Chill 01 / 10

#035 : Michele Landis @ Accessible360

Today on Chill, we chat with Michele Landis from Accessible360 and discuss ADA, WCAG, threat letters, legal action, and how to get websites compliant.

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Michele Landis @ Accessible360

#035 : This week on Chill, we chat with Michele Landis @ Accessible360. The co-founder of A360, Michele is an industry authority on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), WCAG, and myriad other digital compliance initiatives.

Overdose’s Andrew Potkewitz and Michele discuss ADA, WCAG, threat letters, legal action, and how to make websites compliant.


About Accessible360

If you are a business owner in the U.S., you need to adhere to a law that specifies businesses cannot discriminate against customers on the basis of a disability. For a brick and mortar store, this means physical measures like door and aisle minimum widths, signage readability, counter and basin heights, and other such things that enable access to your store for people with disabilities. 

The same principle applies to a website or other digital property. In digital terms, accessibility may be ‘alt text’ for images, or screen readers, or alternative options for online forms. 

Many people are unaware of what is required, and often, it’s not until they are faced with a lawsuit that they are spurred into action. 

Whether a business’s response is reactive or proactive, there are companies which specialise in assisting with the process of making sure your digital property is suitably accessible and legally compliant; Accessible360 is one of these.

Accessible360 background

Michele Landis and her co-founders started Accessible360 (A360, for short) with a resolute vision: a digital world that is accessible to all. Their mission is equally steadfast: create and maintain digital environments which offer equal access

Their passion for inclusivity and accessibility comes from the core: co-founder Aaron Cannon was born blind and became a software engineer. As a full-stack web developer working at an agency, Aaron could code in a ton of different languages. 

A360 has a team of auditors—some are blind, some are sighted—all with a technical background. Michele explains what they do is reconcile the experience of a physically-able user with that of a user with a disability. They follow an auditing process and cover four disabilities: visual, physical, cognitive, and auditory.

They work across many organisations and industries including ecommerce, education, financial, healthcare, government, law firms, and real estate.

What does accessible mean?

To understand more of the role A360 plays, let’s first look at the accessibility space it occupies:

Accessibility, in the digital space, is the practice of removing the barriers which prevent interaction with websites, apps, and internet-based systems for people with disabilities. 

In many countries, accessibility is enforced by law: in the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990 and prohibits discrimination “on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations offered by businesses.”

Notably, the ADA was passed before the internet as we now know it existed. The Act did not, nor does it yet, have any language in it specifically speaking about digital properties. However, the U.S. Department of Justice has taken the position that the ADA applies to websites, mobile apps, and ‘Internet of Things.’ 

It’s hard to argue that the internet is not publicly available, and the same goes for apps. So, by default, the Act covers digital, as well as physical, accessibility for the disabled. “If you think about ramps and all that kind of stuff out in the physical space, that’s what they meant when they wrote it,” Michele explains. “Of course, they didn’t have the vision of the world we’re all in now.” 

In other words, to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities, digital products must be designed to be accessible.

What is considered digital property?

Digital property includes websites, web applications (apps), native mobile apps, PDFs, or ‘Internet of Things’ products (such as smart home components, programmable thermostats, appliances, and fitness gadgets).

With Covid, many non-digital product or service offerings became digital—such as fitness classes online—and it happened so rapidly that consideration of accessibility may not have even been on the radar.

Michele says it’s really about thinking holistically about your organisation, from your broadcasts, meeting platforms, right down to sign-up forms. “When was the last time you filled out a paper application? It doesn’t exist anymore.”

The WCAG standard

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is an internationally recognised standard for assessing digital properties and is a highly useful tool for businesses.

In America, The Department of Justice, many well-known advocacy organisations, and a tremendous amount of case law all support the fact that digital products must comply with the WCAG.

However, WCAG alone is not enough to provide fully accessible sites and apps. Universal design, providing rich, intuitive experiences for all users, should be the goal while also meeting the standards.

WCAG is primarily intended for:

  • Web content developers (page authors, site designers, etc.)
  • Web authoring tool developers
  • Web accessibility evaluation tool developers
  • Others who want or need a standard for web accessibility, including for mobile accessibility

 

Link to the WCAG website here: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

Is WCAG an internationally recognised standard?

Michele explains the WCAG standards are applied regardless of the country you’re in—they are what digital experts, agencies, and auditors use the world over.

There are some differences though—such as the way administrations in the EU and UK are more involved in the regulation. “But they don’t necessarily have more compliant apps or more compliant websites,” she says. “In my observations, Europe and the UK are a little bit behind us.”

How is the ADA enforced in the U.S.?

The ADA is more or less entirely enforced by litigation, in other words, by plaintiff activity. Known to be a far more litigious nation than most, the U.S. has seen a high volume of accessibility proceedings before the courts. And that’s on top of most cases—about 90%—which are settled out-of-court. 

The worry for a business at the end of a lawsuit is the expensive fact you can get sued multiple times and in multiple places. Michele explains: “If you operate a website, you can have one plaintiff attorney sue you in a district court in New York, and you can have another plaintiff sue you in California.”

It definitely pays to be proactive if you want to avoid an unexpected lawsuit threat letter arriving on your desk.

Digital merchants and their obligations

Many people hear about accessibility laws for the first time and admit they had no idea of their obligations. Michele says, “It’s happened to me so many times where a VP of digital will be sitting on the phone and they’ve been in that job 10, 15, 20 years, and there’s this pause, and they say, ‘I never knew anything about this. I never thought about this.’”

Awareness is just the beginning; complying is the longest step. 

Fortunately, there’s widespread willingness to comply: “I can count on my hand,” Michele says, “how many people, once they learned about this, didn’t want to do better. We have a couple of bad eggs out where, but otherwise, everybody, once they know better, they want to do better.”

Most often, it’s a retrofit situation where the business didn’t initially design with accessibility in mind and they need to put things right; however, more and more organisations are aware of the need for accessibility from the get-go and are building compliant websites and apps from the ground up.

How does a digital client get compliant?

Michele says, “It’s like going to the doctor, getting diagnosed, getting on a treatment protocol, becoming well, and then maintaining that wellness. In this case, wellness is accessibility.”

When undergoing a compliance project with a client, A360 do a live-user audit (the diagnosis), then the developers are told exactly how to fix everything (the treatment protocol), and finally, the client is told how to maintain everything on the front-end (through content marketing, for example).

More specifically, there is a three-step process, a roadmap, A360 has developed for a business to become accessible:

The A360 Roadmap

  1. Assess Your Environment
  • Scope your needs
  • Live-user audits
  • Review new designs
  • Customised fixes

 

  1. Enable Accessible Processes
  • Development support
  • Experienced help desk
  • Knowledge base & training
  • Reduce risk

 

  1. Stay Accessible and Compliant
  • Quality assurance testing
  • Regular live assessments
  • Automated assessments
  • Process improvement
What is a timeline and the cost to get compliant?

How long it takes to climb to the top of the compliance mountain depends on how far up you are when you start. And the same goes for the cost, which very generally speaking could be in the range of $5,000 – $25,000, or more.

How does a merchant protect themselves while they are becoming compliant?

During the process which may take several months, A360 assist their clients to publicly advise they are undergoing an accessibility transformation by posting an ‘accessibility statement’. It states that they are aware of the need and while they are working on it, they have other ways for you to get help (e.g. by phoning). 

There are tools a merchant can utilise as an interim fix—toolbars, certain widgets—which are basic solutions for things like increasing font or adjusting contrast. 

From a liability standpoint, these measures will at least give some time to get through the process without having to be fielding demand and threat letters.

Technology and tools available

Some people have a basic level of knowledge when it comes to digital accessibility, primarily about device-integrated tools such as colour contrast, font properties, etc.

Examples of common accessibility tools:

  • Alternative Text for Images Images should include equivalent alternative text (alt text) in the mark-up/code which ensures the information is available to people who are blind, by enabling a screen reader that reads aloud the information on a page.
  • Keyboard Input Some people cannot use a mouse, including many older users with limited fine motor control. An accessible website does not rely on the mouse; it makes all functionality available from a keyboard. Then people with disabilities can use assistive technologies that mimic the keyboard, such as speech input.
  • Transcripts for Audio Just as images aren’t available to people who can’t see, audio files aren’t available to people who can’t hear. Providing a text transcript makes the audio information accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as to search engines and other technologies that can’t hear. It’s easy and relatively inexpensive for websites to provide transcripts.
Overlay tools

There are overlay tools, widgets, plug-ins, pieces of JavaScript, etc. that can be downloaded. 

Michele says these overlay tools are often promoted as an easy solution—use these and you don’t have to fix the core code. She’s skeptical and says she’s yet to see one that works as well as it’s pitched.

Running two sites

Some businesses have two separate websites as a way around fixing their core code. When a person goes to a website they are asked to self-identify as having a disability, if they do, they click into another digital experience.

This can be really complicated when a business carries out updates to their site(s) not to mention the inefficiency of having to maintain two websites.

Michele applies an analogy to the duplicate sites of a school hallway. You wouldn’t have two separate entry doors—one for one human and a different door for another? Wouldn’t you just have everybody go through the same door and offer accessibility built into it? 

Think about it. Having a different option for a person with a disability, is, by its very nature, discriminatory.

Michele says “Fix the core code. Fix it once. Fix it once and for all.”

Accessibility and SEO

Michele explains how accessibility is tied closely with SEO: when you’re improving SEO, you’re marking up everything; you’re making sure that everything, every link, is labeled; all the headings are correct, etc. This amelioration of HTML is exactly what builds a really solid foundation for accessibility.

The relationship between the two is exemplified by original SaaS tools, or bots, which were used to scan websites for SEO—companies that offered these devices were able to pivot and start marketing them for accessibility.

Scanning tools

There have been some innovations in the digital accessibility space—such as scanning or automation tools for accessibility testing. A360 have their own scanning tool, as do most accessibility consultants. Michele says don’t they don’t use theirs upfront in the diagnosis, it’s used more in the maintenance phase. She says while helpful to find some low-hanging fruit, generally scanning tools only cover about 25% of the web content accessibility guidelines, so additional manual testing needs to be done as well.

Recommendations for digital merchants

Firstly, when you’re building something digital, put the accessibility foundation in as you’re building it. Get an accessibility compliance expert involved in a new project, during the discovery and architecture phase, to ensure site designs are working toward accessibility compliance.

Secondly, choose wisely, and spend money wisely. Michele strongly advises that any money you spend on digital accessibility, should at first be spent on a live-user audit.  

Then there are little things a business can do on an ongoing basis to self-regulate, such as:

  • Pay attention to all your external-facing digital properties. 
  • Consider what you can do on your business’s social media. You can add alt texts on Facebook and Twitter, for example.
  • Don’t forget to look internally as well—think about how are you communicating with your employees? Are you using a fully accessible screen share system? Is the meeting platform fully accessible? 
  • Ensure your code works across a broad range of assistive technology.

Familiarise yourself with what’s out there for persons with disabilities, so that you can create a really thoughtful experience for them.

Assistive technology

People with disabilities are likely to be accessing a website or a mobile app with their own assistive technology already in place. They’ve likely got screen reader software such as JAWS or NVDA on their computers and mobile devices. It could be a ‘sip and puff’ technology—think of Christopher Reed and how he operated the web—literally by inhaling and exhaling to simulate one keystroke.

It’s the merchant or agency’s job to make sure their underlying code works across a myriad of different assistive technology.

Michele recommends that if you’ve never listened to JAWS or heard a screen reader in action, then look into it to get an understanding. A360 has a YouTube channel featuring these types of technologies.

Third-party liability

For merchants using third-party SaaS technologies in their tech stacks where does their liability as a merchant end and that of the tech platform begin? If, say, you’re using a checkout technology that you have no control over, are you liable?

Michele says the third-party contract needs to cover this and should be closely inspected. You can also ask your third-party provider if they are accessible compliant. 

She says at A360 they’re starting to see a lot more third-party providers come through as a spin-off from the retail sites they audit. “Inevitably, we audit a site, and they have these third-party things on there, and then the client shares the information and the conversation starts about, ‘what are you doing about this?’” If they aren’t up to speed, you can encourage them to get an independent third-party audit. Contract re-signing time is a good time to raise the issue of accessibility, and perhaps put some pressure on.

Michele says there’s good movement in the right direction. “What I see is very encouraging. I see a tremendous amount of third-party providers getting their stuff done and getting their house in order.”

There is no quick fix

Accessibility compliance is important. It’s complicated. There is no quick fix. 

It applies to all your digital properties, going beyond just the front-end of the website—all marketing initiatives, email, and social media.

“Merchants absolutely must dig in and develop their roadmap to get compliant because this is not going away, nor should it, because frankly, as we talked about, at the outset, websites and digital properties should be accessible to everyone,” Michele says, returning to her company’s vision.

The best thing you can do is get started, get yourself protected, and open up your business for everyone to access, equally.

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