Color & Control:

Large companies and digital accessibility

One of my biggest frustrations

By Samuel Proulx

Online accessibility is not a new thing. In fact, it’s been a part of the conversation about inclusion for over 15 years.

Both the United States and the European Union have had strong accessibility laws for a long time. In Canada, many provinces have passed accessibility laws and the CRTC has been requiring accessibility of the industries it regulates for quite some time. And now we have the Accessible Canada Act. So, with all this policy, why aren’t digital experiences more accessible?

It’s easy to make excuses for small businesses. Accessibility can take a little more time and money and require expertise that small business owners may not have on hand. However, it’s much more difficult to understand why some of the largest companies in Canada still have websites that often create barriers for the one in five Canadians with a disability. Fable, the company I work at, along with Siteimprove, a company that helps organizations manage and optimize their websites, surveyed Canadians with disabilities to learn more about challenges in this new digital-first reality. It was clear that many face similar issues accessing websites.

In this article, I’ll highlight some of the most frequent problems with large company websites based on my lived experience as a blind person. I’ll go over what the problems are, and some of the reasons I believe this keeps on happening.

The deal we just can’t get
There’s a cell phone company with a great new promotion on the latest device, and a wonderful, short-term discount offering more data for less dollars—if only I could read the inaccessible image explaining the deal. A local chain restaurant offers free food delivery—if only I could order using their inaccessible app. It’s the grocery chain with a sale flyer and loyalty points—if only I could use the inaccessible coupon service to redeem the offer.

Over, and over, and over again, when the deals come around, Canadians with disabilities are left out. Every day marketing departments put up new ads on their company websites with no alt-text, a call to action that can’t be activated with the keyboard, or a close button invisible to screen readers.

Why? Because of the way many large companies think about accessibility. There’s a common belief that doing an audit, using a checklist like the one from WCAG (Web Content and Accessibility Guidelines), every few years is good enough. Companies pride themselves on employing a subject matter expert in accessibility to coordinate their efforts, failing to realize that one individual can’t single-handedly influence every activity across all divisions and departments. At best, in this role, a subject matter expert can become an influencer, teacher and coach who shares their knowledge with marketing and digital teams.

To make sure websites are built to be accessible and stay accessible, even during promotions and other fast-moving events, accessibility must be built into all design and development projects. It needs to be recognized and owned by everyone, throughout the company as part of a broader goal.

The customer support team that can’t help us
It’s an experience far too common. We may be contacting support to ask if a movie has audio description, if a venue is accessible for a wheelchair, if captions will be available at an event, or we’re calling to report an accessibility problem we’re having with a product. Unfortunately, the person at the other end has never heard of audio description, doesn’t know if their location is wheelchair accessible, has no idea who to ask about captions, and hasn’t a clue where a frustrated customer can send his or her accessibility feedback.

If we’re lucky, we might be able to hunt around and find an accessibility policy on the company’s website and buried somewhere there might be a contact email for accessibility related issues. One thing’s for sure, most customer service personnel don’t have a clue. And companies tend to think about “publishing an accessibility policy” as an item on a checklist, rather than the first step on a journey towards integrating accessibility into the values, culture, and processes of the company.

The update that doesn’t work
Yesterday, the website was accessible. Yesterday, the app worked just fine. But every person who lives with a disability will have experienced the plummeting feeling that comes from opening an app or website they need to use only to find its suddenly inaccessible. Is the company aware of the issues? Where can we provide feedback about our problems? And when will it be fixed… tomorrow, next week, or next month and by who? In the meantime, we’re left stranded.

As I see it…..
1)If accessibility isn’t considered as part of regular quality assurance tests, errors that could break the experience for large numbers Canadians will occur. 2) If a company doesn’t regularly test and get feedback on its websites and apps from assistive technology users, it is at risk of losing business. Plus, it has no idea what kind of experience it’s creating for us. 3) If accessibility isn’t considered during the design and rollout of new features and interfaces, accessibility features will frequently break or be degraded for extended periods of time until potentially expensive fixes can be completed. 4) It’s not just about making sure apps and websites are accessible when they’re first created. It’s about guaranteeing a process to “stay accessible” through years of updates.

Once this happens, the over 20% of Canadians who live with a disability and their families will be able to participate online more meaningfully. This will not only lead to increased opportunities for “accessibility smart” businesses but it’ll generate better products, that are easier to use, more customizable, and flexible enough to adapt to the needs of every Canadian, disabled or not.

Samuel Proulx is the Accessibility Evangelist at Fable, a leading accessibility platform powered by people with disabilities.

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