Viewpoint: Compliance and Awareness in Accessibility

Why is This Issue Coming Up?

Two weeks ago, this issue surfaced on my LinkedIn profile. And then, earlier this week, a colleague dragged me into a thread on LinkedIn to discuss the same topic. Like most of us, I've lost plenty of friends since 2016 by discussing potentially sensitive issues on social media, so I wasn't at all happy about taking the bait.

The issue? In both instances, the authors appeared to be saying that accessibility consulting needs to emphasize disability awareness over compliance. One person began her post with this quote,

One of the biggest mistakes that digital accessibility (A11Y) departments make is prioritizing technical skills over accessibility skills when looking for accessibility consultants. It is far easier to teach someone a basic knowledge of HTML than it is to teach them all of the different disabilities that exist and the intricate ways they impact someone's ability to use the web.

And another author asserted that WCAG-compliance really didn't mean that much as WCAG is "only a metric" and didn't really measure accessibility. In both cases, the authors are younger than 30 years old. I admire their passion and youthful firebrand spirit. I'm a dyed in the wool Generation-X and so I've always looked at the older Baby Boomers with suspicion. To me, few good things come about by setting the world on fire.

Compliance Should Be the Main Focus for Accessibility Consultants

I firmly believe that basic WCAG 2.0 A/AA compliance should be the first priority for any organization thinking about an accessibility program. Why is that? Because, while WCAG certainly has its shortcomings, it does achieve a basic level of accessibility for the vast majority of people with disabilities. But the more important reason why compliance is king is because hardly anyone ever achieves it. The sad reality is that we live in a society where most businesses really don't care about accessibility, except as far as avoiding a drive-by lawsuit. These businesses will quickly shut the door on any consultant who is proposing anything beyond a program that gives them the basic technical skills to make their websites accessible. So, unless your clientele only includes progressive companies with well-developed accessibility programs, you're not likely to stay in business as a consultant very long unless you have a short, terse WCAG compliance strategy in your tool belt. Also, I can't tell you how many developers have told me and Jeff that they really don't care about accessibility beyond the technical fixes that they need to get their jobs done.

My Background Makes Me a Compliance Junkie

I'm a lawyer. We love clear rules-- and making sure that our clients follow those rules. I know that a compliance-first strategy doesn't always guarantee either happy people or flawless compliance-- but it still needs to be a big part of the equation. This is particularly true for websites. To understand why I feel so strongly this way is based on a couple of factors from my past.

Most people know that I've worked over 20 years in web accessibility. However, I also spent about eight years before that investigating and litigating more traditional ADA cases at the Justice Department, including a lot of architectural cases. I think it useful in our field to look at how architectural cases have proceeded. Since the 1970's, there have been very clear architectural standards like the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS) and the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. Unlike WCAG, these are very objective standards. For instance, an accessible toilet seat needs to be 17 to 19 inches off the floor. I know it's completely impractical to expect that kind of precision in WCAG; the point is just to say that architectural standards are much clearer. What's more, architects learn these standards in school and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) includes them in the certification test to become an AIA Member (required in the U.S. for approving a set of blueprints for construction). Building contractors and suppliers all should have a good understanding of these requirements because building code officials can also refuse a permit if these standards are violated. In short, accessibility is enforced at the design (architectural) stage, the development (construction) stage, and the QA (building inspection) stage. While this is the kind of compliance strategy that would make us in the web accessibility world swoon, I still had to spend time litigating these cases because people continued getting it wrong. And, even today, there is no shortage of ADA construction cases.

Another factor that always guides my thinking is that I've seen firsthand how passionate advocacy can backfire. Back near the turn of the millennium, I was contacted by the attorneys from Access Now in Florida. They were planning to sue Southwest Airlines over the inaccessibility of Southwest Airlines' websites. They know that we had participated in several web accessibility cases before and urged the court to support the plaintiffs. But we urged the attorneys from Access Now to not proceed with their case. Why? Because neither the facts nor the law were favorable to the plaintiffs and that losing this case could set web accessibility back by years. The attorneys from Access Now brushed these concerns aside and, like other youthful passionate advocates, they insisted on going ahead. We all know the result: after the Southwest Airlines decision, web accessibility was essentially a dead issue in the courts for a half-dozen years until NFB v. Target. I think comparing the law and facts in both cases should be essential reading for any digital accessibility advocate (now that I think about it, I should try to write a blog post on this comparison). To my mind, powerful advocacy makes the most sense when advocates lobby for new laws and regulations (e.g. think Crip Camp); passionate advocacy becomes a little more dangerous when trying to expand existing laws because of the risk of legal blowback like we saw in Southwest Airlines. Smart lawyers think very carefully before pushing a case too hard.

Working at the Justice Department was a remarkable experience and I'm quite spoiled because of it. While at the Disability Rights Section, the accessibility litigation world revolves around you. Accessibility advocates come to you to help them. You gain a very wide view of accessibility law and policy-- and you directly shape that law and policy. I know that I've played a major role shaping the development of the ADA, as have most of the attorneys who have worked in the Section. But that experience also makes a lawyer a bit more patient.

Web Accessibility Takes a Village

Don't get me wrong: my compliance-first mindset doesn't mean that I think focusing on the "softer" skills of promoting accessibility is unimportant. A really successful accessibility program absolutely requires promoting an understanding of the experience of people with disabilities. WCAG absolutely doesn't go far enough. Instead, a good accessibility program needs to include usability studies that brings together actual users with disabilities (in fact, WCAG 3.0's Silver and Gold levels basically requires it).

Also, compliance and accessibility-awareness go hand in hand. While I mentioned earlier getting snubbed by some developers who only care about technical skills, it is useful to use accessibility awareness to teach technical issues because most developers find it important to understand why code changes are important. But, even here awareness doesn't necessarily mean strident advocacy. Earlier this week, I also talked to a well-known psychology professor at California State University who has also been a driving force in accessibility. He suggested that analogies tend to work really well. For instance, one way to explain WCAG Success Criterion 1.3.1 Info and Relationships is to have a screen reader user demonstrate why a page without structure is hard to read. But another potentially more effective way to illustrate the importance of structure is to say, "imagine reading a textbook without a table of contents, chapters, paragraph breaks or an index. Instead, it's just a steady stream of unrelenting text. Sounds pretty impossible to read, right? That's why 1.3.1 is important." Even a hard-nosed developer who only wants the technical details responds to that kind of analogy.

And Accessibility Isn't the Only Village

Earlier this week, I also had to fulfill my continuing education credits for IAPP (not IAAP). Yes, I am also Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP/US) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP). And my experience in this field gives me yet another perspective on accessibility. Why? Because I'm pretty sure most IAPP people think accessibility is nowhere as important as privacy. Instead, as I was learning about how companies faced huge monetary losses if they violated laws like the new California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) or the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)-- even if my company has no presence in either California or Europe-- I was reminded that web development teams (and businesses more broadly) have a ton of other business needs. Like accessibility, other areas like privacy, online child protection, and a host of others have their own constantly-evolving requirements and passionate advocates. Which brings me back to starting with basic compliance because, as complex as web accessibility is, it is only one piece of the pie.

And How Would You Feel When You Get Sued Anyways?

In many respects, this blog post isn't that different that my earlier post, Viewpoint: Web Accessibility Compliance or Innovation. In both cases, compliance should set the floor for what an organization hopes to achieve-- awareness of the needs of people with disabilities and innovation sets the upper bar for what an organization can achieve. Yes, compliance can be dull but it is utterly critical.

For instance, let's imagine that your organization does a great job with screen reader support. You have blind users regularly test your web content but, because your organization didn't focus on the basics of compliance, some things naturally slipped between the cracks-- including one important video that wasn't captioned. Or maybe you had a video on your site showing a concert scene with strobe effects. Both can easily get your organization sued and, naturally, your boss will be wondering how you could have let something so basic to accessibility slip by? The answer is obvious-- you should have had a basic checklist of things that absolutely needed to be taken care of. In other words, you needed a basic compliance program. As painful as that experience was, at least you can take that experience to your next job.

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