In a press release on March 28th, Amazon announced that they will be working with the National Federation of the Blind to promote and improve accessibility in web technology. This is a valuable step, since itself has been rather a poster child for the lack of accessibility in e-commerce.

It’s also worth noting that Amazon powers the technology behind the Target website which is currently the focus of a National Federation of the Blind sponsored lawsuit. The services powered by Amazon constitute a not insubstantial portion of the web, and a re-development of those services in a more accessible manner id definitely be something to be welcomed. (More on this later.)

Naturally, a press release does little to give a sense for what will actually be accomplished. No specific services have been named, no deadlines, no schedules. Literally, this is an announcement of a promise:

In a cooperation agreement, pledged its commitment to continue improving the accessibility of its Web site platform, while the NFB committed to contribute its expertise in Web accessibility technologies to help’s efforts.

The full text of the agreement (PDF (Portable Document Format)) is also available from the National Federation of the Blind’s website. The document itself lays out a number of specifics regarding the responsibilities of the two parties to each other, including the explicit employment of Jim Thatcher to consult with on accessibility issues.

One thing that the agreement explicitly calls for is better accessibility on all future technological innovations by Amazon. This is the core of the agreement, and requires that Amazon “shall cooperate with the NFB in the identification and, where necessary and mutually agreed, implementation of solutions to such accessibility barriers as the new technology may create.” (Cooperation Agreement, Part I, paragraph C.) But, in my opinion, this is probably not the most significant statement.

Part 3 — Accessibility Time Table

A. Amazon commits to work to provide Full and Equal Access on and Syndicated Store Web Sites, to the extent such access is not already available, by no later than December 31,2007 and continuing thereafter.

Sweet. And furthermore:

B. Amazon commits to work to implement technical measures, to the extent any are necessary, no later than June 30, 2008 and continuing thereafter, so as to ensure that third parties to whom Amazon delivers e-commerce services are not prevented by Amazon-supplied technology from providing Full and Equal Access on their Web Sites.

This agreement, as it’s written, has great potential to improve the accessibility of not only Amazon’s web resources, but those resources which they supply commercial services to. Obviously, there’s not much explicitly binding the parties on this agreement. A contract on paper is not necessarily a 100% commitment to any cooperation. Regardless, the intent is obviously very sincere, and I’m thinking positively.

Congratulations to Amazon and the National Federation of the Blind. Cheers!