One of our focus areas as an agency is digital accessibility. Our service offerings include testing, remediation, and education in all matters related to the digital accessibility of our client’s various websites and mobile applications. Clients seek conformance with digital accessibility standards for a variety of reasons. Some are interested in achieving conformance because it's the right thing to do, while lawsuits or contract requirements compel others.
Regardless of why you need to achieve conformance, the process is similar. Proper accessibility conformance requires understanding the laws and standards, undergoing comprehensive testing, and remediating code to achieve compliance.
This process sounds easy, but like anything else, it has complexities and nuances that must be carefully considered. Clients often try to find an easy way out and make various mistakes along the way, wasting time and money. This week, we will detail some mistakes we see clients make and how to avoid them.
Using an Overlay
This is the number one mistake that we see clients make. So many websites have chosen to take the easy way out with overlays because it's fast and easy. Overlays promise a certain level of conformance, but sadly, they are not conforming to accessibility standards. To describe all the reasons why these overlays are an imperfect solution is a blog post all on its own. We've already written one. For this post, we want to reiterate that using an overlay is not a fully conforming fix – in reality, it makes things worse by introducing new barriers for users.
Overlays have gained popularity not only because they're easy but because the companies that manufacture them have raised significant amounts of capital to grow their businesses. However, accessibility is a human issue, and fixing it with scalable solutions is very challenging. The proper fix is for all website developers, designers, and owners to accept accessibility conformance as part of the design and development process.
In many ways, using an overlay is worse than doing nothing at all because this shows a realization on behalf of the website operator that accessibility needs to be addressed and that this particular property chose the quick and easy way out.
We'd rather a customer began taking baby steps towards conformity than applying an overlay. Like anything else, a small initiative can solve a lot of problems. Customers and courts realize that achieving conformance takes time, and we'd instead have clients show progress toward proper solutions rather than install a quick fix, which may not correct anything.
Licensing a Single Testing Tool
We often see potential clients who have already begun licensing a testing tool. However, the testing tool alone is not enough to help them achieve compliance. A good analogy would be if a patient were to buy their own CT scanning machine. It might be possible for them to run the scans, but they wouldn't know what to do with the results, even determining what the results indicate.
Accessibility tools all function differently because they use different rule sets and present their findings in different ways. It takes expert guidance to understand true issues and interpret the results. It isn't worth making a significant investment in testing software unless you have a second tool set to compare results against and understand precisely how to apply fixes to the issues that are being identified.
Granted, some tools are better than others. And the tools are always getting better. But to think that licensing one single instrument will give you all the insight you need to remediate and achieve conformance would send you down the wrong path.
Relying on Automation
Just as a single tool can't guarantee results, the same applies to automation. At best, various automations that are available will make life easier when there is already a knowledge of standards and how to apply them. However, licensing a monitoring solution or installing other software plugins to your CMS, hoping that it applies a universal fix, would be incorrect.
Additionally, relying solely on automated tools can be problematic because they can’t check any of the standards that require manual testing. This means relying on automated tools will only find about 30% to 50% of all issues. The rest require manual testing by humans.
A proper accessibility conformance strategy could indeed employ levels of automation, however. But as mentioned before, it should be part of a more holistic strategy that includes manual testing and is not seen as a single fix.
Automation is a nice buzzword for executives trained to introduce it in many other business areas. But again, as mentioned earlier, accessibility is a human matter and requires a human approach. It's best to think that the best strategy for achieving accessibility conformance is to embrace the issue and adapt corrective measures throughout the enterprise. More on that in a bit.
Hiring Off-Shore Team
Another area where executives have been spoiled over time is the concept of off-shore resources. However, accessibility conformance cannot be solely offloaded to teams in other countries. One primary reason is the idea of context. So many website users rely on screen readers and other assistive devices to engage and consume content. While technical measures can be taken to ensure those devices work properly, there is also a contextual layer that is, in some cases, difficult for offshore vendors to understand.
Case in point: We often use images to set the mood or tone of a web page, in particular, at times, pictures or icons for interactive elements such as forms, products, buttons, and links. To be accessible, all of these require descriptions that convey both the context and purpose - in the web page's language. Generic descriptions, grammar, and punctuation issues can confuse users when not done correctly within the native language of the reader.
In our development practice, we've relied on offshore resources for almost 20 years to great success. However, some disciplines have a significant benefit to having a close cultural tie, and accessibility is one of them.
Thinking It’s a One-Time Fix
This may be my last point, but it is the most important that I'd like to make. Accessibility conformance cannot be achieved once and then forgotten. Accessibility requires an ongoing commitment to developing new content in an accessible way and ensuring that compliance is maintained. It is impossible to run through one project, achieve compliance, and check the box to move on to the next project.
A proper accessibility strategy, of course, must focus on an initial testing and remediation project. However, it requires cultural adaptation on behalf of the entire enterprise to ensure that it is treated as a priority on an ongoing basis. This means any accessibility initiative should also include a training component we're content editors, developers and designers are educated on the latest standards, the testing tools, and the process to achieve compliance and conformity.
When we speak to prospective customers about holistic approaches to achieving and maintaining conformance, it always includes all the above elements. Every customer is different. What your final strategy may look like can differ based on the business that you're in, what your website or application does, and of course, whom your digital team is comprised of. Regardless of your situation, however, it is true across the board that accessibility needs to be a part of your digital strategy.
One of the issues with accessibility conformance today is that many business owners see it as an added expense they had not previously considered. This will go on for quite some time. Over the twenty years that we've run the agency, many different compliance matters followed a similar cadence. Typically, compliance standards are greeted with frustration, ignorance, and, to put it bluntly, a half-assed approach to conforming. But over time, as businesses realize that the standards are here to stay, they begin to become ingrained in the day-to-day operation of companies and considered from day one on new projects.
Accessibility is indeed starting to follow that pathway. The one difference between accessibility and so many other standards, however, is the overall complexity. Accessibility touches 100% of a website or application, and every content piece published needs to confirm. Over time, we'll see more and more companies investing in in-house teams and resources to ensure compliance. Hopefully, they'll avoid mistakes like those we've outlined above along the way.