Addressing Accessibility: Shifting From Defensive to Proactive

It was during one of our weekly marketing calls last summer when a client matter-of-factly posed a surprising question: "Accessibility, how do we make sure we don't get sued?"

It was clear she was stressed by the prospect of potential accessibility lawsuits—concerns shared by businesses across industries amid a sharp rise in Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) Title III cases. 2019 was a record-breaking year for online accessibility lawsuits in the United States, with California generating the most federal suits. She wanted to make sure, and rightfully so, that her company’s website was bulletproof in meeting the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to avoid website complaints from her customers. 

Other clients joined the chorus, asking how they could protect their reputations and eliminate the risk of ADA lawsuits.

In response, we formed an internal compliance team, consisting of our designers and led by Morey Creative Studios President Jon Sasala.

“In order to best serve our clients, our design team knew we needed to educate ourselves on the ins-and-outs of ADA compliance,” said Morey Creative Studios designer Yelena Mirsakova. “We needed to develop a comprehensive understanding of the steps that had to be taken and were excited to dive in. That’s how our weekly WCAG meetings began.”

Each week, we’d select a criteria point, spend hours independently researching and testing compliance solutions, and then share our collective findings with the team during our Friday ADA compliance meetings.

By week three, however, the enthusiasm had been replaced by defensiveness. We were faced with the tough truth that the way we had been doing things for years wasn’t always the best for all users. Choices we made, from font size or color we had selected or how we structured our code behind the scenes (things we had never seriously considered from the point of view of a user with a disability), now had to be dissected and reworked entirely. How could we wrap our minds around all these new “rules” with an expert-level understanding, and still manage to do amazing work as designers? The temptation to maintain the status quo and do the easy thing, to quietly ignore criteria that felt too difficult to meet, felt understandable. Maybe that partly explains why more than 70% of ecommerce, news, and information websites have significant accessibility issues.

It was around this point that Sasala, our president, said something that forced us all to pivot.

“We can’t look at accessibility as protecting against something bad, but rather creating something really great,” he said. “Making the web a better place. It won’t always be perfect, and we will make mistakes along the way, but we’ll get there.”

The shift in mindset was huge. As designers, we were no longer approaching accessibility as too daunting a task, something to be feared and stressed out about—but rather an incredible opportunity to ensure that web users across the board had access to great online experiences.

"Buggy websites are bunk. We've all been there. You click the submit button and nothing happens. The page won't scroll. You click it again and again. Turns out you submitted the form a dozen times. These are the frustrating experiences we've all had online," says Sean Bradley, president and chief strategy officer of the web accessibility software AudioEye.

"When websites aren't coded for accessibility," he continues, "this is the user experience for individuals with disabilities and especially those relying on assistive technologies to engage and interact with the digital world. But the issues are much more pervasive. The impact is much more severe. It can truly impede one's ability to access. As you can imagine, the level of frustration is exponential. It's an injustice."

We recognized that we don’t have to sacrifice our creative freedoms when designing for accessibility. Sure, we have to be more aware of how assistive technologies work, but that just becomes part of our brief when approaching any online project.

Through our six-month process developing our WCAG guide, we re-learned that accessibility is about ensuring equality and human rights, not preventing lawsuits. It’s about people, not companies.

"Let’s take today, a day created to raise awareness about digital accessibility," adds AudioEye's Bradley, "to commit to an equitable online experience for users of all abilities."

Join us as we celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and try to bring attention to the challenges facing many users. Please share this post and celebrate the opportunity to make the internet a more inclusive place.