As accessibility specialists, we work with various businesses, from large national and international corporations to small, local businesses. During our initial consults, we always talk about what, if any, efforts have been made to try and achieve accessibility conformance. During this discovery phase, we uncover both good and bad strategies.
This isn’t meant to slight those charged with making a website or application accessible. Knowing what to do and how to do it is no easy task. Accessibility conformance requires a deep understanding of the laws and standards, the ability to conduct comprehensive testing, and remediating code to achieve true accessibility.
Most of the managers we meet with have tried this independently and struggled. They realize the complexities and nuances involved are beyond the scope of their development teams. Some try and find an easy way out or pursue cost-saving solutions that ultimately fail to prevent lawsuits.
While all efforts seem to be made with the best intentions, I wanted to share some of the most common pitfalls we see managers make in trying to achieve accessibility conformance.
Choosing an Overlay
By far, the most common mistake we see managers make is the choice to use an overlay for accessibility conformance. This is a cheap and easy solution that fails on multiple levels. Sure, the companies that pedal these miracle fixes sound legit by marketing a tool they claim is good for your company and your customers.
Overlays promise accessibility conformance and even assurance that you can’t get sued (I laugh every time at that claim!). Or that a plaintiff won’t have a case if they do. However, overlays are the snake oil of the accessibility world. As we often show our clients, overlays can worsen their websites by adding additional barriers to disabled users.
Good Initiative, Bad Judgement
So why are overlays so popular? After all, a large number of websites and apps use them. Well, the companies that make overlays have been able to raise significant amounts of capital to grow their businesses. Making the web more accessible is a noble cause. Unfortunately, overlay companies prey on that and invest significantly in advertising instead of understanding that accessibility is a human problem that requires a human solution.
How, then, are overlays’ a failure? To answer that requires a blog post all on its own. (Good thing we’ve done those already!) I do want to point out a few things about why overlays fail.
First, they fail to address the real problem, and that is that the underlying code used in the design of the website or app is, in fact, not accessible. That’s why federal judges have repeatedly ruled that overlays fail to comply with or conform to ADA and 508 regulations.
Second, overlays (and website owners) fail to understand that disabled users already have the tools that an overlay offers. This is why enabling most overlay features often makes the website worse for disabled users. They add one more layer of nonsense to an already bad situation.
Ultimately, using an overlay is worse than doing nothing at all. Because this shows a realization on behalf of the website owner that accessibility needs to be addressed and that some manager(s) chose the quick and easy way out. Remember, The ADA is a civil right law; knowingly failing to comply is one thing judges have considered in the past.
Using Only One Testing Tool.
Many of our clients come to us with questions about why the tool they are using is not doing enough to make their website accessible. There are several reasons why this can happen despite using a reliable accessibility tool. To clarify, an overlay is not a reliable accessibility tool. Yet, like most industries, there are tools that companies can use to help developers and managers check and conform with accessibility guidelines and best practices.
Think of it as buying an automotive engine analyzer to self-diagnose your car’s problem. Yes, you will get results and maybe a variety of codes that indicate a problem exists. But do you possess the knowledge and skills to understand the issues and be able to fix them? Not to mention that the analyzer can’t find issues like bald or unbalanced tires. That’s why we rely on professionals and why a DIY approach may not be the best way to prevent a potential legal violation.
Like our automotive example, knowing how to utilize a tool is just half of what you need to fix accessibility issues. Relying on one tool to fix all the problems on your site or app can be problematic because many accessibility issues need to be checked manually. Relying on a single tool can also mean a good chunk of your issues can go undetected. Additionally, many tools are not able to check all WCAG criteria or they only check for one kind of issue.
Tools, Rules, and Confusion – Oh My!
Another reason to avoid relying on a single accessibility tool is that these tools use different rule sets. One tool may miss an issue or trigger a false positive or false-negative result. We use multiple tools with three different rulesets to help identify and track potential problems. Not to mention a combination of tools for manual checking and screen readers to ensure we check from the user’s perspective, just like a mechanic who takes your car out for a test drive to experience and diagnose the problem from the driver’s seat.
Let’s not forget that once you identify potential issues, you still need to understand how to interpret the results and fix the problems. That’s why most of our clients come to us for help. They’ve invested money into a tool they don’t fully understand how to use or how to use the results to guide their remediation efforts.
Yes, some tools are better than others. But we’ve yet to find one tool that can diagnose 100% of issues with 100% reliability. Remember that accessibility is a human problem and requires a human solution. So, thinking that licensing one tool will give you all the insight you need to remediate and achieve conformance will send you down the wrong path.
Relying On Automation for Detection and Remediation
Just as using one tool for all your accessibility testing can be problematic, the same applies to automation. Yes, automated scanning tools can make life easier when there is already a knowledge of standards and how to apply them. Or when using them as a litmus test for a few pages. Yet some of our clients come to us thinking that automated scanning tools also fix problems, which they don’t. They look for code issues. Period.
Any accessibility company worth it’s salt will tell you that automated tools can only detect about 30%-50% of accessibility problems on a page. This is because automated tools are not able to do manual checks. Some tools offer guided tests to check elements like images or buttons. Still, many of our clients struggle with how to answer or flag issues because of all the grey areas regarding the accessibility of digital elements.
While automated checking can be helpful, automated fixing should be avoided at all costs. Relying on AI or algorithms to decide if something should be fixed and how to fix it is a recipe for disaster. The technology is not there yet. This is another reason why overlays fail: how does the overlay know what ALT+Text to add for an image? I’ve seen AI-generated ALT+Text from overlays that aren’t even close to the actual image on a page.
We end up helping managers create an accessibility conformance strategy that includes a combination of manual and automated tools. We also work with them on how to use assistive technology to check their work. This way, we create a more holistic strategy centered around humans for detection, remediation, and checking of issues to ensure the site or app is easy to navigate and use.
Automation is a nice buzzword for executives trained to introduce it in many other business areas. But again, accessibility is a human matter and requires a human approach. The best strategy for achieving accessibility conformance is to embrace the issue and adopt corrective measures throughout the company—more on that in a bit.
Using Off-shore Teams for All Remediation
Another area where we see managers struggle is with relying solely on off-shore resources to make their site accessible. I’m not saying to avoid working with anyone outside of your country. We work with teams from around the globe. However, the problems we see are based on language and interpretation issues and the idea of context.
Those who use assistive technology (like screen readers) do so to engage with and consume content. While technical measures can be taken to ensure those devices work properly, there is also a contextual layer that is sometimes difficult for offshore developers to understand.
Context is Key
A great example is when we deal with images that set the mood or tone of a web page or with images and icons for interactive elements. To be accessible, all of these require descriptions that convey both the context and purpose – in the web page’s language. Generic descriptions often fail to convey the context and purpose of an image or button. Not to mention that grammar and punctuation issues can confuse users when not done correctly within the native language of the reader.
On the development side, we’ve relied on offshore resources for several years to great success. However, some development areas require someone with a close cultural tie, and accessibility is one of them. That’s why when we work with international companies, we always ensure there is someone on the team who can check our descriptions in the native language of the site or app.
Believing Accessibility is a One-time Fix
Although this may be our last point, it is probably the most significant failure a manager can make regarding accessibility. Accessibility conformance cannot be achieved once, completed, and then forgotten. A commitment to accessibility means developing new content in an accessible way and ensuring that compliance is maintained. Running through one project, achieving compliance, and checking the box to move on is not a good strategy.
A good accessibility strategy needs to focus on initial testing and remediation. It also requires cultural adaptation on behalf of the entire enterprise to ensure that it is treated as a priority in the future. A good accessibility initiative should also include a training component. This means training content editors, developers, and designers on accessibility standards, testing tools, and the process to achieve compliance and conformity.
When we speak to managers about holistic approaches to achieving and maintaining conformance, it always includes all the above elements. While each company may have a different approach to accessibility, we strive to help managers make choices that support their team’s success. Your final strategy can differ based on the business that you’re in, what your website or application does, and of course, whom your digital team is comprised of. Regardless, it’s true across the board that accessibility needs to be a part of your digital strategy.
One of the issues with accessibility conformance today is that many managers see it as an option or an added expense. Compliance standards are sometimes greeted with frustration, ignorance, and, quite honestly, a half-assed approach to conforming. Hopefully, over time businesses and managers will understand that accessibility can benefit all of their customers by creating a more positive and user-friendly experience.
Accessibility can be a complex aspect that touches 100% of a website or an application. And all published content must conform to be accessible to all users. Over time, we hope to see more companies investing in in-house teams and resources to ensure compliance. Hopefully, they’ll avoid mistakes like those I’ve outlined above along the way.