Web Accessibility: the repercussions of inaccessibility

by Jimi Choi

Accessibility is an important and often forgotten element of building websites and digital products. While W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative lays out specific standards to follow, it’s surprising how many of those steps are left out in websites and products we use everyday. As the industry continues to make progress in creating a more inclusive web, we should all internalize these standards and own them in our day-to-day work. In this series, members of our project management, development, and design teams share honest reflections and tips on how we can champion accessibility.

To get you more familiar with what it’s like to use the web with accessibility tools, let’s start with an exercise:

  1. Pick a “popular” website that you go to on a daily basis and browse to it.
  2. Now, verbally describe that website (content, layout, navigation, etc.) as best you can to a friend/colleague without giving him/her any visual assistance.
  3. 1st Evaluation: How do you think you did? How long did it take you? Was your friend/colleague able to capture a similar experience to your own through your word descriptions?
  4. Let’s take it a step further now by experiencing that same website with a screen reader. If you are on a Mac, activate the VoiceOver by pressing ‘Command’ + ‘F5’, and if you are on a PC activate the NVDA by pressing ‘Control’ + ‘Alt’ + ‘N’. *If you do not have NVDA installed onto your PC already, you can download it here for free, nvaccess.org.
  5. Navigate through the elements of the page with the ‘right & left arrows’ on a Mac, and ‘down & up arrows’ on a PC. *Make sure that you look away from the screen while you navigate through with just your ears.
  6. 2nd Evaluation: How was your experience? Would you say you gained the same flow of content with the screen reader as you’ve described before to a friend/colleague in step 2? Was it difficult? Frustrating?

This exercise is more than just a task list, but rather an empathetic glimpse of what 23 million Americans go through daily when using the internet; a disparate experience. Such an experience does not come without repercussions.

Many major businesses are behind

Since 2015, over 240 companies have been hit with federal lawsuits due to their website’s inaccessibility. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in fulfilling the task and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, privileges, facilities, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodations by any private entity that owns, leases (or leases to), or operates any place of public accommodation.

Law firms are increasingly being notified that individuals with disabilities are denied proper access to a business’s goods and services due to poor website accessibility. Retail websites are typically the primary targets, followed by financial institutions and hospitality businesses. Not to mention, these are not small time companies that are getting sued either. They are household names such as Target, Reebok, NBA, Toys R Us, Home Depot and even Bank of America. Yes, most of these businesses are brick-and-mortar facing companies with a nexus portal website, but in 2018 the Department of Justice (DOJ) plans to make updates to the regulations that will include internet based businesses as well.

Why this is important

Accessibility is more than avoiding a lawsuit. It is important to grant proper thought to why and how we are building digital products and websites today. For example, our financial mediums have evolved, as banking has shifted over to the digital realm from traditional brick-and-mortar, it is critical that the transition and delivery of accessibility should adjust accordingly. Typically, there are handicap ramps, electric doors, and braille signs present at many of our banking branches. That level of thought, care, and accessible practice should exist in online banking as well. Furthermore, this is more than just a developer checking off a to-do list, but rather that it should be given serious thought as to why this is important. Everyone should have equal opportunity to experience the web; it is not a gained privilege but a right.

What can we do

First, it starts with developing the culture and mindset of inclusion. As we begin the process of building digital products and websites, we need to ask ourselves, “Are we providing fair, accessible opportunities for all?” The DOJ initially had the deadline of spring 2016, but has set a later date of 2018 for the updated regulations. This buffer of time allows businesses in all industries, along with their designers, developers, IT teams, and their vendors to work together and take the proper steps in making their digital websites and products compliant. Information and technology is vastly evolving in our ecosystem and it is our duty within the space to make sure that our users are not left behind.

Next steps

As awareness is the first step for accessibility compliance, the next task will be putting what we have learned and experienced into practice. In part 3, Sylvia Kim will share accessibility considerations for designers. In part 4 of our accessibility series, we will be sharing a few tips and tools (free) that will help jumpstart your website’s accessibility.

About Fresh Tilled Soil

Fresh Tilled Soil is a Boston-based user interface and experience design firm focused on human centered digital design