Ethical dilemmas behind web accessibility compliance

‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a British drama film about a 59-year old widower who worked hard all his life but became unemployable following a sudden heart attack. In order to keep the roof over his head Daniel had to make a claim for employment allowance at the local Job Centre. Despite Daniel’s inability to fill in the online form without help, he is given no alternative ways of completing this application because UK government services are ‘digital by default’.

This heartbreaking scene is a stark illustration of how the internet has become an integral part of our lives, whether we like it or not. We use websites and mobile apps for studying, banking, shopping, booking holidays, registering to vote, staying in touch with friends and family, and so much more. A day without the Internet is hard to imagine. Often we use online services not as a matter of personal preference but simply because that’s the only sensible way to complete a task quickly and efficiently. Isn’t it reasonable to expect that everyone in our society should be able to do the same without too much difficulty?

What is web accessibility?

Web accessibility is a practice which enables people with disabilities and other barriers to use the Internet. Web accessibility also benefits other users, for example older people, non-native speakers and people accessing websites on small screens.

What is WCAG?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG; pronounced ‘wuh-kag or ‘double-u-kag’) are published by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and consist of a number of criteria that need to be satisfied for a website to be accessible. The first version of WCAG guidelines was published in 1999, and the most recent version WCAG 2.1 which is the current best practice, was published in 2018.

One of the most well understood examples of web accessibility criteria is the WCAG 2.1 criterion 1.1.1 stipulating that all images should have a descriptive ‘alt’ text attribute specified. Alt text enables blind users to access the description of the image using a screen reader. Without the description, a blind user will not understand the purpose of the image.

Web accessibility issues

The most common accessibility issues today are:

  • Non-responsive design
  • Inconsistent navigation
  • Image sliders and carousels
  • Content presented as images
  • Privacy notices and cookie banners difficult or impossible to get to using a keyboard
  • Inaccessible Word and PDF documents

Web accessibility legislation

Web accessibility legislation is different in different countries.

  • In the United States, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, and applies to businesses, government institutions, and non-profit organisations. Section 508 specifically covers government websites and online services.
  • In Europe, The EU Web Accessibility Directive came into force in September 2018, requiring all public sector websites and applications to implement, enforce and maintain accessibility standards.
  • In Australia, the main web accessibility law is the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

WCAG guidelines are widely respected as providing a path to legal accessibility compliance, and are often referenced in web accessibility law.

Businesses involved in the most notable recent legal cases around web accessibility are:

  • Domino Pizza
    A blind man was unable to order a customized pizza using a screen reader on Domino’s Pizza website and mobile app.
  • Beyonce
    A visually impaired woman claimed that she couldn’t access key features of Beyoncé’s website because it didn’t meet accessibility standards.
  • Harvard
    Harvard websites failed to make their video content (including courses and open lectures) accessible to people who are deaf.

The majority of legal cases to date involve visually impaired users, however in meeting web accessibility requirements you should always cover all types of disabilities: visual, auditory, cognitive and physical.

Roles and responsibilities

Website accessibility is fundamentally an ethical responsibility shared between:

  • Business owner;
  • Web accessibility specialist with technical and legal expertise;
  • Content editor;
  • Web developer;
  • Tester.

In large organisations these roles can be owned by teams or departments.

Business owner is accountable for web accessibility compliance from legal point of view. Accessibility specialist is responsible for conducting web accessibility audit, monitoring the levels of compliance and advising the web developer and content editor what actions to take. Some of the WCAG guidelines such as ‘consistent and predictable navigation and user experience’ are open to interpretation. It is the job of the accessibility specialist to consult with the business owner, interpret legislation and provide the necessary advice to the web developer, tester and content editor.

Ethical dilemmas

Although some businesses leave web accessibility to web developers, it is a mistake to see it purely as a technical exercise. Below are three ethical dilemmas that require high level decision-making.

  1. Challenge 1: Web accessibility by design vs fixing in place
    Many digital agencies specialising in web accessibility offer packages of work essentially consisting of applying ‘accessibility fixes’. Under the pressure to make a website compliant by a certain date, organisations may be tempted to accept this approach as a short term solution to their regulatory problem. Accessibility fixes may reduce the risk of being sued, but they achieve little to establish long-term compliance where accessibility is built into business processes by design. There is a very real danger that these fixes will not survive your next code release or software upgrade.
  2. Challenge 2: Abandoned, legacy websites
    Government and non-profit organisations often own web content that is no longer actively maintained due to staff turnover or lack of funding. For example, it is not unusual for a university research project website to outlive its content owners. In the cases where there’s no money and no staff available to upgrade the website to meet accessibility requirements, is it better to shut it down or leave as is (in its admittedly inaccessible format) for the benefit of the academic community? That’s not a question that a developer can answer.
  3. Challenge 3: Disproportionate burden
    In some cases the cost of meeting accessibility requirements is unreasonably prohibitive. For example, many large organisations own a huge number of old PDF documents. Making all of them accessible to screen reader software is too expensive, but converting some of them to accessible PDFs upon request as well as producing any new PDFs in an accessible way in the future is feasible. Assessing whether a specific situation falls under ‘disproportionate burden’ terminology is a business decision, not a technical one.  

Despite many challenges, web accessibility is an integral part of developing websites that make the Internet a better place. Prioritising accessibility benefits everyone. Accessible websites are often impactful, easy to use and inspire trust. Accessible code is cleaner code, so an investment in accessibility is an investment in more reliable, future-proof underlying technology. Everyone who owns a website has a legal obligation and a moral duty to achieve and maintain accessibility compliance.