard for assessing website accessibility,” adds Bowes. (See nwsdy.li/access.)

And there are many tools out there to help bring your website into compliance, notes Voluck. (See nwsdy.li/comply.)

If you’re uncertain if your website is accessible, you can contact the DOJ and staff members there can tell you whether your website is compliant, says Voluck.

“Businesses need to get in front of this,” he notes, adding it isn’t just to protect themselves against litigation but also it makes good business sense.

“Companies are foolish, because there is a large constituency of people who are visually challenged or blind who are looking to access their websites,” says Mitch Shapiro, founder of the Foundation for Sight and Sound in Smithtown, who himself is visually challenged.

With a lot of retailers, “I can’t tell you what type of products are being offered” because their websites aren’t accessible, he says.