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In this post, Level Access CEO Tim Springer answers audience questions from his March 18, 2021 Digital Accessibility Trends webinar.

During the webinar, Tim discussed some of the biggest trends we’re seeing in digital accessibility right now and how they’re impacting organizations, plus shared an early look at the results of the 2021 State of Digital Accessibility Survey.

1- Is ADA litigation improving training and skills before people enter the workforce as content creators, as even simple knowledge about alt text for social media not just writing links as “click here” seems to be lacking at the moment?

The exact training needed will vary by role. For a lot of content creator roles, though, the extent of the training is about what you are asking. This tends to be simple things like adding alternative text to images, doing some basic document structuring, being thoughtful about naming links, etc. In general, our experience is that a lot of the cases don’t turn around highly advanced stuff – they turn on the basic things like adding alt text that’s actually good for users. A key issue with the overlay solutions (interesting article on Vice to that end).

Our focus in training is the 80/20 rule. For the 20% of issues that cause 80% of the problems let’s train people on how to address them directly. For the 80% of issues that cause 20% of the problems let’s train people on how to ask for help from experts.

In practice, the distribution in digital accessibility tends to be closer to a 90/10 rule where a small subset of the issues are – by far – the areas it makes sense to focus on.

2- What is the general difference between ADA and WCAG compliance? If my website/application is WCAG compliant, does it mean that it will be ADA compliant?

ADA “compliance” for Title III as applied to websites is generally viewed in the context of the general rule of ADA Title III. It’s a very broad, functional definition that doesn’t give you much in the way of specifics to judge conformance against. The WCAG, in contrast, is a highly detailed set of technical principles with associated requirements. It gives you a lot of specifics to judge conformance against.

The key issue here: the WCAG has no legal or regulatory relationship to the ADA. Anyone who tells you “if you are WCAG compliance you are ADA compliant” is, at best, poorly informed. (More likely they are trying to sell you something.) The text of the ADA doesn’t say “websites must be WCAG 2.1 AA compliant.” There has been no regulatory process wherein the agency that issues regulations for Title III of the ADA – in this case the US Department of Justice – has said, “WCAG 2.1 AA conformance is sufficient for ADA conformance.” Only one court in one case has ordered WCAG compliance as a remedy for a site that didn’t comply to the ADA. So, there’s very, very limited precedence tying WCAG compliance to ADA compliance.

So why do people focus on WCAG compliance under the ADA? As a matter of practice (versus law or regulation) the WCAG is the de facto standard for accessibility. In addition, it’s a good standard. Practically, it covers all the issues that are reasonably likely to come up and serves as a super set of the things you’d want to do for the narrower definition of ADA compliance.

At Level we use the WCAG as a portion of determining compliance – because its well-known and testable – but it’s not the only thing we look at in determining compliance. In particular, we’d tell you functional use by people with disabilities is far more important in the context of determining ADA compliance.

3- With WCAG 3.0 coming – and my understanding it is not backwards compatible to 2.0 – should organizations be working towards this new 3.0 if they want to be proactive and also save costs in having to work to have multiple compliance streams?

At this point, 3.0 is still in definition, and has a long way to go (three to five years) before it is a standard. I wouldn’t, at this point, inform my development processes by that. I’d tell you 2.1 is good enough now. Your next target would be 2.2 in maybe twoish years.

4- Directive (EU) 2019/882 on the accessibility requirements for products and services requires all products to be accessible by 2025. Libraries use a lot of vendors with legacy collections that aren’t fully compliant. What will the impact of this EU Directive be for US education institutions with international students?

We don’t know. If the final laws and regulations (post transposition) look like the GDPR regs – which effectively reach across borders – we’d expect a significant impact. If the final laws and regulations are narrow, then it’s likely to have a limited impact.

As a practical matter, though, there are often ways to provide alternative access options for big legacy digital collections and archives that aren’t accessible. So, it’s rare you’ll really have to proactively make an entire legacy collection accessible and, instead, you can often do it reactively on request with some sort of reasonable timeliness in providing the accessible alternative.

5- Within the same industry / brand, is any particular platform potentially higher risk? (i.e., web vs iOS vs connected TV)

The web platform is by far the highest risk as it’s readily “scannable” with free tools. After that it’s iOS and Android in that order. All other platforms are way behind those.

6- What do you recommend for sites that are built on inherently inaccessible platforms (i.e., WordPress with plugins that are out of developers control)?

It’s rare these days that the platform is “truly” inaccessible. We run our website on WordPress and its accessible – it just requires work. In practice, though, you may have to choose a theme (in the case of WordPress) that is accessible. You’ve also got to ensure that, when you buy the platform, you validate that it’s accessible. So, you’ll want to consider accessibility in the procurement process.

Once you’ve got the platform, (i) get a technology vendor that knows what they are doing with accessibility, and (ii) have someone like us check their work. I could fill days with the number of digital vendors who tell clients “we’ve got this accessibility thing” and don’t have the qualifications or knowledge to do it. Best solution we have for that is just sticking us (or a similar expert) in the acceptance process for those vendors to ensure they are making things that are, in fact, accessible for you.

7- On the “Moving Accessibility Upstream” slide, can you expand on the vendor’s accountability? Who is defined as the vendors?

“Vendor” = anyone you spend money with. In digital accessibility, what you care about is the off the shelf software or custom development (often websites or mobile apps) work that your organization buys. In line with the last answer, we recommend that you:

  • Ensure that when you buy things you require accessibility and validate it as part of the procurement process. Gold standard here is vendors certify both ADA compliance and WCAG 2.1 AA compliance of anything they sell us or build for you.
  • Have someone like us check their work as part of acceptance testing. Many, many vendors will tell you they’ve got accessibility covered, but have neither the qualifications nor the knowledge to do it. The problem is the person buying or accepting the solution on your side often doesn’t have that knowledge either. So, it’s a requirement in the process but nobody is validating conformance to it. In those cases, put us (or a similar expert) in the acceptance process for those vendors to ensure they are making things that are, in fact, accessible.

8- Lots of positive trend data, what do you see remaining as the largest barriers to organizations prioritizing accessibility?

It’s a long-term commitment. Organizations often want this to be a break/fix problem – it’s broken, we fix it, we’re done. Accessibility isn’t a break/fix problem. For context, neither is IT security, privacy, internationalization, or any other technology compliance problem. They are all business maturity problems. Truly successful companies have accepted this is a long-term change to how they do business and have gotten on with the business of changing how their business works and ensuring they remain accessible indefinitely.

9- Can you provide a citation to one of the cases / complaints, where an overlay was used but did not solve the accessibility issues?

Here’s a few of the relevant cases – a random assortment of what I had floating in my inbox. Our initial count was about 250 of these last year.

10- Is your research/data related to lawsuits as a result of “solving” issues through overlays available online to help educate companies and give them data to support the idea that overlays are not the answer?

It is. You’ll see a lot of posts from me on the topic, currently and in the future, as well as throughout the industry. My LinkedIn article – Lies, Damned Lies, Overlays and Widgets – gives a good overview of our position, and is followed by seven additional articles that take a deeper dive into how these services fall short.

11- How do you compare your service to widgetized options like UserWay or Accessibe? What are the benefits/drawbacks of the types of service?

I have a strong point of view on this one: they have massive problems. Specific to the claim of ADA compliance, these solutions (i) do not provide full or equal access to people with disabilities and (ii) fail to meet the definition of “effective communication” as reasonably applied to a web site. In general, I find it very, very unlikely that any widget or overlay will ever come remotely near legal conformance to the requirements of the ADA.

If you want a basic exercise, go to your favorite search engine, type in “overlay accessibility” and see what you get. My guess is with five minutes of research, you’ll see the solutions are wanting and broadly discredited by credible experts in the marketplace.

In contrast, our approach and services are organized around actually fixing digital accessibility problems. We partner with organizations to fix the underlying code, and we make sure that the native experience is accessible for all parties. That not only meets the requirements of the ADA from an access and enjoyment perspective, but an integrated settings perspective as well. It fundamentally meets the core requirements of the law.

There’s a separate question, which is why have overlays gotten traction in the market if they don’t work? The answer – they’re a cheap and easy to understand solution for a difficult, complicated, and potentially expensive business problem (not because they’re substantive fixes for the underlying business problem). The inconvenient truth about accessibility is it’s difficult and requires time to work on it. It requires domain expertise. That’s unpalatable to many organizations.

12- Are you seeing any back-office software programs including more accessible features? Like for employees who are blind or visually impaired? Or is it still mostly websites and consumer driven channels?

We are seeing this but it’s moving slower than we’d like. Where we’re starting to see this accelerate is big private companies requiring accessibility of solutions they purchase. Historically we only saw accessible purchasing in the public sector. Now that we’re starting to see it with private companies, we think the future is bright for accessible employee facing apps.

13- What are you doing to get in front of entrepreneurs, many of whom have no information about accessibility? Once they start with an inaccessible app or website, they would be super hesitant to change/improve due to financial resources.

Not much. Entrepreneurs – good ones at least – are highly reactive to the market environment they operate in. Accordingly, our focus isn’t the entrepreneur – it’s the market environment they operate in. If companies buying early-stage tech solutions require them to be accessible they’ll be accessible. So, the market will drive an entrepreneur 1000x more effectively than education.

For context, that opinion is from a life-long entrepreneur that’s more than earned his stripes in the trenches of a small technology company.

14- Thinking about current events and your safety/security/risk – can lack of translation (localization) be considered an accessibility issue in the Cognitive category?

It depends on the application – who is using it and its intended use. If it’s a general use application (for the public writ large) and the content in it is in complicated technical prose (because it needs to be) lack of localization might be an issue. If it’s a narrow app that assumes a lot of technical knowledge it may be just fine for ESL / non-native speakers. Depends on the context and intent.

15- I am a UX designer. Where can I learn more about accessibility? We are already covering many accessibility requirements with a compliant design library. I am referring to things like the order items are presented on the screen.

I’d point you to both our general content resources (blog, webinars, eBooks) and some of the free training we’ll be launching in Access University later this year. As you dig through that, if you want more, you can upgrade to broader paid solutions.

16- How have the tools to measure accessibility criteria developed in the last year? Anything new?

Virtually all the tools have continued to develop and cover new requirements. That noted, the set of things required for accessibility has continued to grow so overall coverage is roughly the same.

In terms of new tools, the biggest one to watch will be our relaunch of webaccessibility.com on our Elevin platform. That’s double, super-secret at this point but you’ll see us rolling that out in Q2 of this year.

17- Can you let us know of some of the Website scanning resources available to test a site?

The best is webaccessibility.com. That’s our site and has both a free scanner and community tools you can download. As I noted in the last response, we’re relaunching that on our Elevin platform in Q2. That’s got some amazing next generation features and will be the one to watch long term.

18- Any advice on the best way to measure whether you’re making an impact on items found under manual testing? Automated data is helpful, but it seems like what’s found under manual needs to be communicated in a tangible way.

You’ve got to track all the testing results in a database. We do it all via AMP and then report out of that over time. Essentially you track both the set of manual violations detected (number of unique types of issues) and then the number of pages/screens each occurs on. You’re then working to drive those numbers down over time.

19- How do accessibility tools that people with disabilities pay for and use play into how paid services like yours and web developers consider their approaches?

That’s a complicated question! The short version – which is a reasonable oversimplification – is that we want to ensure that the coding recommendations we make actually work in those tools. So, we typically validate our recommendations both against a standard specification – almost always WCAG 2.1 AA – and in the actual tools used by people with disabilities. If the recommendation “works” in both, it’s good to go. If it’s broken in one or the other, it warrants more research or a different approach.

20- Do you have one webinar that could serve as an initial training for a college faculty?

Typically, we do a version of our Digital Accessibility Overview course for clients. That’s something we offer via our Access University platform.

Otherwise, we have a library of free webinars on our website. Last year’s Digital Accessibility 101 or the Making Communications Accessible Series might be a good starting point.

21- We are constantly working to improve the accessibility on our web properties and yet claims still come because there is always something that can be improved upon with new content, new pages, and new platforms. How do you stop the claims or at least have a compelling defense to claims?

The answer is: “it depends” – on the client and the specific circumstances. Broadly though, we focus clients on three goals roughly in order:

  1. Lawsuit Avoidance – Ensure the public facing aspects of the site or application return zero violations when analyzed with the accessibility scanning tools commonly used by plaintiffs.
  2. ADA Compliance – Ensure people with disabilities can complete the core transactions of the site or app.
  3. WCAG Compliance – Ensure the site or app materially conforms to the WCAG 2.1 AA requirements and has the controls in place to maintain that accessibility on an ongoing basis.

That’s a drastic, but broadly accurate oversimplification of the objectives that organizations typically have. When you get to the second objective – ADA Compliance – you should be able to push back aggressively on any claims coming your way. When you get to the third you should have a full and substantive solution for compliance.

As you noted, most sites and apps are big, complicated things that are constantly changing. The only way to manage that complexity is with a robust monitoring approach driven by good software. We typically do that across pre-production systems (CI pipeline, CMS) and production sites or apps. Software does the heavy lifting there and we combine it with people who work with customers to monitor the changes and interpret the results.

22- Do you see that the new Justice Department will work more on compliance and how may this affect lawsuits?

The current thinking is yes, the new Justice Department will push further into that. I don’t expect that we’ll get new regulations, but I do think you’ll see them returning to a proactive enforcement stance, and I expect they may join certain lawsuits that they can push forward.

On the topic of regulation, I expect you’d have to have consensus between advocacy groups and business groups to push the regulations forward. The current state of the law likely serves the advocacy groups reasonably well. So, I think it’s about the business side of the equation coming to the table and seeking to drive definition and commit to specific outcomes more clearly.

23- Do you have any data on lawsuits against government agencies (state and federal), and other public sector organizations?

We don’t. Most of the data we pull is ADA Title III, but generally there’s less enforcement in the public sector. A lot of that is a factor of prior enforcement that used to be driven at the state and local level through Project Civic Access at the DOJ drying up in the Trump Administration. It remains to be seen if that will resurge in the Biden Administration.

24- Do you see the bill called the “Online Accessibility Act” (H.R. 8478 – the “OAA”) being revisited and passed in 2021?

No. I think legislation here would be helpful, but the problem with the Online Accessibility Act is it seems that advocacy organizations weren’t parties to it. I’d contrast that, as an example, with the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), where it was negotiated between advocacy and community groups and thus had broad, bi-partisan congressional support. I don’t think that kind of coalition is going to happen in the short term.

For context, not having advocacy groups actively engaged makes this very much a “something about us without us” initiative, which is not what you want. What you want is full participation from the impacted group in the legislative process. That gets you to the right maxim – “Nothing about us without us.” Until that engagement issue is solved, I don’t think that legislation will be moving forward.