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Don't Let Accessibility Become a Liability

by Mark Gross, President at DCL

Keyboard in low light with glass globe

Target Corporation had to pay settlement damages of $6 million and attorney costs of $3.7 million. The Justice Department and Carnival Corp. (Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland America Line and Princess Cruises) reached a landmark settlement agreement under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). AMEX was featured on BBC News with the headline, “Bank Upgrade Is Excluding the Blind – Visually impaired customers of American Express say they can no longer reads their card statements online.” A Florida federal judge ruled that a Winn-Dixie grocery store had violated the ADA. These are just some of the cases that fit into what is a very real issue across almost any sector of business: being liable for not making documents and websites accessible to the disabled.

To understand and frame the topic of accessibility, we can look to government agencies and Section 508. A part of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508 requires that government agencies provide individuals with disabilities equal access to their programs, services, and activities. Specifically, Section 508 deals with electronic and services, including web page content, PDF documents, and audio/video content, and specifies requirements to ensure that all public-facing web content is accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 mandates that federal agencies allow easier navigation, accessibility and readability through, for example, navigation aids embedded into documents that allow software to “read” materials in the right order, textual descriptions of images that the computer can “read” to people who cannot see them and adjustments to fonts and colors that make materials easier to read. Those are just some examples, but you get the idea. “Accessible” content means “readable” content for those that need it, and it is mandatory that government agencies adhere to these requirements.

Accessibility matters (even if you’re not a government agency)

You might be thinking: "Well, my organization is not a government agency, so being accessible isn’t mandatory." Technically, that is correct. To counter that, though, I would argue that while the specific guidelines are not mandatory outside of government, meeting ADA requirements in places of public accommodation (which many claim websites are) is the law, and the 508 guidelines are being applied in the absence of other guidelines. So, there are legal requirements, but being accessible is also just smart business.

Need some proof? As much as 10 percent of the population may be affected by blindness, low vision, learning disabilities, or other difficulties that impair their abilities to access information. That number may go up as the population ages. Plus, according to an LA Times article, “ADA lawsuits are now as common as sex-discrimination lawsuits, with more than 26,000 new claims filed against employers each year.” This same article states, “more than 240 businesses across the country have been sued in federal country/court? over website accessibility since the beginning of 2015.”

The issue of accessibility reaches all industries. Many institutions in higher education struggle with this issue, to the point that they have offices dedicated to creating accessible versions of textbooks. Finance and insurance companies, manufacturers whose workers need access to engineering and safety information, and other markets need to get ahead of what is the equivalent of Section 508 for their industries. Making content more accessible will only become more urgent in the coming years. As more and more content is consumed digitally – online and on various mobile devices – proactive action should be taken to protect your organization from lawsuits. But even if a lawsuit against your organization might seem a stretch, think of taking steps towards being more accessible for the simple reason that accessible content helps those that need it. To take that thought further: your content will reach more people.

How to prepare and get on the path to accessibility

First, you’ll need to assess how far away your current content is from being accessible. Then you can make some judgements on how much work needs to be done to get it there. Here are some tips and other things to look out for when transforming your content:

  • Ensure all columns and sections are being read in the right order

  • Prepare Alternative Text (Alt-Tag) for images and other non-textual elements to allow users to better understand visual elements

  • Tag all needed elements to assure availability to Assistive Technologies (AT) so that the various tools on the market allow the user efficient navigation through the materials

  • Correct and tag Tables and Forms to allow better interaction

  • Check all the non-textual parts, like background content and color contrast, so that visually impaired users can still make good use of the visual elements

That brief checklist provides some good beginning steps. Chances are that if you have read this far, then you already understand the importance of accessibility as it pertains to your business and the potential liabilities that could be down the road. Starting this process now will future-proof your content for emerging technologies and also provide a bulwark against potential legal troubles later on.


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