Digital Accessibility Year in Review: 2020

January 8, 2021

There was a lot of change and disruption in 2020, but the digital accessibility world was not put on pause. From the work-from-home revolution to a new version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines underway, here's a review of this past year in digital accessibility.

COVID made access to timely information and resources beyond critical, but most wasn't accessible

Way back in the first week of March, we asked, What on Earth Does the Coronavirus Have to Do with Digital Accessibility? Before anyone could have predicted the lasting global impact, we started to question:

  • Are companies prepared for remote work for all employees, or just those without disabilities that change the way they use the web?
  • Is access to services and information available to all people, or just those without disabilities that change the way they use the web?

The months since have proven, unfortunately, that accessibility as both a result of COVID-19 and information directly related to COVID-19 has not met the level it needs to.

Quickly, it became clear that COVID-19 information was going to be very visual, taking the form of dashboards, infographics, charts, and graphs. Statistics, trackers, restrictions, and constantly-evolving health and safety news started to be produced and never really stopped. For as long as that's the case, it's important and potentially life-saving that visual information is supported with text alternatives, that colors meet minimum contrast ratios and don't convey meaning on their own, and that everything is functional with keyboards and assistive technology.

Of course, impacts on people with disabilities weren't limited to digital content.

As the economy started to reopen the first time back in June, we talked with Esubalew Johnston, who is blind, about the impacts to his day-to-day activities. We talked, for example, about how stores and governments were adding new rules and social distancing guidelines, often communicated through purely visual means, like stickers on the floor and printed signs. Mr. Johnston acknowledged that it was a tough new time for businesses, but shared that he faces new types of exclusion as a result.

It's one of the most frustrating parts for me, but I would say most of society thinks we just stay home and have caretakers and we're just hermits. They see the cane and nothing else.

There is a cloud, that stigma, that hangs over us. People think that because we can't see, we don't have a life. That's just crazy to me.

Moving through this period, we ask everyone who creates information related to the health crisis to consider accessibility.

School websites flunked accessibility

Automated testing revealed significant accessibility issues on the websites of some of the nation's most highly-rated elementary schools and some of New York's largest high schools. At a time when their websites were more important than ever for students and their families, many schools did not receive very good report cards.

Almost half of the checkpoints tested failed on the elementary school sites, while nearly two-thirds of the checkpoints were failed by the New York public high school sites. We also found that several of the websites scanned were using add-ons or overlays, which are known to not make a website accessible. Moving forward, schools are encouraged to plan for accessibility as soon as possible and to address accessibility issues directly, instead of relying on problematic overlays.

Working from home took on a whole new meaning — and new accessibility importance

By August it became evident that at least some companies were considering how far out they should push the return to the physical office, some questioning if they ever would. We put it then as we'll put it now: accessibility needs a front seat as the list of companies extending work from home grows. Here's why:

It was one thing when companies had to pivot almost instantly and without notice to employing a remote work force. The accessibility of electronic systems and information didn't receive the attention and planning it should have in the first roll-out, but this was new and jarring, and it's possible that many people had higher tolerance and expanded patience. However, with the calculated commitment to extend work-from-home arrangements for a long time, or forever, employees should expect an equal commitment to accessibility.

In October, Microsoft announced employees can work from home permanently, and there are a few reasons to think this move could be particularly important for accessibility:

  • Microsoft employees themselves will need to be connected and engaged.
  • More than half of Microsoft's employees serve in an engineering function, which should suggest they have the pieces in place for more of the emerging breakthroughs they're already known for.
  • The world might benefit from solutions Microsoft initially creates for its own employees.
  • Inclusion and accessibility done right could force other tech companies to follow or miss out.
  • Flexible work schedules and locations have accessibility implications, work-related and more broadly.

Lawsuits against recognizable names, and thousands others, continued

There probably shouldn't be confusion on this by now, but in case there is, accessibility-related lawsuits seem here to stay and they are affecting every industry.

Early in the year, an adult website was sued by a New York man over the lack of closed captioning in videos. Captions present the audio portion of a video in text, and with their alleged absence, that information would have been unavailable to the plaintiff and others who are deaf.

A settlement that was reached, also related to captions, that got a lot of attention was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) case. That settlement was the result of a suit filed back in 2015; however, thousands of new lawsuits were filed in 2020, as well.

Companies hit with demand letters might have spent billions of dollars in legal fees

In a report published by Accessibility.com, they estimated an alarming 265,000 website accessibility demand letters were sent to businesses last year. It's an astounding figure because if it's correct or close to correct, companies could have spent literally billions in legal costs as a direct result.

Businesses are strongly encouraged not to wait for a demand letter to get an accessibility plan in motion. Most likely, companies would have to fix their websites anyway, but getting ahead of a demand letter could help them do it on their time and potentially save a lot of unnecessary legal expense.

CCPA requires accessible notices and policies

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) went into effect in 2020, with regulations clarifying that businesses have to make privacy and opt-out information accessible. The CCPA recommends WCAG 2.1 as a way make the online notices "reasonably accessible to consumers with disabilities."

Businesses subject to CCPA requirements have to provide California consumers what personal information of theirs is collected, shared, and used, along with the ability to delete that information and opt-out. Supporting notices and policies have to be accessible, under the law.

WCAG 2.2 drafts indicate enhancements coming soon

In February, the first public draft of WCAG 2.2 was published, followed by the much more detailed second WCAG 2.2 draft made available in late summer. As of now, there are nine new success criteria that would be included in WCAG 2.2:

  • Accessible Authentication
  • Dragging
  • Findable Help
  • Fixed Reference Points
  • Focus Appearance (Minimum)
  • Focus Appearance (Enhanced)
  • Hidden Controls
  • Pointer Target Spacing
  • Redundant Entry

There is also an expected change to an existing success criterion, making 2.4.7 Focus Visible a Level A conformance requirement (currently Level AA). We're expecting more movement on WCAG 2.2 this year.

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