Tech Section: HP, IBM& Anthro Tronix

Most people who surf the Web never think twice about being able to access their favorite sites. For people with disabilities, however, going online can be a confusing, frustrating and wholly unsatisfying experience. Around the world, millions of people with disabilities are gaining recognition as a significant and growing market for products and services, and they are making their needs and expectations known. The expectation for information technology (IT) to be accessibility for people with disabilities came to the national forefront last summer when consumer websites Priceline.com and Ramada.com agreed to high-profile settlements with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer over noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Hewlett-Packard (HP), the world’s largest consumer IT company, has been implementing accessibility design and features into its website for several years. More recently, members of the HP Web accessibility team have been actively promoting to other businesses and organizations the importance of accessible websites and sharing key learnings and best practices. ABILITY Magazine talked to Natasha Lipkina, HP’s manager of global Web accessibility, about what drives HP’s commitment in this area, how the company made accessibility a top priority, and what HP has learned in the process.

ABILITY: Tell us about your role at HP.

Natasha Lipkina: I joined HP six years ago, and I am responsible for managing accessibility for our global Web presence as well as HP’s e-business. We’re talking about a huge site—thousands of pages, hundreds of products, dozens of languages, and new content coming in on a daily basis. It’s all got to be accessible to everyone. My group works closely with the HP Accessibility Program Office and the Web development team to oversee strategic planning and implementation.

ABILITY: When we talk about Web accessibility, what exactly does that mean?

NL: There are many different definitions of Web accessibility. To HP, it means ensuring that anyone with Web browsing capability can not only access and clearly understand Web content, but also has the ability to interact with it. The bottom line is, regardless of a person’s disability, he or she should have virtually the same experience online as anyone else.

Our commitment extends beyond HP.com, as well. For example, our Web-based business-to-business functions, e-mail, online advertising and promotions are all fully accessible. We try to ensure that everything we touch is accessible for all of our employees, customers and partners.

Our Web accessibility standards integrate Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) Guidelines and Section 508 Web standards [Section 508 is an addition to the Rehabilitation Act requiring full accessibility for all federal IT purchases]. We do our best to ensure that all our customers can easily access information on our website and accomplish the tasks they need to, from learning about our products and our company to applying for a job with HP.

ABILITY: Why did HP take this approach?

NL: As a technology leader, we couldn’t be late to the game. We recognized the huge market represented by people with disabilities. We really started in 2000 by updating our Web design standards. We were ahead of Section 508 enforcement and took a proactive approach to building in accessibility. As quickly as we could, we developed plans and strategies that could be put into place immediately, knowing we would address systems for ensuring compliance later. HP made accessibility a priority and provided to our internal Web development teams the tools, resources and knowledge they needed.

ABILITY: You mentioned ensuring compliance—how does HP do that?

NL: It was critical that we develop not only the policies and standards, but also a robust system for enforcing them. We require regular self-assessments from HP Web publishers, asking them to take responsibility for the outcomes. Ensuring accessibility is a never-ending task, requiring us to constantly stay abreast of changes and developments in technology as well as ways to make those new features and applications usable by everyone. With continual changes in standards and regulations, we are constantly training new team members. We also invite external organizations, such as the National Federation for the Blind, to help us monitor compliance.

ABILITY: What kinds of challenges do websites that aren’t designed with accessibility in mind pose for users with disabilities?

NL: For most people, the Internet is a gateway to the world. It can be so liberating and make life so much easier and richer. But for people with disabilities, it can be just the opposite. Navigating online can be an extremely frustrating experience. Take, for example, users with impaired vision who use screen readers [devices that use a synthesized voice to explain content on the screen]. If a website isn’t coded to interact with screen readers, then the screen reader can’t work. The user won’t get accurate context for images or information on the page and won’t be able to move around the site. We understand these frustrations. Our Web team includes people with disabilities and is extremely passionate about ensuring that people with different kinds of disabilities have full access to our site.

ABILITY: Why should a company bother with Web accessibility?

NL: There are several driving factors, including business benefits, legal requirements and social responsibility. From a legal standpoint, although the requirements and regulations started out in the United States and Europe, they are becoming increasingly prevalent in most parts of the world. Everyone saw what happened with the settlements last year, so companies are realizing that they expose themselves to legal liability if they are not accessible.

ABILITY: Can you talk more about the business benefits?

NL: There are numerous business benefits. Millions of people around the world have some type of disability. When your website isn’t accessible to them, they will never be your customers. And we’re talking about many types of disability. For example, age-related impairments are a growing trend. Studies have shown that more than 50 percent of working-age computer users in the U.S. are affected by some form of vision, hearing, dexterity or other impairment
More than that, the same improvements that make your site accessible for people with disabilities make it better and easier for people without them, too. For example, providing alternatives to visual images for people who are blind or have low vision also allows users with slower connections to download information and navigate your site more quickly and easily. Additionally, new platforms like PDAs and Web-enabled mobile phones have limited support for complex programs and large images, and providing accessibility features facilitates Web use from these modalities. These platforms are the future of Internet access, so to keep your content from getting to people who use them makes no sense.

Another benefit an accessible website brings is improved search engine functionality, making it easier for customers to find the content they are looking for. And when sites become more accessible to search engines, they appear higher in search engine rankings, providing a competitive advantage. Accessibility also creates efficiencies in managing website content. Using simple design allows users to view the same content on a variety of platforms without the designer’s having to recreate it each time.

ABILITY: You also mentioned social responsibility as a motivating factor.

NL: Yes, it’s a significant motivation, a huge part of everything we do at HP. Making the Web and other information technology accessible to everyone is the right thing to do. Business and legal benefits aside, HP has a strong legacy of advancing diversity in all its forms and using technology to make life better for people around the world.

ABILITY: Are there any other ways that HP has implemented its commitment to Web accessibility?

NL: One of our main goals is to integrate accessibility from the beginning into our product development process. Our Web-based Accessibility Toolkit for product designers provides information about accessibility requirements, legislation and best practices, giving designers the tools needed to ensure that products are accessible to everyone. To help customers interested in product accessibility, HP was one of the first companies to document the accessibility features of our product portfolio—our desktops, notebooks, handhelds, printers and other products. This information is publicly available online on our voluntary product accessibility template (VPAT) database.

ABILITY: What results has HP seen from its efforts?

NL: We’ve had great feedback and input from users with disabilities. We look at our commitment to accessibility as a learning process. When we get suggestions, we go right in and find out how we can improve features and site design. Our global website was recognized by the U.S. National Federation for the Blind (NFB) in 2004 as an e-business leader for Web accessibility. NFB’s Nonvisual Accessibility Web Application Certification program recognizes websites that can be used equally as well by people who are blind as by people who are sighted. HP is the only company to earn certification in two consecutive years.

To help spread the word, we’re promoting to other businesses the merits and importance of Web accessibility and sharing our experiences. We’re members of W3C and sponsors of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). I serve on the WAI Steering Committee and on the Education and Outreach Working Group. HP also makes presentations and joins panels at industry conferences, such as the California State University at Northridge (CSUN) adaptive technology conference.

ABILITY: If you had to give one piece of advice to an organization that wanted to make its website accessible, what would you tell them?

NL: It’s critical to get a long-term commitment from the upper management. This type of program requires an investment of time, money and people, and getting buy-in from the top helps ensure the right resources are in place. HP’s top leaders have made it clear that accessibility is a priority and have put resources in place to support that commitment.

I know you asked for one piece of advice, but here’s another—it’s crucial to address accessibility issues during the design and development stage. If you know the requirements going in, you will save time and money and avoid many late nights and huge headaches. It’s an investment of time and resources up front, but when you weigh the business benefits and avoided legal exposure, it’s worth every penny. HP puts this investment into everything we do on the Web, so we spend little time going back or catching up. It’s really part of our culture now.

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