When President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, he did so on the White House lawn in front of a crowd of 3,000 people.
The landmark legislation would ensure “every man, woman and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence and freedom.”
In the nearly 30 years since, however, much of how we interact with the world has changed. Back then there was no social media, no email to keep up with and no FaceTime calls to take.
“As technology has evolved, it’s (become) all visual,” said Jason McKee, the chief marketing officer for Accessibility Shield, a firm that helps companies reach ADA compliance.
This has meant a shift in how we — and the courts — think of virtual accessibility, too. Neither the original ADA legislation nor its later amendments specifically mention the Internet, but American courts have consistently shown that websites are considered public accommodations. The most recent example came in October when the Supreme Court refused to take up an appeal by Domino’s, which faced a lawsuit from a blind Los Angeles man who argued the chain pizza restaurant is responsible for providing an accessible website.
Outside the United States, the European Union’s Web Accessibility Directive requires websites and apps for public entities are accessible. Australian law requires “information and services are provided in a non-discriminatory accessible manner,” and its national government website adheres to standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium. While not legally binding, Japan has developed its own accessibility guidelines.
Beyond legal requirements, however, Samantha Evans, the certification manager for the International Association of Accessibility Professionals, said there’s both a social responsibility and a business case to make for Internet accessibility.
“There’s a large percentage of the population in the U.S. and around the world … that has expressed or claimed their disability,” Evans said. A World Health Organization study in 2011 pegged the number at about 15 percent.
“That’s a pretty large percentage of market,” Evans continued, “and when you consider everyone in their lifetime will acquire some sort of disability, whether it’s temporary or something they’re aged into or acquire through medical or genetics … those kinds of considerations for your total audience should have some influence at the executive and administrative decision levels about serving everyone.”
The social responsibility aspect hits clearly home for associations, Evans said, because often their content is consumed by people beyond membership, especially in trade associations when the organizations are seen as representative of an industry.
Still, businesses and organizations often press back against creating an accessible web experience thanks to the perception that it can be really hard to do.
McKee, with Accessibility Shield, likened the most common issues he sees this way: “If you’re at your computer, unplug your mouse and your monitor, and go navigate the web.”
While there are existing tools exist for disabled Internet users, like readers and software that responds to gestures or eye movements, the websites themselves have to be navigable by them. And that is exceptionally rare.
A study from Pew Research in 2016 showed that rarity has a big impact. A disabled American was at least 18 percent less likely to own a laptop or desktop computer, smartphone, or tablet or have access to home broadband Internet. Disabled Americans were nearly 30 percent less likely to even use the Internet on a daily basis, and nearly 40 percent less likely to say their ability to use it or another communication device allowed them to keep up with information “very well.” In the United Kingdom, the Office of National Statistics reported in a 2019 study that 78 percent of disabled adults had recently used the Internet, compared with 95 percent of non-disabled adults.
“Basically, the entire web is broken right now and needs to be fixed,” McKee said.
For associations and member organizations, however, that can be a big challenge.
At the IAAP, for example, which is about five years old and includes membership of both individuals and organizations focused on accessibility, it’s natural that maintaining accessible content and touch points would be priority. But it’s just not that easy.
Recently, Evans has been taking a look at the association management system the IAAP uses, hoping to ensure their own systems are accessible.
“I’ve done a scan of 45 of the top AMS products and services, and less than a handful have accessible platforms,” she said.
The only two in Evans findings that were accessible, she said, were available only at the enterprise level, “for people that have more than 15,000 members to be a viable financial consideration.”
“The challenge we have (with associations) is in showing we can get the products we need to run the association to be successful for us,” said IAAP Managing Director Christopher Lee, who noted similar difficulties are typical when looking for learning management systems and other back-end software for an association to do its job. “Associations are really going to be challenged in that their systems that exist in the marketplace have not yet made that leap to connect accessibility as part of a tech platform that associations rely on.”
It’s an obvious hole in the association market, Evans said, sharing her hope that some software company will take on the task of building the first fully integrated and accessible AMS.
“It should be a source of pride and fit the needs for most associations who have ethical standards,” she said.
For most companies, however, Web accessibility is typically an afterthought, something that gets considered only after an initial launch.
“When a client comes to us, usually they’ve been sued,” McKee said, explaining that the conversation typically goes like, “can you just fix it and how much does it cost?”
While each website is different, there are some fairly easy changes that can really help the accessibility tools function.
The World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which McKee’s company follows, and are considered a global standard, offers clear design strategies. Among them:
- Use simple layouts.
- Make everything functional from a keyboard.
- Don’t design in a way known to cause seizures.
- Provide alternatives for time-based media.
- Make web pages appear in predictable ways.
Other important factors, McKee said, include the hierarchy of headlines and considering plugins, like chatbots, which are “notoriously inaccessible” because they steal attention from accessibility readers.
Evans called the usual directive on a website to “click here” a “running joke,” because an assistive technology might read that aloud and the user doesn’t actually know where “here” actually takes you. A better option, she said, would be to use a contextual link like “Submit annual survey responses here.” Captioning videos, she said, is also important because, without them, a deaf user can’t interact with the video. Subtitles are also helpful for those who speak other languages.
“There are really great options people can take in their content creation that will lessen accessibility issues,” Evans said. “It’s not as daunting as people might think.”
Doing so is not only the social responsible thing to do, it could mean picking up easy money left on the table. In a case study cited by the World Wide Web Consortium, NPR’s “This American Life” began creating transcripts of its broadcast. This resulted in an increase in search traffic, easier translations into non-English languages, an increase in unique web visitors and an increase in inbound links. In the U.K., one of the top financial firms underwent a website redesign following the World Wide Web Consortium standards and saw a 50 percent increase in search engine listings, cut the annual cost of its web maintenance by 66 percent and saw a complete return on the investment in just 12 months.
Some association tools, like surveys, are becoming accessible, but there’s still a long way to go, said Evans and Lee. And it would help for association managers and executives to do the work of asking for these tools from their software providers.
“That outreach to remove that concern of the unknown, which might be perceived as fear of not knowing how to do it, that alone would probably be the best thing for associations to do,” Evans said, “to learn how best to be champions for accessibility as part of their culture, best practices and their everyday work.