Episode 015: Accessibility Basics: What is it? Why does it matter? Why should I care?

Hosted by:
With guest: Tony Johnson
January 19, 2018

Mahtab   Welcome to Episode 15 of The Crux of It. I am Mahtab Rezai. I am the Principal and CEO of Crux Collaborative. We are a User Experience Consulting firm specializing in regulated industries, and for this episode, I'm joined by my colleague, Tony Johnson.

Hi, Tony.
Tony   Hey, Mahtab.
Mahtab   All right. So, today we're going to be talking about accessibility at a high level, and we're going to start out by covering some basics and set the stage for us to dig into some of the details and some specifics of how to improve accessibility, things to do around accessibility in future podcast episodes.
Tony   Yeah. Accessibility is something that's been on our radar for quite a few years, but over the last few years, there's been some reasons why it's become a much bigger topic in the industry and something that organizations are willing to invest in.
Mahtab   Yes. So, let's start.

When we say accessibility, what do we mean? What is it all about?
Tony   I think in a nutshell, it means that your website or application is easy to use for somebody with a variety of disabilities. That could be somebody with a vision impairment or hearing impairment, motor disabilities, cognitive disabilities. There's a wide range of things, and there are ways to code your site that could make it impossible, literally impossible, for them to use. And there are ways to make it much easier for them to use. And some of that devil's in the details, but a lot of it starts with the leadership.
Mahtab   And in between, there are ways to code it to make it miserable, but not impossible.
Tony   That's true. There's a wide range.

I thought it might be good just to give a little background. In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act, and then in 1998, it was amended, and this is something that a lot of people have heard of; it's called Section 508. It's a term that gets thrown around a lot, and I don't think many people know, actually what it stands for. It's talking about an amendment to that act that was passed in 1998, and it impacted federal agencies. What it meant is that the electronic communications and information technology that's related to federal agencies had to become accessible at that point, starting in 1998.
Mahtab   So, that's a little bit of great background, because you hear the phrase, "Well, is it 508 compliant?" A lot of people might not know where that comes from.
Tony   That was in relation to federal agencies, and then a couple of years later, in 1990, the Americans with Disability Act was passed. There's a part of that that is called Title III, and that's been the basis for various lawsuits and things like that over the years, mainly in the early years with it. And even, I guess, well over a decade, it was mostly focused on physical structures. So, you may have heard of some small business getting a lawsuit that they didn't have an accessible ramp to enter their store, something like that.

So, that's the way that that law had been interpreted for quite some time. And there has been some sort of rampant litigation, where it's not necessarily in the spirit of what the law was. It was more to cash in on some of those things.

The people who do a lot of that suing have turned their sights to the web now. And there's no clear mandate at this point whether or not the Title III is something that the ADA requires or not for websites, but lots of lawsuits have been settled by companies. Target settled a class action lawsuit. Others have been lost. Winn-Dixie, the grocery store chain, lost one, and then others have been thrown out. So, it's all over the map with that.
Mahtab   The full spectrum right now of how the legal system is dealing with it.
Tony   Exactly, and it hasn't been fully resolved in the courts as far as what does this mean.
Mahtab   But without question, the legal system is dealing with it.
Tony   It is, and the volume of lawsuits has been going up, and it will continue to go up. So, it's not something that's going away.

Now if the Americans with Disabilities Act, just one other note about that, it was sort of a similar thing to the Civil Rights Act. What that said was you can't be discriminated against for a number of reasons, and the Americans with Disabilities Act said you can't be discriminated against if you have a disability, so, the same kind of thing.
Mahtab   So, what's the current landscape like?
Tony   The last thing that has happened with regard to the law and disabilities and how it relates to the web is the Affordable Care Act. In July 2016, the Obama administration issued a rule that said that healthcare organizations who receive funding from the federal government, AKA Medicare, Medicaid, anything like that, which comprises almost all healthcare organizations, needed to provide “meaningful access”, quote, unquote, “meaningful access”, and meet modern accessibility standards.

So, they didn't define it, but they said it has to be that way. So, now we've seen a rush of healthcare organizations looking to avoid being in violation of that rule, and we have really seen sort of a pretty big sea change when it comes to healthcare, insurance companies, and other organizations moving in that direction, which is a great thing, because people with disabilities need to be able to access their-
Mahtab   Yeah, it's funny how sometimes these great things for humanity emerge as a result of fear of consequences for big corporations.
Tony   Absolutely.
Mahtab   So, who measures or assesses whether something is accessible or not accessible to people with disabilities?
Tony   Right, good question. It's measured and assessed on an individual basis. So, each organization may have their own way of doing it, but there is a set of rules that has come to be pretty much a quasi-standard; I guess that's what you'd call it. It was issued by the International Standards Organization for the web. It's called the W3C. Actually, the director is Tim Berners-Lee who invented the world wide web.
Mahtab   So, he might know just a little bit about what he's talking about?
Tony   Yeah, exactly. The issue a lot of guidance when it comes to web standards in a variety of ways, and one of the big ones is their accessibility guidelines. And you can get really in the weeds. It's the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, Version AA that most people see as the quasi-standard.
Mahtab   Let's talk about ... You mentioned people with disabilities, and you gave a few examples at the beginning, but let's get a little bit more specific about who's affected when sites aren't accessible.
Tony   There's sort of this myth of, what is it? A half a percent of your users that have disabilities, is it really worth the investment of your time and the learning curve that you might have and all the other investment that could go into it?

But the numbers are actually more impact than you might expect. As of 2015, 12.6 of citizens in the United States-
Mahtab   12.6%.
Tony   12.6%.
Mahtab   Not 12.6 citizens.
Tony   Not 12.6 citizens, 12.6% of-
Mahtab   We're spending a lot of money on 12 people.
Tony   12.6% of the population, so that's, I don't know.
Mahtab   Yeah. That surprised me.
Tony   If I was to guess before I ever heard that number, it's a lot higher than I would have expected.
Mahtab   I would have guessed 3%.
Tony   Right. And I think some of that might be that we think about users with disabilities mainly being people who are confined to a wheelchair or people who are blind, but there's a wider spectrum than that that are included in that number and who really need this kind of accommodation on the web.
Mahtab   So, let's talk about them.
Tony   Other types of disabilities, it could be somebody who has a motor disability. They are using a special kind of keyboard, maybe to control it with their mouth, or there are keyboards that have larger buttons. And the whole idea of using a mouse like you are used to using is just something that's for a lot of users not really possible to grip and click and all those kinds of things.
Mahtab   I remember several years ago when we had to work on designing sites where we realized, "Oh, we have to make sure that 100% of this can be navigated with a keyboard!" and what a challenge that was the first time we encountered it.
Tony   Right, and that's something that we definitely pay very close attention to now. But the first few times we did it, it was like, "Whoa. This is a lot of little details to keep track of." But it makes a world of difference for somebody like that.

In essence, the whole idea is you build your site so it can serve the most people possible.
Mahtab   Yes, and I think when we think of this list, the other thing we don't think about, but we should is in many cases, this is going to be future us. The more we can build accessible sites, the more as we age and need support with vision, with hearing, with even our grip, and our fine motor skills, the more progress we can help make in that space, the more we are serving the future us.
Tony   Right. I actually noticed that number when I was doing a little bit of prep, so it was 12.6 of the overall population percent who are living with a disability, but once you get over the age of 65, it's 41%.
Mahtab   Substantive. That's why I say future us.
Tony   Big difference.
Mahtab   Yeah, that's a big jump.

So, now that we've handled some of those basics, in future episodes, we can dig into some tactics and some of the why.
Tony   Awesome.
Mahtab   Thank you for listening. Let us know if you have feedback about what we shared or other questions or topics related to accessibility or anything else you'd like us to answer or discuss on the podcast.

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Hosted by: Mahtab Rezai
Principal & CEO

Mahtab has spent nearly two decades as a user experience designer, researcher, strategist, leader, and mentor. She has designed user experiences for companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 50.


With guest: Tony Johnson
Senior Front-End Developer

Tony has spent more than a decade building interactive applications for a wide range of clients – including Fortune 50, public sector, and NGOs. Tony cut his teeth in interactive by managing user experience for the Twin Cities chapter of United Way, and then for Ocean Conservancy in Washington, D.C.
View Tony’s Bio


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