Does accessibility legislation work?

I recently read an article by Armando Roggio about the absence of clear US government regulation, which argues that the lack of clarity on what constitutes an accessible website actually leads to web accessibility lawsuits. Armando makes the point that website managers in the US have a need for clear and consistent guidelines that help them avoid such litigation.

Current legislation in most countries require that organisations make reasonable adjustments to ensure that their websites are accessible to people with disabilities. Disability is such a broad term and can mean many things to different people, often leaving business owners confused and open to litigation, even if their intentions have been good. A clearer set of metrics for measuring accessibility can help website owners ensure that at least some level of accessibility has been met.

In the UK, we find ourselves in a similar position. Current legislation in the form of The Equality Act requires a fairly loose and simple mandate that a website user must not be discriminated against because of a disability.

Historically, we don’t have the same level of litigation as seen in the US. Very few cases against website owners have been raised in the UK, and all have been settled out of court, meaning that we have no case law in the UK to set a precedent as to what standards must be met. The UK government suggests that all websites should aim to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA requirements. This advice, and similar suggestions in the laws of other countries, seems to have set the benchmark for sites in the public and private sectors, but is something more needed?

Can accessibility be boiled down to a set of standards?

Our view at Dig is that WCAG 2.0 Level AA conformance is a good starting point. However, since each project is unique, much of the advice that we give is tailored to each client, and we often provide alternative or additional guidance where we feel that it would benefit users or where we feel that even Level AA conformance would not provide enough accessibility for some users.

Even though WCAG 2.0 Level AA conformance is widely accepted as a benchmark for accessibility, we feel that in some ways it’s just not comprehensive enough, and potentially relegates accessibility to a box-ticking exercise that might not meet the needs of all users, or as technology develops. Take mobile devices, for example. In its current form, WCAG 2.0 makes no accommodation for touchscreen devices, setting no minimum size requirement for the buttons you touch with your finger.

Future-proofing a set of standards for fast-paced technology

Technology progresses at such a fast pace these days. Before 2007, for example, nobody really considered developing for mobile devices. The release of the first iPhone in June of that year drove developers to ensure that their work could be viewed on something other than a laptop or desktop computer. Consider that the current set of accessibility guidelines (WCAG 2.0) were written only two years previously – before modern mobile devices were a popular choice for web browsing – and it becomes clear that technology is easily capable of making guidelines obsolete. (Although, for the most part, WCAG 2.0 is still a very useful starting point.)

However, experience shows us that it would be very naive to think that we could predict what technology will bring in the next eight years.

Current use of guidelines as a legal standard

In 2013, the US Department of Transport (DoT) mandated that websites offering transport services within the US must be WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliant. This requirement applies not only to the websites of domestic US service providers, but any other carrier that operates within the US. For example, the UK’s transatlantic airlines Virgin Atlantic (who we work with) and British Airways must meet these requirements.

In our experience, this WCAG 2.0 mandate has proved very effective in initiating change, and our clients have welcomed both the change and our help in providing them with clear guidelines. We think that this has been a very bold and positive step by the US Department of Transport, who have provided a clear set of metrics as part of their regulations, and it would be useful if other governing bodies followed suit.

Future challenges

In WCAG 2.0 we have a very workable set of accessibility guidelines that we can use as a standard for measuring accessibility. These guidelines should be the starting point for any organisation who needs to achieve an inclusive experience for the majority of disabled web users.

We encourage organisations to continue to build content that conforms to WCAG 2.0 Level AA, but also acknowledge that these guidelines are slowly drifting out of date. Working with agencies that have an awareness of current best practice for web development, working knowledge of assistive technologies, and a deep understanding of the needs of end-users is essential for meeting long term accessibility goals.

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