This post is a collaboration between Stephen & Nick, our in-house expert on accessibility for the web.
If you are a hotelier in the US, you know about the explosion of ADA lawsuits, which have increased exponentially over the last 5 years or so. There’s a good chance you’ve already been served by one, or received a demand letter. The situation is putting pressure on travel and hospitality businesses to protect themselves.
If you’re the steward of a business, it’s your job to manage risk and regulatory compliance. For physical spaces, it’s pretty straight forward. You get insurance, and follow existing ADA rules. But digital spaces are more complicated, for several reasons:
- There is no universal definition for accessibility on the web for compliance to ADA rules
- Different states have different rules, depending on how their courts have interpreted existing rules
- ADA rules are outdated, and have not been updated for the web or digital platforms
- The merits of using accessibility software for website compliance, is unclear
It’s good business to accommodate users with disabilities, because it broadens your reach in the marketplace. But the more compelling case for improving accessibility on your website is ethical: users with disabilities should have the same access to the web as non-disabled users.
Why is this distinction important? Because accessibility software only addresses the compliance and risk mitigation, but not the humanitarian part. Ostensibly, accessibility software is there to make a website easier to use for people with disabilities. But whether intentional or not, they actually make it harder for people with disabilities to use websites.
A compelling offer
There are now a bunch of established, venture backed accessibility software companies that promise a quick solution to ADA lawsuits. It’s a really compelling offer. They will fix accessibility issues and remove legal risk in 24 hours, for a small monthly fee. Especially so when you consider the costly alternative of manually fixing a website to conform to the WCAG standards (which is de facto compliance to ADA). Manual remediation costs thousands in fees upfront, months of work, and tedious upkeep. The differences are stark, but how do they compare on the metric of reducing risk and exposure to ADA related lawsuits?
The difference between machine and human remediation
Accessibility software relies on machines to “fix” code that doesn’t conform to ADA rules (note: for brevity, when I say ADA rules I am talking about WCAG’s accessibility standards). A script is installed on a website, and it modifies the code being rendered by the browser to be compliant. This is more nuanced, but the machine remediation doesn’t actually “fix” the accessibility issues on your website. Rather, it uses a machine to make it look like it conforms to the WCAG standards.
Also, there are things that machines simply cannot make compliant, because they require human observation and analysis. Overlays and automated accessibility software can only detect about 50% of accessibility issues. Take images for example – if they are trying to convey meaning, or have a chart or diagram in it – the machines won’t understand it. A compliance checker won’t pick up these nuanced accessibility issues either. Unfortunately, proper remediation of inaccessible code requires human intervention to do properly.
The other benefit of accessibility software are the accessibility overlays. They’re navigational aids intended for disabled users; usually buttons that appear on the top right of the screen. They allow users to change contrast, text size, get voice dictation, etc. They provide features similar to screen readers that disabled users rely on to navigate the web.
And that’s the problem. When users who rely on screen readers (e.g NVDA, JAWS, etc) encounter accessibility overlays, they interfere with their existing, preferred tools. Instead of providing help, they become a hindrance. It tries to replace your preferred navigational aid and its personalized settings that allow every individual to navigate the web in the way that best accommodates their disability.
Accessibility overlays are great in theory, as they are intended to help those with disabilities navigate the web. And they are fine in a pinch to provide legal cover, as a temporary solution. But in practice they are not actually helpful to users with disabilities, and using them as a permanent solution does not reduce legal risk to the business. In fact, they are becoming the reason for these lawsuits, as lawyers target those relying on accessibility software.
Protecting from lawsuits
Accessibility software can be a great solution in limited contexts. It is absolutely better than nothing from a legal standpoint, but the experts on this topic agree that it can only be used as a temporary solution. This is because they don’t protect you from lawsuits.
There have already been over 250 lawsuits filed against companies using these widgets or overlays. Accessibility software companies promise to protect you from lawsuits, but these “guarantees” are diluted in the fine print. They usually rely on insurance to pay damages, which covers up to a maximum amount. It won’t always cover the cumulative legal or more nebulous costs like long term damage to the brand.
Regardless of the users’ preference, tracking is built into accessibility software. This is not readily disclosed to the customer subscribing to the software, or the users on the website. The fact that these companies are now venture backed, means there is a financial imperative to collect data that can be used to further monetize the product, or sold to third parties. There are likely some good reasons why users are tracked, like improving the software or experience. But the problem is that tracking software identifies users. People with disabilities do not want to be identified as disabled, which can be a breach of privacy.
Hopefully I’ve given you some background to better understand the differences between accessibility software and manual remediation. We’ve helped a lot of businesses navigate the minefield of website accessibility, and it’s usually very painful. It’s a complicated subject with low awareness, and the cost of achieving accessibility is high.
Here’s a quick summary to help you decide between accessibility software and manual remediation of a website.
- It’s cheap and quick to implement
- Doesn’t help users with disabilities, interfere with their tools
- They are a temporary solution
- They do not protect you from lawsuits
Manual remediation (fixing code by hand)
- It’s costly and slow to implement
- Helps users with disabilities, works with their tools
- They are a permanent solution
- They protect you from lawsuits (assuming you did it properly and maintain its integrity)
If you need further guidance on accessibility for the web, we’re happy to help.