Separate but Unequal: Web Interfaces for People with Disabilities

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an earlier decision that had allowed for “separate but equal” facilities for Caucasians and African-Americans by ruling that segregation in public education was inherently unequal. Not only did the facilities themselves tend to be unequal, but the core concept of segregation is based on an assumption of inferiority, and the experience of being separated leads to a lifelong feeling of inferiority.

Unfortunately, segregation according to disabilities still exists. When people with disabilities are asked to use a different web interface based on their disability, often the result is that their interaction experience is unequal. There is often limited functionality, limited content, and out-of–date information. Asking people with disabilities to use separate interfaces is essentially a form of discrimination.

An accessible website allows people with perceptual or motor disabilities who often use alternate means for input or output (for example, speech recognition input or screen reader output) to access the same content and transactions as someone without an impairment. From a practical and regulatory point of view, an accessible website is one that follows a series of interface guidelines, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) or the Web Guidelines from Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act. In the past, the guidelines have only addressed perceptual and motor impairment, but WCAG 2.0 begins to address cognitive impairment as well.

Websites can be designed so that they are accessible for impaired users. Accessibility features (for example, meaningful alternative text for images, captioning or transcriptions for audio, clear headings for different page areas, and clear labels for form fields) do not need to change the visual appearance of the website. The coding techniques that help make a web page accessible are simply good coding standards; they not only help with documenting code for other programmers, but can also help search engines find and properly categorize a website. However, some site designers and webmasters have taken the action of either creating a different site for people with disabilities, or directing people with disabilities to use only a certain version of their interface (often the older version).

Categories of Separate Interfaces

Mobile Version of the Website

The first category of separate interfaces we have identified occurs when a mobile version is suggested as the accessible version for a website. Websites designed exclusively for mobile devices are often “slimmed down” and stripped of certain features. To provide functionality for a wide range of mobile devices, the mobile websites are typically HTML-only and avoid dynamic features that might be problematic on mobile devices. As a result, such an interface may be more likely to be accessible through assistive technology. Instead of focusing on a single interface that is accessible and usable for the widest range of devices and users, some companies have decided that their mobile websites will also serve as the accessible site versions,

An example is Amazon.com, which recommends on its Help page under Accessibility Resources that screen reader users access its mobile website. Also, Facebook’s Accessibility and Assistive Technology page under Help Center provides a link to an HTML-only version of the website which is also their mobile website.

In usability testing with blind users, we determined that the Facebook mobile version was more usable than the site’s standard version, but was missing certain features, such as the ability to send an email to someone who is not a Facebook “friend.” More importantly, the mobile version of Facebook is not maintained synchronously with the standard version and is often far behind in receiving functionality.

Older Version of the Website

The second category of separate interfaces occurs when a website maintains older and newer versions of the same site or web-based application, one of which is claimed to be the “accessible” version (typically the older version). For example, Yahoo recommends that individuals using assistive technology use the Yahoo Mail Classic version rather than the current version of Yahoo Mail, even though the two interfaces do not have identical features. Another example is Microsoft’s Outlook Web Access, which provides web-based access to corporate email. Due to accessibility problems with the standard web-based interface, Microsoft recommends that visually impaired users use a different interface called Outlook Web Access “Light.”

Text-Only Version of the Website

The third category of separate interfaces occurs when a website maintains a separate, text-only version. This is often seen as a viable alternative to maintaining a single, accessible interface. The current version of Section 508, as well as the previous version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines from the W3C (WCAG 1.0), seem to allow for this. However, a careful read of Section 508 reveals that separate, text-only interfaces are only an alternative as a last resort and must be updated consistently along with the primary web page. Additionally, the newest version of WCAG (2.0) no longer mentions an allowance for separate, text-only interfaces.

A few examples of separate, text-only website versions include the MTA New York City Transit, some government websites (for example, the Inter-American Foundation, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission), and some university websites (for example, the University of Virginia).

Same Website but Limited Content

In the fourth category of separate interfaces, only limited content is available in HTML format. To get the full content, users must utilize inaccessible plug-ins. For instance, the Cumberland News-Times provides only a portion of its content in HTML and requires the use of the Pressreader plug-in for reading full newspaper content. Pressreader’s interface suffers from a number of accessibility challenges that limit its usage by assistive technology products such as screen readers.

Implications

Accommodations that require people with disabilities to go through a “separate door” are often problematic. For instance, a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulation went into effect in 2009, stating that airlines aren’t required to make their websites accessible for people with disabilities, but that when the airline websites aren’t accessible, airlines are required to provide the same low prices over the phone as on the website and not charge people with disabilities a fee for using the call center. A study by the first author and his research team in 2009 (six months after the regulation had been in effect) found that of ten major U.S. airlines, four had inaccessible websites and when making phone calls to those airlines to check on compliance with the DOT policy, two of the airlines refused to honor the regulation, and wound up over-charging people with disabilities at least one-third of the time.

There is another potential approach that is also problematic for dealing with accessibility: some organizations state that they do not have the resources to make their websites accessible, but will make specific pages accessible upon the request of an individual with a disability. For instance, an article in the Cornell Daily Sun noted that the director of Information Technology at Cornell University was hoping to implement improved accessibility standards at the University sometime in the first half of 2011. However, the associate university counsel of Cornell University made the argument that the law only requires the University to provide materials in an accessible format upon request, and that the websites themselves do not need to be preemptively accessible.

In this situation, individuals with disabilities must place a request for the web page content, which would take time. In the example given by Cornell University, that delayed access to content would translate into missed opportunities to read class-related materials, to study, and to collaborate with team members. This is similar to the situation with textbooks, where often students with print-related disabilities don’t receive accessible versions of their textbooks until mid-way through the semester, or sometimes at the end of the semester, creating a form of discrimination and an unfair disadvantage.

Going Forward

Any of the approaches in the various categories that we discussed can and do create inequality for people with disabilities. While sometimes the intentions may be good, too often these approaches are taken because they are seen as an easier way to provide a response to the need for accessibility. Organizations should avoid these “band-aid” solutions to accessibility. Instead, they should recognize the value of having one interface accessible to the widest range of users in the widest range of situations. Policymakers also have a responsibility to clearly articulate that having a separate, unequal interface is not an acceptable solution to accessibility. Regardless of intentions, separate is never truly equal.

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