We just received and verified some extremely disturbing news on the inaccessibility front. It seems Amazon.com has given the blind a rather unwelcome present for the Holiday Season in the form of yet another of the ever increasing “No Blind People Allowed” signs. Blind users of the JAWS screen reader developed by Freedom Scientific, the most widely used screen reader in the world, are apparently no longer allowed to perform essential shopping tasks such as reviewing product information on the web site. Though Amazon does offer a separate accessibility site, it provides a level of functionality that is far, far inferior to that found on their home page.
The letter below, provided by a highly competent user of the JAWS screen reader, serves to illustrate the difficulties. It is absolutely critical that everyone who is blind or cares about what happens to the blind write Amazon concerning this matter, asking and insisting that they work with the blind community to correct the situation promptly. Make no mistake, this issue and others like it are not simply “frustrations” but are serious, often intractible challenges to our ability to participate in society. Inaccessibility in an online store is tantamount to walking into a brick-and-mortar store and being told to get lost because you are of the wrong ethnicity. The currently imposed state of affairs represents an example of yet another “No Blind People Allowed” sign we must challenge at every possible opportunity.
I think that in this case, it’s unfair to accuse Amazon.com of discriminating against blind people. They merely made an enhancement to their site. In the process, they’ve exposed a bug in JFW, but I don’t believe it’s Amazon.com’s responsibility to find and work around such bugs. I just tested Amazon.com with both JFW 7.0 and FreedomBox 2.2, and FreedomBox is unaffected by this problem. It is therefore Freedom Scientific’s responsibility to fix the bug quickly; don’t bother Amazon.com about this one. As Darrell said on his “Taking a Byte out of JAWS 7.0” podcast, we should keep our demands on mainstream industry for accessibility to a minimum and do as much as possible ourselves.
The objection here is that we’re constantly vulnerable to the consequences of changes that are made without any consideration given to accessibility needs. If we’re suffering the consequences of being barred from shopping at Amazon due to a change they made without considering us in the process, then, it is mostly certainly fair to put them on the hook, regardless of any specific technology related issue.
It doesn’t seem logical to characterize what Amazon did here as putting up a “No Blind People Allowed” sign. The problem introduced by Amazon was inadvertent; based on my examination of the HTML code, I don’t believe Amazon could have anticipated the results with JAWS. Putting up a “No Blind People Allowed” sign would be much more deliberate.
Furthermore, I don’t believe it’s reasonable to expect Amazon or other similar companies to routinely test for compatibility with adaptive technology. I say this because the blind community is clearly a small piece of the market; and a for-profit company such as Amazon will naturally concentrate its resources where it can expect the most return on investment — the mass market. Thus, we need to do as much as possible ourselves and do our best to minimize the requirements on their part. This will only change if the blind community shows that it’s a large enough market that companies should care about it for purely economic reasons.
Thus, my position is still that this is a JAWS bug and not something for which Amazon should be faulted. My position would be the same if something like this occurred with FreedomBox.
But accessibility is dictated by law not market forces (even though using market share percentages is a great tool to motivate companies to follow the law). It is Ammazon’s responsibility to fix problems with changes just the same way they have to anticipate and fix security holes created by changes. The problem is of coure the short sightedness (forgive the pun) of your average person because they are just trying to get something to work not looking at what bugs they might have created.