By Jason Taylor, Chief Innovation Strategist and Special Advisor to the CEO
The trickle of law suits related to web accessibility is turning into a flood. Some estimate that 25,000 US complanies will be targeted this year by legal firms that represent small groups of disabled users.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and disability organizations such as the Federation for the Blind, set the tone initially by taking big retailers, healthcare providers and banks to court in 2015 over failing to provide access to web based services for all users. The victories for the DOJ opened up the flood gates for legal firms to target every company that has an online presence and have failed to keep pace with web accessibility. These law firms have been suing thousands of companies for lack of physical access for disabled users, and they are now turning their energy to anyone with a web site, mobile site or mobile app.
In truth, digital accessibility is a basic rights issue, as the Internet, technology and smartphones transform our lives. Users living with disability should not be left out, and companies have a social, legal and increasingly, a business reason to ensure that their online services are built with access in mind.
The good news is that making online services via desktop and mobile accessible is achievable, and most companies will find they are in better shape than demand letters from legal firms would indicate.
The best defense against aggressive action from legal firms exploiting lack of knowledge around accessibility is for companies to be pro-active in planning and communicating their accessibility intentions.
Companies should approach Accessibility in much the same way as Security and Privacy. It's a very similar subject to tackle, with industry standards, templates and resources to leverage along with a range of third party service companies that can offer help where needed.
Companies should get their house in order, preferably before they get a demand letter, but it is just as urgent if a company does get a demand letter.
Here are the steps a company should take to get their house in order, either before or after receiving a demand letter:
First, establish a company-wide accessibility policy that outlines roles, efforts and timelines. A good guide is the example found in section 2 of the DOJ consent decree entered for H&R Block requiring Accessibility of websites and mobile apps under the ADA.
The Accessibility Policy should cover all public-facing digital service delivery channels (desktop, mobile, apps at a minimum). The company-wide policy should be written in consultation with legal experts who have knowledge of the ADA. (Usablenet has legal ADA partners we can provide introductions to and help companies’ in-house or external counsel to formulate good policies and statements.)
Part of that Policy is to add a page on accessibility where you would display an accessibility statement on web/mobile site that outlines accessibility efforts. You should include easy access to email, and if possible, a toll-free phone number to call if a user has any difficulty.
Part of the policy would be the requirement of any third party development to follow similar accessibility efforts and add language to contracts to reflect that. (Companies will start adding these to all web and mobile projects soon.)
Finally, some lawyers would recommend a board-level resolution to confirm the company-wide importance of accessibility, and how important it is.
Once the Accessibility Policy is in place, the real work of following the policy needs to begin and continue. This will include identifying Accessibility team members (across the business), appointing an Accessibility coordinator (this can be a contractor), a full audit of all the digital channels used, user testing with disabled users when appropriate, reports that are maintained and updated on a regular basis, and documentation of fixes and efforts.
Team training on accessibility should be included, if needed. Accessibility fixes can be done by internal or external teams.
Accessibility is an ongoing effort. Building accessibility practice into new features and sites will remove much of the future costs of after the fact fixing. Maintaining awareness, processes and reports, in much the same way a company manages security, is key.
In summary, if a company has established an Accessibility Policy, has invested in efforts, contracted, hired for, and is in the process of implementing the policy over a fair timeline (12-24 months), they will be in a secure place to defend against legal challenges. And importantly, they will be doing the right thing by both supporting and encouraging a large user group that can become very loyal customers.