Viewpoint: Web Accessibility Compliance or InnovationDon’t Fall Over Backwards While Reaching for the Stars

Start of a New Series

For the third time in just this week, I got into this conversation with another accessibility colleague through LinkedIn. Let me know if this sounds familiar?

ME: As most of clients are not at a very advanced level of accessibility, we find it useful to give them checklists of items to make sure that they address.

COLLEAGUE: We don't do that; we don't encourage checklists and focus more on making sure we leverage disabled user experience.

I will leave it to our co-founder, Jeff Singleton, to talk later about our feelings on disabled user testing, but I wanted to talk about something at a higher level first. But, as I started to outline my thoughts for this blog, I realized that Jeff and I share some fairly strong opinions when it comes to accessibility-- in terms of what we think works, what doesn't work, and why. These are ideas that were hard to learn but reflect the 20+ years of experience we each had in web and digital accessibility. And, in the interest of full transparency, I thought it was valuable to share these opinions with you. After all, in this age of hyper-factionalism, isn't it good to know where your friends (and therefore, your contractors) stand? It's totally fine if you don't agree with our positions-- we can both adjust for that. So, with that, we start our "Viewpoint" series.

Our Viewpoint: NEVER Forget About Compliance

Many of the coolest accessibility advances have required "out of the box" thinking. For instance, fifteen years ago, we would never have imagined that the iPhone would be the most popular smartphone within the blind community, because we couldn't have imagined how a device with no tactile controls could be accessible. Innovative thinking creates opportunities for everyone and adds a really attractive "coolness" factor to accessible technology.

But one thing that a lot of mature accessibility programs lose sight of is the fact that innovation should never replace compliance. Why? As Benjamin Franklin once said,

It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.

And what's "one bad deed" that can ruin an organization's reputation? Well, getting sued because you violated a fundamental WCAG requirement would count.

Compliance and Innovation are Separate Disciplines

I'm a lawyer. I worry about risk-- and how to avoid it. When I practiced law, people would pay me for that advice. So it's natural that I tend to think about compliance before innovation. And, I think that lawyers are the natural custodians of an organization's compliance responsibilities. In these times, an organization can get into trouble for a number of different bad deeds. For instance, a sexual harassment claim or a massive data breach can both crater a public company's stock value-- and it's perception in the marketplace. And, I put compliance with accessibility standards in this same category.

By contrast, innovation is the realm of scientists and engineers. Creating cool approaches to making technology more useful to more users is what gets people excited. And they can propel a company to be seen as "revolutionary" and "ground-breaking". Sometimes, this requires looking at a problem in a really different way than the regulations envisioned-- and here concepts like "equivalent facilitation" (part of the Section 508 regulations) provide the needed flexibility to make that happen.

Compliance Creates the Floor and Innovation Creates the Ceiling

To those who would dismiss compliance in favor of innovation, let me suggest that is too limited a viewpoint. Instead, compliance and innovation are like two sides of a coin. They are intrinsically bound together. Let me try to illustrate this relationship with a graph.

Graph Explained in Accompanying Text

In the graph above, we have accessibility on the y-axis and time on the x-axis. There are two squiggles. The lower one is labeled "compliance" and it reflects the level of overall accessibility required by then-current laws and regulations. Every few years, the line rises up dramatically and then stays level for a few years. This represents updates to accessibility standards. Obviously, no one wants to be below this line because then they are not in compliance with accessibility laws and standards. But there is another squiggle that is higher on the accessibility axis than the "compliance" line and this second squiggle represents "innovation"-- the current level of accessibility permitted by technology at its current point in time. Obviously an organization can't be above this line because it is beyond the state of current technology. Thus, unless we are either scofflaws or we own a time machine, we all live in the "middle zone", with "compliance" acting as the floor and "innovation" acting as the ceiling.

But there is a subtle relationship between these two graphs. Namely, the range "in the middle" is never too large and the rises in the compliance curve generally follows rises in the innovation curve. It's not a perfect relationship (e.g. in the United States, it seemed to take an eternity for the Section 508 standards to be updated), but it exists nonetheless.

Compliance Requires Clear Standards (and Sometimes Checklists)

I've always believed that the best way to ensure compliance is to (1) make sure that the rules are as easy-to-understand as possible and (2) create an easy mechanism for assessing performance against those rules. This was the impetus behind our WebAlign product. To create WebAlign, we simplified the vague and confusing Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) into clear concise rules and then created a series of checklists that design, development and QA teams would use to meet their accessibility requirements-- and hold each other accountable in the process.

But what about the fact that even a fully WCAG 2.0 compliant site could still remain inaccessible? Absolutely but this is a weakness in WCAG (or an organization's interpretation of WCAG) and doesn't mean that compliance isn't important. This is one driver for constantly updating WCAG. Also, even though WCAG isn't specifically required for accessible websites, I think it would be very difficult for a plaintiff to succeed in a web accessibility lawsuit where the defendant's website substantially met WCAG 2.0.

Compliance Is Just One Part of the Solution

But the more convincing answer to this question is that compliance is just a part of the answer. It's not whether you should focus on innovation OR compliance. It's also not whether you should use disabled users for feedback OR focus on compliance with WCAG. The answer is that all of these things are necessary-- but they are necessary for different reasons. We're not advocating that your organization focus only on accessibility compliance (although that is the most logical place for newcomers to accessibility to start). Instead, we just see too many organizations losing sight of basic compliance before focusing their attention elsewhere.

To Be Continued...

In upcoming posts in this series, we'll take on other issues in the digital accessibility world. Stay tuned!

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