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Accessibility for Digital Businesses: How Your Company Can Be a Leader

Here's why adopting accessibility guidelines is the ethical thing to do for companies with public-facing websites or software products.

Accessibility for Digital Businesses: How Your Company Can Be a Leader
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Digital businesses with accessible websites are demonstrating leadership by example.

They are showcasing proof that ethical accessibility practices can help increase brand credibility, inclusion for all, and online conversions.

For companies that wish to do the right thing for their website users, what does this inclusion mean and how is it done?

Can your company be a leader in the accessibility space?

How might your business prove authenticity, credibility, and dedication to online accessibility?

Pushing for Accessibility

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, WCAG version 1.0, was first published on May 5, 1999.

It has taken 20 years for accessibility guidelines to catch on and be taken seriously.

Are you too late? (No. But you thought so, right?)

Usability, user experience, and even information architecture have always included bits of WCAG guidelines, such as:

  • Font sizes and types.
  • Color contrasts.
  • Organization for clear navigation.
  • Understandable content.

Despite this, the most common errors found in accessibility testing are simple basics known to improve user experience.

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Plus, understandable content has long been known to help with SEO practices.

Look for New Opportunities

Accessibility guidelines allow online businesses to reach into target markets they may not have been aware were there.

Doing the right thing for disabled users provides new opportunities by removing barriers to grant greater access to your web-based content.

The various methods in which internet technology benefits persons with permanent or temporary impairments continue to inform us of an entirely new target market.

When assistive devices make it possible to place orders, ask questions with voice search or transcription enables deaf persons to read a podcast interview, we reach more people and learn from their direct experiences.

Research is ongoing around the world and the data spurs innovation and inspiration to try new ideas.

One such study explored how to improve voice search. Called, “Examining Users’ Partial Query Modification Patterns in Voice Search”, researchers discovered a higher rate of voice search abandonment due to mistakes and the inability to modify queries.

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They discovered keyboard searches are easier to reformulate partial queries than voice searches with Siri, Google Now, Cortana and Amazon Echo.

Related studies revealed that task type has a significant impact on user query behavior using voice search, while other factors influence users’ perception of the system, such as comfort level, trust, and ease of use of the system.

Users preferred keyboard search over voice because it was easier to give up and switch over to complete the query.

Why might a search engine marketer be interested in this?

Patterns emerged such as extra query modifications like “specification”, “generalization” and “correction”. When given the opportunity to edit the existing query, users preferred partially modifying the query.

Tie this in with language, terms, and comprehension of information and you may see where just this one area can hold an SEO captive.

Content writers may find new ways to respond to partial voice search queries to capture the click.

AI assistants may nudge someone with short memories.

Even apps might save each attempt and reformulate based on a more intimate understanding of the needs of the human searcher.

Research showed that without a human to assist, even the perception of the information itself was affected.

Leadership in Accessibility – Credibility, Truth & Greed

Accessibility advocates are motivated by passion and a commitment to support disabled persons.

Some accessibility services providers just want your money.

Keep in mind that people who need accessible access are weary of all the ways in which web-based products prevent them from doing the same things as everyone else can with little effort.

We’ve had 20 years to show we care.

Short cuts and promises to accessibility nirvana are not helpful.

Some developers and consultants see the potential for a revenue goldmine by creating products claiming to guarantee website accessibility compliance if you use their accessibility overlay tool.

An overlay tool detects HTML accessibility issues and in non-mobile environments dynamically repairs them.

Your company provides access to the page with inaccessible HTML code.

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JavaScript is inserted to “inject” a call to its solution.

Since security and performance are tied to the vendor and not you, if it is hacked or performs slowly, this impacts your website.

You may see a company promote its overlay tool with a 100% guarantee against lawsuits.

If such a tool existed, there would be no need for accessibility engineers and certainly no testing with people with impairments who do unexpected things.

Not to mention some judges prefer specific testing protocols in ADA lawsuit cases, including manual and screen readers.

No accessibility testing tool locates 100% of the accessibility issues.

Most can find 25%-30%.

Accessibility testing tools like WAVE, SiteImprove, AXE, ARC, and Tenon locate issues helpful in providing feedback for clients who hire accessibility checks and site audits.

They can see what the issues are, where they are located and perhaps learn how to fix them, but the tool itself does not make any of the repairs.

They do not replace manual tests or QA with disabled persons.

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Overlays hide the root problems and may provide a false sense of completion.

They may not hold up in court.

They are less likely to work on mobile devices.

Create an Accessibility Testing Plan

Dedication to authentic accessibility includes creating a bulletproof process for developers and designers to follow for training, testing, and remediation.

A good accessibility specialist does not put all their eggs into one testing basket.

For example, I have an arsenal of accessibility testing tools and test plans.

I compare their results and perform manual keyboard testing and manual tasks, such as screen reader evaluations, on a variety of computer devices, browsers, and operating systems.

Even after all that, I offer no guarantees that I located every issue. I am also not an agency that provides the bonus of user testing with people with disabilities.

Every opportunity to evaluate the accessibility of a web-based product can root out hidden issues or what I call, the smoking gun issue that may trigger an ADA demand letter.

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For example, one small business was taking job applications from their website via a downloadable PDF.

There was no indication that the PDF met accessibility guidelines, creating discrimination for applicants who require accessible documents.

This would not be picked up by software.

When shopping for accessibility testing software, especially automated enterprise products, or even smaller tools and extensions for Chrome and Firefox, if there is a promise of full 100% accessibility compliance, walk away.

Expect to pay more for screen reader testing because it takes longer to test every page on 3 browsers and two operating systems.

Outsourcing mobile accessibility testing is just as complicated.

Your accessibility specialist pays for the computer devices and software used in their lab, and their training and continued education in an ever-changing technical landscape.

If your business wants to do the right thing for accessibility, invest in legitimate practices and credible companies.

Accessibility Statements

Accessibility statements, vendor contracts, accessibility insurance and protections for accessibility consultants are not all equal or recommended.

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A website accessibility statement is a simple page stating:

  • What was tested and validated to what set of standards.
  • What was not tested and possibly a known area that might not be remediated.

For websites that use third-party vendor apps such as shopping carts, directories, events calendars, and forms, the accessibility statement should state that your company is not responsible for their accessibility compliance.

You are responsible for what you have access to at the source code level. If you use page builders, they are not all equal in their ability to customize for accessibility standards.

If you are a small business using free templates or easy web site solutions that require no web design experience, you are putting your website at risk of an accessibility ADA lawsuit if you do not know how to customize and adjust for WCAG compliance.

Basically, this document indicates that the company is aware of website accessibility standards and has a process in place to continuously monitor for compliance.

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The accessibility statement is not a once and done document.

Every time content is added to a website it must be re-tested to be sure the new content meets WCAG standards.

There is nothing wrong with being fully transparent.

If you have not performed mobile accessibility testing, say so.

And always provide an email for someone to contact you if they need help.

Accessibility Insurance & Contract Protection

Should you receive information offering free risk assessments and litigation insurance, be sure you understand what it is not covering.

If you find yourself facing legal costs, the list of fees includes:

  • Defendant internal and external counsel costs.
  • Plaintiff’s legal costs.
  • Expert witness fees.
  • Mediation and arbitration.
  • Outsourced training.
  • Costs to hire accessibility experts to test and solve issues.
  • All post-settlement costs.

Remember, not all ADA cases go to court.

Most demand letters are settled out of court.

Some lawyers want money. Others negotiate.

It makes more logical sense to invest in building a properly accessible website and hire someone to maintain it.

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Be careful with vendor contracts promising all services are delivered to be fully compliant with WCAG standards.

Web-based accessibility is a moving target.

Every state and every country has accessibility guidelines, requirements, and laws.

The greater the scope of your online business, such as doing business on a global scale, the more valuable it is to hire a full-time accessibility specialist or developers trained in accessibility.

California, for example, has the CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act).

It includes a specific requirement that privacy notices be accessible and have alternative format access clearly called out.

Fines range from $2,500 to $7,500.

The Unruh Civil Rights Act outlaws discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation and comes with a $4,000 fine.

Since the U.S. Federal government lacks the guidance required for website accessibility discrimination cases, more courts are using the Unruh Act as the basis for their decisions and plaintiffs are winning.

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20 Years to Ramp Up for Website Accessibility

If you have read about the increases in website ADA accessibility lawsuits, should you be concerned that your website could be a target?

Yes, and here’s a look at why.

A major civil right win for persons with disabilities occurred when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990.

It has several parts and updates, but the overview is that the law intends to:

  • Prevent discrimination.
  • Guarantee that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to enjoy employment opportunities, purchase goods and services.
  • Participate in state and local government programs and services.

For a full history, read Website Accessibility & the Law: Why Your Website Must Be Compliant.

Websites didn’t exist back then, so the specific language of the law didn’t include digital public-facing business interactions.

Other countries have their own laws and requirements for public-facing businesses and accessibility.

This is important to know if you sell products or services internationally as more countries outside the USA enforce accessibility.

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Ten years after the ADA became law, and nearly a year after WCAG1.0 was drafted in 1999, Bank of America became the first company in the United States to sign an agreement to make its website accessible to people with disabilities on March 14, 2000.

Most people are unaware of Bank of America, but they may have heard about Target’s enormously expensive ADA lawsuit in 2008.

Despite having plenty of time for website accessibility to be taken seriously, it was not.

Therefore, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) stood up and demanded to be recognized as web users. They won the Target lawsuit and continue to raise awareness.

Meanwhile, Title II, Section 508 and Section 504 include websites by law.

In 2003, the Department of Justice provided technical assistance by addressing website accessibility for state and local government websites in a document called “Accessibility of State and Local Government Websites to People with Disabilities.”

Attempts to update the language for Title III of the ADA continue to fail. This has led to an increase in demand letters and general confusion by website designers and developers.

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Standards to follow are continuously updated to meet developments in computer technology and respond to research into how people use websites.

WCAG 2.0 introduced the four guiding principles of accessibility, along with the criteria to meet them, on December 11, 2008.

Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. The four principles can be added to usability heuristics and incorporated into SEO practices.

The switch to mobile meant another standard update on June 5, 2018. WCAG 2.1 includes mobile devices and guidelines for people with low vision and cognitive disabilities.

Since no guidelines are perfect for very long, the next update is already in progress. Called Silver, the first draft was published on March 11, 2020.

“The Silver Task Force of the Accessibility Guidelines Working Group and the W3C Silver Community group have partnered to incubate the needs, requirements, and structure for the new accessibility guidance.” – WCAG Silver Draft 1

To a disabled person trying to navigate your website without a mouse or a blind person who wishes to register for an appointment or the untold countless millions of people who wear glasses, are dyslexic, or are color blind, 20 years have been too long to wait to be included.

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For companies that wish to do the right thing for their website users, show you care to do business with them.

Accessibility Reality Check

A web design business called me with concern for their small business clients who were receiving unsolicited email or reading articles about website ADA accessibility lawsuits.

The clients panicked and called wanting to know if their websites were safe.

The lead designer wisely admitted that website accessibility is something she was not fully skilled with and reached out for help on behalf of her clients.

Another web design business called with questions about how to find accessibility-ready WordPress themes. Do they exist and what makes them meet the criteria?

Since for small businesses, the financial cost of a website accessibility lawsuit could put them out of business, there is help available.

Find out what you need to know and hire help in the areas you may not feel comfortable doing on your own.

The most common response is to put accessibility on hold until the fire starts and then put in the call for emergency help.

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Develop an Ethical Accessibility Process

Agencies and consultants interested in producing accessible digital products might consider developing a process to follow.

I’m still confronted by Fortune 500 companies that have no interest in accessibility for their public-facing websites or software products. Not even the threat of paying out millions in lawsuit settlements is enough to convince them.

We may miss the point of accessibility until our perspective shifts and we suddenly see who may need help using our website.

We aren’t taught to look for them.

Access to website data by companies wishing to understand their target market is limited in scope.

The reality is that user experience stories go beyond computer type and operating systems, bounce rates and performance.

Columns of data are not going to inform you of the time a blind person tried to schedule an appointment on your website and failed to do so.

Most disabled people never report an issue.

They just leave to find the website that is built for them to use.

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If you want to know how to design an accessible website, you need to educate yourself on what their experiences are like.

If you can, use the assistive devices they rely on to gain a greater appreciation.

What will sink your business is lacking compassion for the user experience of everyone and not putting for the effort to build it to meet WCAG standards.

No WordPress template, plug-in, WIX, or Squarespace solution is 100% accessible out of the box.

You will need to customize to meet mobile requirements and tweak for SEO.

SEO expert Joe Hall recently gave an exceptional webinar on “How to Improve SEO and Digital Accessibility at the Same Time” for the Paciello Group.

Ethical Accessibility Is the Right Choice

For the user experience of someone who has no access to a mouse, or needs pages read aloud to them, or is easily confused while conducting something you think is easy (such as adding products to a shopping cart), the tip-offs that you are missing the needs of 70% of your visitors are there, waiting for you to recognize them.

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Courts are more inclined to judge in favor of plaintiffs because it is the ethical choice.

Doing the right thing is a driving factor in developing new products, and returning to cleanup older ones, as WordPress did.

Is not having an accessible website a problem?

Yes.

But not because someone is lurking in the bushes ready to pounce on your website and send you a demand letter because your Lightbox accessibility score is a train wreck.

We are at a crossroads, where we are even less mobile and more likely to rely on computers for social interaction, education and making purchases online.

This is when families reach out and teach their grandparents how to use Zoom, and social workers try to communicate with shut-ins via video.

A business that values leadership promotes accessibility integrity, competence, responsibility, respect and concern for everyone that visits their website or uses their software.

Sooner or later, that person requiring help to use a website might be you.

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If you want to increase online conversions and add thrusters to your brand and reputation, stand up for inclusive design.

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Kim Krause Berg

Kim Krause Berg owns Creative Vision Web Consulting, LLC. She is a web design standards and compliance specialist and educator ... [Read full bio]

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