UK Web Accessibility Industry - The Way Ahead?
I was in Newbury yesterday, giving a lecture on web accessibility at a meeting held at Exonar, the Information Intelligence people. This was as an introductory talk on the subject, for IT developers, and I was pleased with the level of interest shown by many in the audience.
One of the points I made was that I have seen many more job adverts, this year, specifying accessibility and/or the WCAG (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) in the list of skills required, than I did last year.
A Recent Change
Working, as I do, as a short term contractor, every few months I am back looking at the job boards again for the next contract, so I have noticed this sea change. It is very encouraging.
However, I cannot help but think of an earlier period of contracting in my life, some twenty years or more ago. It was at a time when C was being replaced, on many development sites, by the object oriented C++. Having obtained a year or two's experience in the latter language I was pleased, on several occasions, to be able to answer ads for a contractor with C++, and to land the projects. But I was sometimes not so pleased when I arrived on site and was greeted along the lines of, "Well, err umm, yes we put that in the ad, but we don't actually have any programmers using the language yet, and our programs are all still only in C, and we haven't actually implemented a C++ compiler yet....". And so on and so forth.
They had included C++ in the ad either because that was their wish for the future, or because they wanted to be seen by prospective employees as technologically up to date, but they didn't know how to handle it when a C++ man turned up on the doorstep!
So Are They Real?
So, I wonder, are many of today's job ads, that specify accessibility in the requirements, falling into the same trap as those early C++ ads? Are companies adding in the requirement (often only as a "nice to have" skill anyway), as a sop to standards keepers, and to pretend they are doing what they know they should be doing, but aren't? All mouth and no muscle? I rather suspect, in many cases, that is the reality.
If we look at a related matter, there are all too many commercial websites that have a formal "Accessibility statement" displayed on their website under the Accessibility menu option, but when you actually read that statement it only lists a few of the most basic items that start to make a site accessible to disabled people. And if you further check out those claims (including, usually, their claim to comply with the WCAG), as often as not they are pure pie-in-the-sky! They aren't worth the screen space it takes to display them.
Still, just the fact that companies feel compelled to have an Accessibility statement, and include it as one of the skills in their job ads, is a small step forward. It shows they have mentally marked web accessibility down as something to implement, some time, even if they haven't quite worked out how just yet.
Next thing we know they might, some of them, actually start to put accessibility into practice!
The Legal Case Stateside
Of course, America fares far better in this regard - even though it relies on just Section 508, which is based on the early version 1 of the WCAG. It misses out on may things that are in WCAG 2.0, and that are fundamental to the needs of large groups of disabled people, including the requirement to allow text magnification up to 200% which is used by many more elderly people, quite apart from those actually having a serious sight impairment. Nevertheless America is doing better overall because it has the dreaded class action.
A class action can be applied on behalf of hundreds or thousands of other plaintiffs, purely by association due to the fact that they are all adversely affected by the same problem, even though most of them would not have known beforehand that a law suit was going to be started. And the awards can by millions of dollars, to be shared out among all those in the class action.
But in the UK?
Here in the UK, on the other hand, any law suit in the matter must be mounted by plaintiffs on their own behalf, not in behalf of others. And the immense costs far outweigh the small sums that would likely be awarded because they can only sue for suffering they themselves have experienced due to a company's inaccessible website.
So the only web accessibility cases have been ones (three documented cases) where the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) sponsored an individual's case at law. While that raised awareness of the issues, no case went to court to set any legal precedents, as in each matter the RNIB were able to settle out of court. What did add clarity to the issue, though, was that in all three cases the the defendant company had to agree to upgrade their websites, and those cases are still quoted in the industry many years later. But we still wait for the legal teeth to start gnashing.
What is encouraging is that class actions have recently made an appearance in Britain. They are limited in scope, so far only applying (under the Consumer Rights Act 2015) to consumer law covering inflated price fixing. But this has opened the door, and this kind of lawsuit will very likely be extended to other regulatory matters in the hopefully not too distant future. Then the physically disadvantaged, and those discriminated against due to disability, will at last have some form of legal redress against companies whose whose online services are barred to them.
How soon this will be, we cannot tell. But, when it happens, it will put a shock boost into the web accessibility movement.
A Quicker UK Solution?
Maybe the people we ought to be lobbying, over inaccessible websites, are not the big companies. A victory there, against no matter how large a firm, still simply means that only one company has put its house in order. That served its purpose at the time, and full marks to the RNIB for making the stand.
Today, however, we need to move on. We should be tackling the web design agencies, the ones who are constantly creating newly inaccessible websites for ever more clients. (Some agencies, of course, are way ahead of the game here and produce excellently accessible products - look out for them if you are in the market for a new website. But they are in the minority.)
Pursuade (or shame) a web design agency into correcting their practices and upgrading their clients' sites, and immediately that's dozens, possibly even hundreds of websites made accessible for the price of tackling one company.
And, while I don't claim to be a legal expert by any means, I rather suspect that, one day, some of the clients of these web agencies will start coming back to them to ask why their websites fall foul of the Equality Act. Maybe after they themselves have received queries and complaints from their users or employees.
"You supplied us this website, " they will say, "and, since you are the consultants we come to for guidance, you should know what the law requires. It's your job to tell us these things, not supply a website that does not comply with the law! Now put our site right, without further charge." There could be a lot of that in the future. And if class actions spread through the regulatory world clients of web design agencies could one day be having a ball!
All of us in the accessibility industry should be pointing out to these web agencies the risks they are running. That ordinary businesses are unaware of, or unsure how to comply with, discrimination law as it applies to websites is totally understandable. That web design agencies should carry on without caring about it in the slightest is utterly reprehensible. It brings shame on the entire industry.
A little action on our part to encourage web agencies to consider their position might move the whole industry on very considerably down the right path.