Web Accessibility – The Law and The Opportunity

“What are my legal obligations in (the UK, Ireland, Australia, or the US) regarding web accessibility?” This or some variation of it is one of the most common questions heard in this business. If positive publicity and increased business together make “the carrot”, as it were, questions of legal responsibility or vulnerability to litigation make up “the stick”.
It would be nice if companies would make their web presence as accessible as possible to those with handicaps just because modern technology makes it possible or because they feel it’s the right thing to do but that just isn’t the world we find ourselves in. The carrot and the stick guide most of our decisions.
So what does the law say?
Well, in most of the English speaking world as well as the EU a company or organization providing information, a service or selling something must make “a reasonable effort” to make their sites accessible. But this reasonable effort is the stickler. It’s something which defies easy or absolute definition. One could interpret it to mean that just about any nod toward website accessibility could suffice, but that attitude could prove dangerous. As web owners and developers become more educated about this issue it seems more likely the bar defining “reasonable” will rise.
It is becoming common knowledge that accessibility need not compromise a site’s visual style nor need it increase the cost of development or maintenance much. It therefore becomes harder to defend a low minimum accessibility standard – in the boardroom and in the courtroom.
Think of it as something similar to sexual harassment law, policy, and response. There was a time when the concept of workplace sexual harassment was not broadly understood or known in the professional world. It had to be argued that it existed, was a problem, and required positive action in a workplace becoming more modern and diverse. Some companies were quicker to understand and adopt policies and to understand that they weren’t written in stone but need to be adaptable in an ever changing environment. Some went further and sought ways to take advantage of the changes, to embrace them. Other companies held more old fashioned attitudes and only faced up to necessary change after expensive litigation. In 1950, for instance, I very much doubt even the most forward looking advocates of gender rights would have predicted attitudes held today by most professional women and men alike regarding fairness in the workplace, what contributes to a hostile working environment, and the various other related issues. And I also doubt that same advocate would have predicted that fear of lawsuits and bad publicity associated with them now make most firms very pro-active in their sexual harassment policy. Once again – education followed by carrot and stick.
We are now in a time when companies, governments, and the general public are becoming aware of website accessibility issues – some faster, some slower. It is a time when technology, for the first time in human history, is making information available to people with a broad range disabilities. For instance the blind can now “read” the daily newspaper online without assistance, they can research vacation packages, comparison shop for good and services, and hold jobs which only a couple years ago would have been inaccessible. The laws and attitudes concerning what is necessary to help those people access that information are certain to evolve and as with gender issues a few decades ago – the companies who accept and even embrace these new developments the fastest will reap the most benefits. And, I suspect, there will be plenty of firms which refuse to understand either the necessities or the opportunities presented in these changing and exciting times. The ones who today stay fixated by questions of law and obligation are really asking about minimums. And they will have to continually asking that question instead it looking for how best to profit from new opportunities.
Web accessibility testing and design obviously helps people who might otherwise find a task difficult or impossible. But it also helps make a website easier for everyone by forcing designers to be more thoughtful and present information and functionality as clearly as possible. But more importantly by embracing the idea of web accessibility for all it helps one be more creative, to think “outside the box”. And that is where we will find the greatest rewards. It’s a mistake to dwell on the minimum effort required to stay on the good side of the law or to avoid litigation. It’s far more fruitful to meditate on how best to capitalize on opportunities presented by web accessibility.

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