Rhode Island native Kim Testa is executive vice president of the Bureau of Internet Accessibility Inc., or BoIA, heading up the group’s revenue and business growth efforts. The organization works with companies to ensure their websites and web applications – as well as mobile sites and native mobile applications – are accessible to all, including the dyslexic and sight-impaired. Accessibility, she said, isn’t a one-time fix: even if something was made accessible, content changes and other factors can render it inaccessible again. Constant monitoring and maintenance, she said, is needed.
PBN: Is it common for a company not to know how accessible or inaccessible their website is?
TESTA: Web accessibility, required by law and understood and implemented by more and more companies every day, is still a mystery to so many. The overwhelming majority of websites out there today are not accessible to people with disabilities, and most of the companies that manage those websites don’t know how accessible or inaccessible their website is.
We’ve found that most companies don’t realize accessibility is even something they have to account for, and even those who believe their website is accessible are often mistaken. This can happen for a number of reasons … they may rely strictly on automated accessibility testing, which is useful but insufficient to achieve true accessibility; or their sites may be built or hosted by vendors who claim or believe their products are accessible but don’t have the technical knowledge or expertise to actually test and remediate for accessibility.
PBN: What are some key features a website should have – or not have – to be considered accessible?
TESTA: Luckily, web accessibility is not a guessing game; there are standards that have been designed and recommended to account for visual, auditory, motor, cognitive and other disabilities. The most commonly used and universally accepted standards are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 A/AA. According to WCAG, all content must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. Those overarching principles are broken into many checkpoints or success criteria that can be tested for and achieved with certain rules and techniques, some of which are more technical and complex than others.
Some of the most foundational features a website should have to be considered accessible are text alternatives for any images or other non-text content; color combinations that provide a sufficient level of contrast between the color of text and its background color, so as to be considered distinguishable for most people; accurate labels for all buttons, controls or input fields that require the user to provide information or perform an action; and keyboard accessibility, which requires that all elements that can be operated with a mouse can also be reached and operated using only a keyboard. Also … companies need to make sure their mobile presence is just as accessible as their desktop presence.
PBN: If a company is found not to offer equal access under WCAG 2.1 Level A/AA, what can happen?
TESTA: The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in places of public accommodation. As the rise in website accessibility lawsuits has consistently shown, websites are interpreted under the law as being places of public accommodation … this means websites must be just as accessible as a physical business location for people with disabilities. If a website is not accessible, people are within their rights afforded by the ADA to file a lawsuit.
Judges have determined in plaintiff-favored cases that compliance with WCAG meets an acceptable standard, and conversely that not complying with WCAG can be a violation of people’s civil rights.
PBN: The BoIA just announced a new 24-hours-a-day support line for website users. Can you comment on its value?
TESTA: Clients whose websites we support will now get a dedicated accessibility customer support line, [in which] a live agent is available seven days a week. The beauty of this feature – the first of its kind in the industry – is that website visitors who experience any issues using a website no longer have to wait for their complaint to be reviewed and the page or task to maybe one day be made accessible. Instead, they can talk to a live person 24/7 who will try to help them in real time achieve what they came to the site to achieve. What better way to show customers they’re truly valued?
Companies who secure this coverage may be better protected from accessibility complaints and lawsuits. This is the future of accessibility support and commitment, and a glimpse into the real-time solutions that companies should be offering to their customers.
PBN: Your website mentions that online retail shopping may be the only way some people can access goods and services they need. Is it more important for some industries to be accessible as opposed to others?
TESTA: Accessibility isn’t an industry-specific requirement. There’s a common misconception out there that only government agencies need to meet accessibility standards, or that only websites that directly sell goods and services online need to be accessible. The need to have an accessible web presence applies to all industries and includes the websites of private businesses. Not having the ability to freely learn about a company or its products, apply for a job, learn about sales or promotions, or perform a should-be-simple task of checking out on an e-commerce site can put people with disabilities at a serious disadvantage.
If a company has any doubt as to whether its websites or apps need to be accessible, we recommend they consult us to talk about it. It will always be better to commit to accessibility and begin the necessary remediation process than to let that decision be made for you as a result of a demand letter or lawsuit.
Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.