Editor’s note: Thomas Ingham is chief technologist and co-founder of Coalmarch Productions, a programming, search engine marketing and Web development firm. WRAL Local Tech Wire asked Ingham to discuss the potential implications of a discrimination law suit filed against Target earlier this year concerning the accessibility of its Web site to the visually impaired. Ingham is a programmer who has lived in the Raleigh area since 1997.

CARY –  Although more complex than generally reported in the media, the discrimination suit filed on Feb. 7 against Target Corp. is, at essence, about accessibility for the blind to certain retail Web sites.

What exactly does that mean? How can a company find out if its site is compliant and, if it is not, how can it be fixed and how much will that cost?

Accessibility in this context refers to the ability of an assistive device (usually a screen reader) to read and translate text into audio output. Obviously, all of the visible text on a site is readable and easily translated. Images are the problem, and accessibility requires extra steps taken to prepare the content for a screen reader.

In the past, images were simply given a file name, usually in the form of a string of characters and numbers that meant nothing to the user. The advent of Web browsers that searched for pertinent sites based on keywords submitted by the user prompted the addition of text (or alt-tags) to describe the image to better attract the browsers to a particular site.

For a site to be screen-reader friendly the alt-tags must provide enough information to adequately describe the product. For example, simply titling an image, “Toast-o-Matic toaster” is sufficient to attract browsers searching for toasters. To be compliant with industry standards, however, the alt-tag might be expanded to, “Toast-o-Matic toaster; four slice; wide-slot; in white, black or chrome; 20% off marked price of $30.00; sale expires 12/31/2007; to order ‘click’ Add-to-cart; located in aisle 6, ‘Small Appliances’ in your local store.”

This provides details for a visually impaired user to either order online or pre-select a product before physically visiting a store to purchase the item. (One of the variables in the Target suit addresses whether full accessibility pertains to just operations that have both brick-and- mortar stores and click-and-order Web sites or to pure e-commerce sites not affiliated with actual stores.)

A major concern in determining what is compliant is the unavailability of clearly defined laws under the Americans With Disabilities Act  to use as guidelines when developing sites. Although regulations have been written to cover accessibility to Web sites operated by government agencies under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, no such regulations are available for private business.

I’ve researched the matter and have been unable to find anything that directly relates to Web site accessibility. If someone can provide me with this information, I would welcome it. It would make the programmer’s job much easier.

Instead, we have industry standards developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). However, these are unenforceable and act more to stimulate the advancement in technology and to encourage the adoption of consistency. In fact, many of the products sold by the decision-makers in the W3C are not compliant with their own standards. As you can imagine, this proves to be vexing to say the least, for programmers and business owners who want their sites to be fully compliant. The question is: In the absence of clear legal guidelines, what does compliant mean?

As an industry group that recommends standards, the W3C has no enforcement authority, and compliance is voluntary. In fact, I am not aware of any commercially available browsers that adhere to the W3C standards, not even those manufactured by members who established the standards.

At least the W3C has done a good job of making it easy to test your site for compliance with their industry standards. Simply go to their Web site (www.w3.org) and click “Accessibility,” go to the “Web Accessibility Initiative” (WAI) page, then click “Evaluating Accessibility.” There you will find tools that can be used to simply and easily evaluate your site for compliance with recommended industry standards. If problems are found, you will be told exactly how your site is out of compliance with the W3C guidelines.

If your site exhibits compliance issues, and the site was developed dynamically and not with a compiler, it can be a relatively easy and economical fix. On average, it can take a knowledgeable Web development professional approximately three months and $40K in service fees to get your site in compliance with the W3C recommendations. However, without clearly defined, enforceable laws and regulations to rely on, you can’t guarantee that the the rules won’t change in the future.

E-commerce sites sell products, but they are essentially marketing tools. Currently, much of the ADA is only addressing “reasonable” access, which leaves the matter open to interpretation by the Web site owner and their site developer. Now that we’ve ventured down the rabbit hole of full-accessibility by virtualizing sites for the visually impaired, we’ll be expected to continue to virtualize to the nth degree. It isn’t fair to expect any one party to be accountable.

Vendors cant’ be 100 percent accountable. The retailer can’t be 100 percent accountable, and neither can the manufacturers of screen readers and other assisted devices. It needs to be collaborative effort between the industry and the regulators. Until the legislators and the regulators provide clearly defined guidelines and regulations, and then provide funding for developing the necessary revisions, the best solution is to leave the solution up to the W3C and the developers.