Prioritizing Digital Accessibility

It’s a hard truth, and yet a truth worth repeating. Digital accessibility, while universally accepted as an ideal goal, still remains a tough sell. As the mantra goes, businesses operate within budget constraints, which based on certain assumptions, requires prioritizing objectives, to the exclusion of certain considerations. For the time being, the prevailing assumption is that digital accessibility is an extraneous pursuit, because the benefits of its incorporation in the digital space cannot be measured in a profit and loss statement. 

Meanwhile, digital spaces have become a pervasive and indispensable feature of human life, its impact cutting across class, culture and geography. Experiences of the digital spaces are further enriched by technologies used by disabled persons long before common adoption. Whether it is with digital libraries, computerized speech, alternative input devices, wearables and more, the presence of disabled persons cannot be overlooked, particularly amid the current global health crisis.

In this article, we test some of the assumptions embedded in the prevailing skepticism toward digital accessibility by answering some of the most frequently stated objections we hear from prospective clients.

Before we continue, it should be noted that we’ve observed a trend among our clients toward prioritizing digital accessibility. In addition to our testing work, there are growing requests for accessibility audits at earlier phases of the software development life cycle. We are highly supportive of this approach as it often means a less costly quality assurance phase. Still, no one organization is a monolith. Various stakeholders within a company prioritize the project of digital accessibility differently. As such, it is our hope that this article provides insights to all sides of the digital accessibility divide.

“Why should we be prioritizing accessibility testing?”

To answer this question, it might be useful to provide a few examples of why the inclusive design of digital spaces is crucial.

Business to business providers (vendors) of digital products and services make up the backbone of our digital world, and are a key part of ensuring disabled person’s access to essential services in commerce, education, healthcare, and the world of work. It may be the priority of governments and businesses to require from their vendors products and services that support the recruitment and retention of employees with a disability, or the provision of services to citizens, clients, and customers.

To Customer and client-facing organizations, it is worth noting that persons with a disability also vote with their dollars, as do friends, family, and employers who advocate for their inclusion in all areas of public life. The growing cultural support for inclusive design means that a failure to prioritize digital accessibility may not only mean the loss of an untapped market, but a current customer or client base that values the inclusion of persons with a disability.

Governments also recognize the importance of digital accessibility. In his paper “The Price of Exclusion” economist Sebastian Buckup argues that the marginalization of the disabled from public life may have adverse macroeconomic consequences. Because the internet is now an important part of how we live our lives, inaccessible websites limit the ability of disabled persons to contribute to a thriving economy, and it forecloses on social cohesion. It is for this reason that governments believe the accessibility of websites and mobile apps to be in the public’s interest.

To online merchants and service providers who depend on Search Engine Optimization, it’s important to note that the search result rankings may be advantaged by websites that employ some of the standards of digital accessibility.

With the above in mind, we highly suggest incorporating the standard of digital accessibility in the design and development of your digital assets, because as the old QA adage goes, issues are far more expensive after they’ve been released. At PLUS QA we perform accessibility testing based on version two of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), an adopted standard in US Jurisprudence. We can help your organization to cost-efficiently manage the technical challenges of digital accessibility at all stages of the development life cycle.

 

“We are a Ma and Pap shop catering to hunting enthusiasts. We provide information about the products we sell online. Why is it important for me to make my website accessible to a blind person?”

For a real-life example, check out this article about a blind marksman who hunts alligators and deer.

The definition of “Disability is understood to be an absence of ability. However, the word starts doing a lot of work when it is assumed (as an example ) that the absence of two working legs means an inability to run marathons, or absence of sight means the inability to hunt. In fact, living with a disability requires learning how to circumvent limitations, to survive, to pursue a livelihood, and the moments that make life worth living. While it is not immediately apparent how disabled persons can engage in certain activities, they still find a way, and digital spaces must be built exclusive of these assumptions. In addition to the reason stated above, the most obvious is that a blind person has money, and is a parent, child, sibling, cousin, partner, friend, or colleague to someone else who may be interested in your offerings.

“What kind of legal exposure should we anticipate if we decide to postpone the remediation of accessibility issues with our website or mobile apps?”

The growing number of digital accessibility cases in US Federal Courts suggests that delayed remediation could mean the assumption of legal risk. However, PLUS QA is not a law practice.  For a more informed assessment of legal risk, we highly suggest consulting with a lawyer specializing in this area. Legal risk aside, there is a positive case to be made for digital accessibility, a case we try to outline in this article.

“It seems to me that a lot of these lawsuits are scams. It’s all about the money.”

From 2013 to 2018, there has been a three-fold increase in the number of lawsuits filed in US  Federal courts on matters of digital accessibility. In a 2019 decision, the US 9th Circuit of Appeals expressly affirmed in Robles v Dominoes Pizza LLC, that certain provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to the services of a place of public accommodation, and that such places are inclusive of websites and mobile apps. Again, we are not lawyers, but we cite this to illustrate how much legal ground has been gained by advocates of digital accessibility. It is understandable why the target of a lawsuit would question the legitimacy of a case against them, particularly when there are so many other targets being sued over the same issue.

On the other hand, Advocates of digital accessibility are of the view that any appeal to a company for digital accessibility, short of a lawsuit, is often rebuffed or ignored. They argue that broadly speaking, providers of products and services in the digital space have had ample time to remediate digital access barriers that exclude persons with a disability, but many are slow to act.

The digital space is now an important part of how we live our lives. It’s for this reason that many disability rights advocates see digital accessibility as a human rights issue. In the United States, proponents of digital accessibility see their advocacy through litigation to be in keeping with the American traditions and practice of advancing the rights of the marginalized. The dispute over how a blind person orders pizza may seem trivial, but at the heart of it is the question of whether it should be that digital spaces are designed to be inclusive of everyone, and if so, what success criteria should be used to mitigate digital access barriers.

As a company that supports the universal adoption of the WCAG success criteria in the design and development of digital spaces, we are keenly focused on these questions. But we recognize that there are instances where litigation may ultimately fall short of the goal of digital accessibility.

“We’ve done what is required for a person with a specific disability with a specific use case to use our software, Isn’t  that enough?”

The short answer to this question is “no”. The long answer is that there are categories of disability and corresponding user profiles to consider in the design and deployment of digital spaces. In broad terms, these categories include sensory, motor, and intellectual disabilities. More than one of these categories could be implicated in a user profile. Accommodating based on a narrowed use case will likely mean an app that is largely inaccessible to a greater portion of disabled users.

“Our company has an aggressive road map ahead, and digital accessibility does not fit our current priorities.”

The support of digital Accessibility is not just a brand proposition. As discussed above, it provides a competitive edge. This is certainly true of our clients, some of whom rank in the Fortune 500. Much of their thinking is reflected in this article. That there is a strong business case to be made for proactively including the considerations of disabled persons in the design, development, and implementation of digital spaces. That putting off these considerations results in the accumulation of technical debt which may exact a greater cost, if and when your organization is compelled to address them, costs which may handicap your strategy for growth. Finally, the growing social awareness, acceptance, and urgency of digital accessibility, raises the real prospect that failure to incorporate inclusive design as part of best practices may lead to the loss of business. This is why digital accessibility is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.

Abdul Kamara, sitting in front of a dark wall and smiling slightly towards the camera.

 

 

Abdul Kamara
Accessibility QA Lead at PLUS QA
Abdul helps with strategy and bringing awareness to digital accessibility. Read more about him here.

A MacBook Pro open to Google on a web browser, sitting on a picnic table outside.A hand holding an iPhone with a pop-up from the Screen Recording app.