Field experts discuss how companies can digitally comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act to empower their employees and customers.
Digital compliance with Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations concern millions of businesses across the United States. Several experts in the field convened at the most recent ESRA conference to discuss these issues and how companies can ensure they are including everyone with disabilities.
The panel participants were:
Monica Reha: Program Manager, Wells Fargo Home Lending’s Online Accessibility
Jeremiah Rogers: Wells Fargo team member, Assistive Technology Demonstration
Minh N. Vu: Partner, Seyfarth Shaw legal firm
Reha opened the session by asking everyone to imagine they’re on a train platform, heading home from work, thinking about the great day they had and the presentation they knocked out of the park. They’re toying with their coffee cup, waiting for the train, when all of a sudden, a man walks up, puts a $5 bill in the cup, says “God bless,” and walks away.
That was a true story about a woman named Joanna, who was wearing a business suit at the time. She uses a wheelchair. She works for the city of San Francisco and has a high-profile career and a family, but that man didn’t see her for who she was.
Reha noted that Wells Fargo did a research study and heard many similar stories. One thing that came up was that such people often feel overlooked and invisible. They also said that when companies don’t make web sites inaccessible, they feel like companies don’t care.
Reha prefers using the term “accessibility,” rather than “ADA compliance,” because it has a better connotation. She also quoted HTML creator Tim Bermers-Lee: “The power of the web is that it’s universally accessible.”
Accessible design benefits all users and creates market opportunity, Reha said. She continued: “Access to information online is everywhere, so it’s easy to take for granted that it’s available to everyone, but it’s not. Such access is incredibly important for people with disabilities because it lets them become independent and improves their quality of life.”
She mentioned a bank statement as an example: Someone who couldn’t see it would need to wait for a Braille copy or have someone read it to them. The former is not good from a convenience perspective and the latter has privacy issues.
Reha then played a video clip featuring Drew, a young blind man who talked about a conversation he had with his dad. Drew has an app that lets him know what time trains are coming. His father said he could just ask someone, but Drew’s point was that he doesn’t have to ask anyone, and he likes that.
Disability Types and Their Assistive Technology
Reha covered the types of disabilities and the kinds of assistive technology that may be used:
Hearing loss: They don’t have a lot of difficulty, but they can’t perceive audio content. For videos, they rely on captioning and transcripts.
Cognitive impairments: Those are people who may have difficulty reading, such as dyslexia or ADHD. They may be easily distracted and have trouble understanding instructions. They could use a screen reader and/or voice dictation software.
Blindness: They may use a screen reader, a Braille display, or a Braille note taker.
Low vision: A much larger population than blind people. It’s hard for them to see small text and color contrast. Color blindness is part of that too. They use screen magnification software or device, or screen readers, or they adjust the color schemes on their computers.
As an example of someone with low vision, Reha played a video of Shirley, who has a visual impairment that’s similar to looking through glasses smeared with petroleum jelly.
Mobility impairments: They have trouble entering information. They might not be able to use a mouse and they can’t pinch and zoom on mobile devices. They might use a mouse alternative, such as a head wand or mouth stick. Or they use eye tracking or voice dictation software.
Age-related: Combines all other groups. Could have mobility issues, vision difficulty, hearing loss, and so forth. They could use previously mentioned technologies, but those have learning curves, so they might not use anything.
Reha played a video of Bob, who is a senior citizen. He said: “As people age, they lose patience. So the easier any financial transaction is, such as paying a credit card bill or buying a bus ticket, the faster it is, the more seniors will use that company or service.”
An Overview of the Legal Landscape
Reha then turned the panel over to Minh N. Vu, who heads the ADA Title 3 team at a law firm. She deals with physical access, operational, and legal issues.
Vu gave an overview of the legal landscape: She worked for the Dept. of Justice in 2001 and asked if anyone had thought about accessibility on Web. She was told that they wouldn’t do that. “Even Al Gore wouldn’t go there,” she said she was told, which drew a laugh.
Today, however, the landscape is completely different at the Dept. of Justice. In 2001, Target was sued by the National Federation of the Blind over its web site. Target said the ADA didn’t cover web sites but was told by a judge that they were liable because they were connected to a brick and mortar business. If a company isn’t tied to a brick and mortar business, however, the courts are still split on that issue regarding ADA coverage.
Evolving Attitudes Toward Digital Accessibility
Attitudes toward digital accessibility have evolved over time. In 2010, the Justice Dept. said they would address the topic. They said the ADA covers web sites, including companies that don’t have brick and mortar presences. They said companies can comply with the law by offering an alternative means of access, so if a web site isn’t ADA compliant, they could offer 24/7 phone access as an example of alternative access.
The Justice Dept. said it would issue new regulations, so most businesses waited to see what they would say. However, Vu believes it will be a while before the new regulations are released because of what the Justice Dept. said in a recent case. MIT and Harvard were sued over captioning of videos, and the schools wanted the judge to stay the case until the new regulations were released. The Justice Dept. told the judge not to stay the case because the new regulations could take a while to be released.
Meanwhile, the Justice Dept. enforcement team is doing cramdowns over web sites and mobile apps. For example, PeaPod grocery delivery service, which Vu assisted when the Justice Dept. gave them a hard time. In addition, H&R Block was sued by the National Federation of the Blind and the Justice Dept. became a plaintiff in the case — H&R Block complied.
The Justice Dept. even told edX, an education portal, that they needed to police all their content, which Vu said was crazy. ” That’s like telling YouTube that all uploaded videos have to have good captions,” she said. The Justice Dept. backed off on that demand.
However, in the Harvard and MIT case, the National Association of the Deaf said that tens of thousands of videos on the schools’ sites need captioning. The videos don’t just involve coursework: they also include things like professors doing experiments and putting the videos online. Schools have resisted and the lawsuit is pending.
Lawless Behavior By the DoJ?
Vu said that the Justice Dept. now says website accessibility has been a requirement all along. In 2010, they said compliance could be achieved by offering an alternative and now they’re doing a 180 and saying it’s been a requirement the whole time, without issuing new regulations. “I told them that was lawless behavior,” she said.
The situation has now emboldened many people. She is dealing with tons of demand letters going out across the country. Businesses have been caught off guard because they thought they had time to deal with this and become compliant, and now the Justice Dept. basically says they have to be compliant now. As soon as they deal with one plaintiff, another comes along.
Reha asked Vu if companies are obligated to comply? Vu said that unlike the physical access world, where any new building has to be compliant no matter what, there’s no such thing in the web world. The Justice Dept. hasn’t said that that’s the default, but they have said that the current regulatory regime requires it anyway. Equal access has been around since 1990.
Most web sites are so robust is that it’s very difficult to provide an equivalent experience another way. However, it’s something that companies need to do anyway.
Vu said that she gets one question all the time: What are the legal standards? There is no legal standard, but there are guidelines out there: The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), version 2.0, with 3 levels of conformity: A, AA, AAA. They were put out by W3C. Companies can use those guidelines. The Justice Dept. uses the A and AA levels.
The Dept. of Transportation requires the AA level for airline carrier websites, so it’s a legal standard there. European countries have adopted WCAG for government web sites, as has Ontario.
Vu noted that the U.S. federal government under Section 508 of Rehabilitation Act has to make its websites accessible, so it is proposing to use WCAG’s AA level.
Five Important Things to Consider When Making Sites Compliant
Company leaders need to care and want to spend money. They also need to foster a culture of understanding.
Companies need to spend time on education and outreach.
They need to integrate it into the project management process. They can’t just rely on developers to create accessible code. They need requirements built in from the start.
They need to test with users who need assistive technology.
They should always be doing usability research.
POUR: The Four Principles of WCAG
Reha took over again and told a story about her mother, who has been blind since she was a child. Reha’s son wanted a story read to him and her mother said she couldn’t do it. Her son retrieved his grandmother’s seeing eye dog and thought the dog would allow her to read the story.
The point is that people think that assistive technology will magically allow people with disabilities to do what they need to do, but that’s not always the case. Certain things need to be taken into account before implementing assistive technology.
Reha then showed a video with a blind woman named Sheela. She wants to be in a room with a developer, put a blindfold on him, take away everything but his keyboard, and have him try to use the site. That would be a good way for him to understand what it’s like for a blind person to use his site.
Reha then passed the panel to Jeremiah Rogers, who discussed WCAG’s four principals, known as POUR:
Perceivable: The user can’t access information unless someone knows it’s there
Operable: The person must be able to manipulate the information. They need a button they can click, a field to fill out, and so forth.
Understandable: The information needs to be available in multiple formats and people need to be able to understand what it is.
Robust: The information needs to be as robust for a disabled person as it is for a non-disabled person.
Rogers went on to explain semantics, which are the primary underpinning of web site design. He explained: “A sighted user can look at a page, or an app screen, and figure out how everything relates to each other. That needs to be conveyed programmatically to screen reading software so the user can understand the semantics.”
He the played audio of his screen reader reading a page, including headline levels of headline, which allowed him to understand if something was clickable.
Reha then showed a table of stock prices on the screen. Rogers explained how his screen reader interprets the table for him and played an audio example. The screen reader worked well reading across the rows but not when reading down the columns because programmer wasn’t consistent with table headers.
Reha finished the panel with a review of best practices:
Images: If they’re important and convey information, they need alternative text. If an image has text or contains a link, the user needs to be able to know that.
Color contrast: Lightening a page background helps. WCAG has color contrast ratios.
Forms: Can be challenging if not coded properly. Clearly label fields. Indicate required fields up front. Make instructions easy to find. Provide error messaging that explains which fields need to be fixed and why. And extend session timeouts.
Keyboard access: Reha likes to tell people to unplug their mouse when they go to their favorite web site and see if they can navigate it. Developers need to ensure their web site content is accessible by keyboard if someone can’t use a mouse. The tabbing order also needs to be logical.
Video: Don’t set videos to play automatically. Include captions and transcripts.