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Last week marked a watershed moment in the relatively short history of the drive for universal web accessibility.
September 23 saw the passing of the deadline for public sector bodies across the EU to implement the Web Accessibility Directive. Despite the ongoing Brexit negotiations, this has also simultaneously been transposed into U.K. law via the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Apps) Accessibility Regulations 2018 (PSBAR).
The requirements are relatively straightforward — public sector bodies including central government departments, local authorities, NHS Trusts and universities are now compelled by law to conform to a recognized global standard for web accessibility known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1).
The new obligations had already come into force for newer websites (created after September 23 2018) last year and will apply to public sector mobile apps from June 23 2021.
Exposing inaccessible websites
Following the passing of the deadline last week, the U.K. based pan-disability charity Scope wasted little time publishing somewhat deflating and disappointing research confirming that nine out of ten websites of the U.K.’s largest local authorities still contain a multitude of accessibility errors.
The accessibility testing was undertaken between September 11 and September 16 and the nine local authorities in breach of their obligations have a combined population of 10 million people.
Typical errors identified included problematic interactions with screen readers and keyboard navigation, poor color contrast, problems enlarging text and confusing layouts.
Responding to the research Scope’s Head of Digital Influencing Kristina Barrick said, “Organizations have had two years to prepare for this deadline and make changes to their websites.”
The charity’s statement added, “With local lockdowns on the rise across the U.K., it is unacceptable that disabled people may be unable to access information about support available in their area.”
Predictably, just as with the evolving pandemic, poor web accessibility is a global cross-border issue.
Last week also saw the publication of research undertaken by the U.S, nonprofit Miami Lighthouse for the Blind which identified accessibility flaws in the election websites of 12 key battleground states.
The issues identified could impact or potentially disenfranchise up to 2.3 million people living with a sight impairment across the states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The carrot and stick approach to campaigning for web accessibility
Crucially, in the case of both U.S. Federal Law and PSBAR, regulations do not uniformly or explicitly apply to all private sector organizations, despite this sector controlling a vast swath of digital products used by disabled customers on a daily basis.
The notion of calling out businesses who do not make their websites accessible or publishing sector-wide leaderboards comparing implementation and flagging accessibility “fails” speaks to a longer-term thought leadership trend in web accessibility.
For some time now, advocates and accessibility evangelists have been very keen to steer web accessibility away from being seen purely as a compliance issue.
The reasoning behind this is sound. With 15% of the global population having a disability, there are clear stand-alone business advantages to having accessible digital products.
Conventional thinking related to web accessibility says that framing it as a purely legal or compliance issue diminishes its positive impacts.
It reduces it to a tick box exercise to appease the lawyers as opposed to what it truly should be — a richly engaging, educative process for universal design involving web designers testing alongside disabled people for the benefit of all.
All this aside, there is nothing wrong with a carrot and stick approach to digital accessibility. Emphasizing the potential reputational and legal risks need not diminish the positive business case. These arguments can work in tandem as two sides of the same coin.
Of course, a legal framework like PSBAR is incredibly useful for providing clarity and context to organizations but in the absence of clear guidelines for the private sector, research, such as that undertaken by Scope, is most welcome.
In the U.K., public sector league tables for web accessibility, such as the Silktide Index already exist and more of these need to be created and regularly updated for the private sector.
The beauty of this type of approach is that it can compare like with like. Rather than portraying web accessibility as some esoteric ideal floating in the ether, compiling rankings of organizations competing within the same sector can help focus minds.
It has the capacity to sharpen the focus of those concerned with an organization’s reputation and competitive advantage while kicking into the long grass any ill-conceived perceptions that disabled customers are less relevant within particular business sectors.
It is true to say that disabled customers want to feel that they are worth more to an organization than just risk mitigation and public relations collateral. Ideally, they want to feel their custom and input is greatly valued.
Nevertheless, disabled people are also amongst the most hardened, realistic and pragmatic segments of the population. Over and above being inclusivity evangelists and particularly in the context of a global pandemic, users with disabilities, first and foremost, simply require their digital products to work in the way they need them to.
Whether it’s the carrot or the stick, or a particular combination of the two that compels website and app creators to ensure this happens, is merely of secondary importance.