Digital Accessibility: Whose Responsibility is it, Anyway?

Posted on Tuesday, 22 September 2020 by Marissa Sapega

Irrespective of size, industry, maturity, etc., task delegation across an organization is necessary; without it, individuals may assume that certain things are “someone else’s responsibility” and they remain unfinished. Considering all the tasks employees must complete each day to keep an organization running smoothly, assigning responsibilities to teams and departments is critical.

While most managers fundamentally support this strategy, it can be difficult to follow through on this in the real world. Various business functions may not fit neatly into a department or fall tidily onto a single team. In many cases, there may be several employees who could ostensibly be responsible for completing certain tasks.

Digital accessibility, the ability for users with disabilities to be able to effectively interact with your digital content, falls into this category of ambiguous delegation. It seems deceptively simple at first glance—if it’s related to the website or online content, it’s logical to assume that accessibility conformance would be placed squarely at the feet of the organization’s developers. But is it really so cut and dried?

Who benefits from accessibility?

Let’s take a step back to consider who benefits from digital accessibility. Customers and potential customers, obviously. Your company has a website or an app for a reason. But what about employees? People with disabilities have jobs like anyone else, and they will need to be able to use the tools required for them to fulfill their job duties.

Say you have a blind accountant working for your company. They’ll need access to software that will enable them to crunch numbers, (unless your organization is really retro and likes to use good old fashioned calculators and paper!) which will require them to use assistive technology like a screen reader. A screen reader, like JAWS, literally reads what is on a computer screen, enabling those with little to no vision to be able to use a computer. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that employees are able to do their jobs effectively? Is it Human Resources’s? Is it the hiring manager’s? This is an element of accessibility that bleeds into a department beyond the development team.

Let’s examine HR’s obligations

Speaking of employees, say your company is hiring for new roles. Your HR team is most likely putting job postings online on your website, or potentially using a third-party portal to acquire resumes and contact information about possible new hires. Because a diverse workforce is a benefit to any company, you’ll want to ensure your job posting/application process is accessible to people with disabilities. Otherwise you’d be unintentionally discriminating against them (which is illegal) and also shooting yourself in the foot by removing some really terrific job candidates from your pool.

Based on this scenario, it appears the human resources should have a vested interest in ensuring digital accessibility. Hmm…seems like there are more people involved than previously assumed…

Consider the customer acquisition process

Marketing departments are traditionally relied upon to generate awareness and sales for a company’s products and services. Assuming they are interested in reaching a comprehensive audience, they need to ensure their communications are accessible.

Here are a few examples:

  • Emails that contain images or that are structured in HTML need to include certain considerations. For instance, images require alternative text so a user with a screen reader would be able to understand them. Additionally, if the email uses tables for the layout, they should utilize the “role” tag (which should also be designated as a “presentation,” so the screen reader won’t read it like a data table).
  • All images (including those on media) need to have alt text, and videos should have captions, or better yet, a transcript.
  • PDF documents should be accessible (meaning a screen reader can read them), or else they’re nothing but a blank document to those relying on assistive technology to read them

You can find many more examples of low-hanging fruit that your marketing team can leverage to improve their accessibility efforts in our webinar recording, “The Marketer’s Guide to Accessibility.”

Don’t forget the product team!

We’ve established that the dev, marketing, and HR departments all have valuable roles to play in ensuring accessibility. However, we have not yet touched upon the product or service you sell.

Does your company develop software, mobile apps, or desktop applications? If so, have you conducted user research and usability testing with people with disabilities? With $1.2 trillion in disposable income, individuals with disabilities have significant purchasing power. If your products are not accessible to everyone you could be severely limiting your potential revenue.

Who wants to lower their risk?

Risk! It’s not just the name of a popular board game.

An organization’s legal and compliance teams are paid to evaluate and mitigate risks for their company. Their job is to ensure the company is in compliance with all regulations, from federal down to the city level, and to recommend strategies to resolve any compliance issues that crop up.

Have you heard a little law called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? Passed in 1990, a time when MC Hammer wouldn’t let you touch anything and the idea of a handheld mini-computer from which you could call anyone worldwide was the stuff of fantasy, this law is one of the single most important pieces of disability-related legislation to have ever graced Capitol Hill. Today, we think nothing of wheelchair ramps, accessible parking, and all the accommodations public buildings and businesses are legally obligated to provide for people with disabilities. But prior to 1990, they were much scarcer.

When internet adoption started revving up in the mid ‘90s, people with disabilities quickly realized they were being left out. The first high-profile digital accessibility lawsuit, Maguire v Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (2000), was filed in 2000. Seeing as there was no language in the ADA explicitly covering websites and digital content, this was a landmark case.

Despite the lack of explicit references to digital content in the ADA, the DOJ’s position (“Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well”) has not changed since it first issued it in the mid 1990’s.

Digital accessibility lawsuits have been growing exponentially in the past several years. 2019 alone saw over 11,000 lawsuits, an increase of 9% from 2018. This is a very real risk for organizations of all shapes and sizes, but one that is manageable by prioritizing accessibility remediation and sustainability efforts.

It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that legal and compliance teams would be remiss if they willfully ignored the need for accessibility conformance.

How about a little Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)??

While accessibility in general may not be on their list of immediate concerns, brand perception is always top of mind for senior executives and the C-Suite. Consumers (especially Millennials) care more about CSR than any other demographic. And guess what? As Boomers and Generation X’s purchasing power begins to wane, Millennials’ power will grow.

Furthermore, customers of all ages and demographics welcome a company that is transparent and honest about its objectives for inclusivity and will show their appreciation by opening their wallets. Conversely, bad press and social media activity targeted at companies that have done nothing to foster inclusivity will have a negative impact on the company’s bottom line.

A CEO, by nature, is very concerned about the company’s revenue growth, risk, and brand perception. Because accessibility significantly impacts all of these elements, they should care about it enough to take on the responsibility of ensuring their employees take it seriously.

What about you?

Maybe you’re not a CEO, a lawyer, or a developer. Maybe you’re pretty confident you’ll never embark on a career path that includes HR or marketing. Fair enough.

But here’s something to consider: Just because you may not be “responsible” for accessibility as part of your job description doesn’t mean you should put it out of your head altogether. Accessibility improves the experience for everyone. How many times have you utilized a curb cut? (Bikers and parents pushing strollers, I’m looking at you.) Curb cuts were initially intended to help wheelchair users better navigate the streets (in fact, one of the first curb cuts was implemented in 1945 to help disabled veterans from the Second World War). Now everyone benefits from them.

Digital accessibility is no different. One way to improve the accessibility of your website is to ensure it is well-structured, with proper tags (H1, H2, H3, etc.), and that links are descriptive (e.g. no “click here for more information.”) Following these best practices benefits everyone, not just users with disabilities.

So the next time you have the option to choose a vendor who prioritizes accessibility or can influence an individual who should be integrating accessibility into their workflow, take action. Tell your inaccessible vendors to prioritize accessibility and educate others who have a direct impact on customers or employees to integrate it into their processes.

As we hope this blog post has established, accessibility is no more one person or department’s “responsibility” than keeping an entire business running smoothly.

For help in supporting your organization’s accessibility efforts, contact us today.


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