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Digital Accessibility Legislation: What Lawmakers Must Consider

Sep 1, 2017

The purpose of an accessibility bill is to legally enforce the changes organizations must make to do the right thing for the large portion of the population affected by disabilities. However, bills for digital accessibility are complex because they have many aspects to consider and they apply to a constantly and rapidly changing set of technologies.

At present in the U.S.,there is still some legal confusion around digital accessibility requirements, which are based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Revised accessibility requirements are not due to come into effect until 2018.

Organizations are therefore expected to rely on guidance from the Department of Justice through existing case law or through its preferred technical standards, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium. These guidelines provide an effective methodology for organizations to improve the digital accessibility of their products and services and should be included in any legislation.

What Needs to be Included?

Any comprehensive bill covering digital accessibility needs to cover a very broad range of areas. This is evident in one of the more prominent pieces of Canadian legislation that addresses accessibility in the province of Ontario: the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), 2005. It is comprises five different standards that cover the key areas of everyday life. The AODA 2005 standards include:

  • Customer Service
  • Information and Communications
  • Employment
  • Built Environment
  • Transportation

Each one of those standards provides comprehensive coverage of many different aspects and implications for technology. The extensive guidelines, however, meant that each of the standards needed to be progressively implemented over several years, providing organizations with sufficient time to address each of the new requirements covered by the Act.

Digital accessibility bills need to be so diverse because the use of technology in our everyday lives has become so pervasive. We are now able to use our smartphones, equipped with any number of apps, for a huge variety of tasks such as seeking information, purchasing tickets, using public transport, or paying bills. These tasks are essential to modern living, and it is therefore vital that people with disabilities are not prevented from also being able to access that full range of services.

Pay Now or Pay Later

There are also financial implications that lawmakers need to consider. There is no doubt that improving digital accessibility has associated costs. Adding captions to programming or text-to-speech capabilities to websites involves devoting extra funds to those projects. But, organizations should also consider the opportunity cost associated with an inaccessible website preventing a large portion of the population from being able to access a service or participate in a particular market.

As an example, Tesco, the United Kingdom’s largest grocery retailer, spent around £35,000 making their website accessible. Although the changes were originally designed for visually impaired users, the website now attracts a far wider audience than it did when it was not accessible.

This example shows that there are cost implications that operate in both directions — upfront costs to organizations to implement digital accessibility services, as well as longer-term opportunities that can be gained by enforcing accessibility and reaching the largest possible portion of the population in key parts of society.

But there is also another cost consideration: lawsuits . People can look to existing legislation to argue that their needs are not being met by organizations, who should consider them in the design and operation of essential services. Since 2015, there have been more than 250 federal lawsuits filed in the U.S. against various entities regarding accessibility. This highlights the need to have a clear and comprehensive bill that addresses all aspects of digital accessibility at a federal level.

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