(UPDATED)    I have never quite figured out why certain news items in the accessibility field get all the press. AOL’s adding captioning to one or two snippets of video got covered 50 times. NFB suing Target for accessibility, ditto. That one at least is news. But Amazon and NFB signing an agreement to improve Web accessibility? Why did that get so much coverage when we know so little of the details?

The actual “cooperation agreement” between NFB and Amazon is available as an image-only PDF, not at all ironically. (There’s an OCR version online.) Among its interesting clauses:

  • “Amazon will appoint an individual from Amazon’s Accessibility Committee to serve as its Coordinator with NFB and NFB’s liaison to the Accessibility Committee”: In what alternate universe does Amazon have an Accessibility Committee? Who’s on it?
  • The agreement includes Amazon.com and “pages on which products and services are offered or displayed to customers by sellers other than Amazon” and “merchant Web sites,” i.e., Web sites “that are developed, operated, and hosted by Amazon… and feature products or services predominantly offered… through Web pages that are prominently co-branded with trademarks and other content owned or provided by third parties.” Keep those in mind for a moment.
  • Screen readers are described by the malapropism “screen-access software,” and accessibility seems to refer exclusively – I do mean that – to compatibility with screen readers.
  • The whole thing is supposed to be done by 2007.12.31 for Amazon itself and 2008.06.30 for affiliated vendors.

It seems obvious that all this is happening solely because the only way to make Target.com accessible is to make Amazon accessible, since Target is merely one of the affiliated sites of Amazon. I speculated that this agreement was reached in lieu of a lawsuit. NFB refused to confirm or deny that question (I asked repeatedly). All that Chris Danielsen of NFB would provide, apropos of none of my questions, was the following canned statement:

I am writing in response to your inquiry as to why the National Federation of the Blind feels that it is important to work with Amazon.com on making its Web site and E-commerce platform accessible to the blind. The National Federation of the Blind believes that all companies doing business on the Internet should have accessible Web sites, whether they are selling goods related to entertainment or more essential items.

Keep that in mind, because NFB had previously opposed any requirement for U.S. broadcasters to air programming with audio description, as the blind had better things to worry about than “entertainment.” You may read all about it in an article written by… Chris Danielsen. (“To put the matter bluntly, blind people have much larger concerns than whether they can follow the action on a prime-time television program.”)

Referring to his Amazon response, I asked Danielsen: “How is that different from the following statement? ‘The National Federation of the Blind believes that all companies doing business on public airwaves should have accessible programming, whether their programming is related to entertainment or more essential items.’ In other words, if it’s OK to have Web sites accessible to buy entertainment items, like DVDs with audio description, why is it not OK for broadcast and cable networks to be required to air programming with audio description?”

Danielsen refused to respond.

So did Amazon. Not only did I E-mail Patty Smith, director of corporate communications, I mailed her a letter by poste escargot with the following questions:

  • NFB engaged in litigation against Target, whose online store is “powered by” Amazon.com. Is it the case that the only way for Target to improve its accessibility is for Amazon to improve its accessibility? In other words, and this is a distinct question, would Amazon even have bothered with the NFB agreement if Target did not suddenly have a need for Web accessibility?
  • Was the agreement with NFB a way to avoid a lawsuit, or human-rights complaint, or other proceeding similar to NFB’s against Target?
  • How many members are on Amazon’s Accessibility Committee, and when was it formed (in particular, before or after the agreement was reached or negotiations leading to the agreement began)? If the Committee has existed for some time, what are its achievements? Does the Committee have the power to recommend and implement wholesale code changes, like a shift from tag-soup tables for layout to real HTML and CSS?
  • Why was software collectively and universally known as screen readers named “screen-access software” in the agreement? (The software does not allow “access” to “screen[s].”)
  • Why was the agreement limited to screen-reader compatibility? If the goal is to provide “full and equal access by the blind,” why was screen magnification not included in the agreement, or an assurance that Amazon.com would continue to [function] with large fonts selected in an ordinary browser?
  • If screen-reader compatibility is all that is promised, what exactly does that mean? Amazon.com will be usable in Jaws and IE6? in Window-Eyes and Firefox? in VoiceOver and Safari?
  • Why did the agreement not address full and equal access by people with disabilities instead of just “the blind”?
  • Part 2, ¶G states that “[s]creen-access software relies on certain accessibility features,” including “ ‘alt-tags’ “ (actually alt texts), headings, form labels, and (actually harmful) accesskeys. Why does the agreement fail to address the true accessibility problem at Amazon.com – the outdated, overlarge, nonstandard, tables-based code throughout the site, code that does not even remotely comply with Web standards? Separately, how would Amazon.com, under the terms of the agreement, comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Priority 2?
  • Part 2, ¶I declares that “full and equal access[ibility]… means that blind people using screen-access software can enjoy the products and services… with a substantially equivalent ease of use” compared to sighted people. Given that Amazon.com’s numerous nested tables, the overlarge, illegal HTML, the invalid CSS, and the reliance on JavaScript are likely to impede screen-reader users even if alt texts, form labels, headings, and accesskeys are remediated, what steps will Amazon take to improve its code quality and transition Amazon.com to a combination of valid, semantic HTML and CSS with JavaScript that degrades gracefully or provides progressive enhancement?
  • How will Amazon.com address the reading of sample pages from books and other materials, multi-pane A9 search results, and accessibility to video feeds and files that lack audio description?

The NFB–Amazon agreement does not state as much, but I take it as confirmation of my suspicion that Jim Thatcher (listed as “Dr.” in the agreement) was the one who scored the contract to remediate Target’s Web site (no, he denies that, and claims not to know who has the contract). (I refused to bid, you’ll remember.) I don’t see how one person could do it alone, but then again, I have no proof he’s working alone. This is certainly quite a coup for a man who lambasted me for securing a $5,000 contract, for which I had recommended him as a second choice, and who has complained to me that, since he worked on the very first screen reader, I could not possibly have been interested in accessibility for 25 years.

I would say the whole thing is fishy and won’t result in anything other than bare-minimum functionality in IE6 and Jaws.

On another day, I will discuss the Werner Vogels Problem.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.04.24 16:06. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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