More now than ever, accessibility has become the top of mind for any organization. The Canadian Survey on Disability revealed that 22 per cent of Canadians–or over 6.2 million people–over the age of 15 has or had a disability. The four most common types include pain-related immobilization, flexibility, mobility, and mental health-related.
Additionally, 5.4 per cent of Canadians have a seeing disability. It’s most prevalent in the elderly age bracket: almost 10 per cent of people 65 and older have trouble with vision. Of those with a seeing disability, 84 per cent use one or more aids or assistive devices.
But the age at which people feel limited by their vision problems is much younger. The survey pinned 43 as the average age when a person begins to feel limited by their vision impairment. And although 85 per cent of survey participants say they have all their vision-related aids met, more can be done to push that number higher, especially in digital and online accessibility.
If it wasn’t hard enough for these people before, the covid pandemic exacerbated the issue. Online shopping, digital banking, and even healthcare have moved from in-person meetings to on-screen. The shift caused online conferencing, remote desktops, and various other technologies to surge. Thus, the need to improve digital accessibility has never been higher.
Simon Dermer, executive chairman of accessibility compliance organization eSSENTIAL, contrasted the urgency between then and now. Further, he highlighted the historical lack of urgency among leadership positions, and that translated to a constrained budget for the staff responsible for improving accessibility.
“Even within the organizations that did have the buy-in and were trying to do it, they were hamstrung by the legacy type approaches, the failed models,” said Dermer. “And those failed models were informed by the fact that 10, 15 years ago, you built a website, you felt like your work was done and you’re never gonna build another one. It was like building a house, it was there for 100 years.”
Whereas organizations could get by with a half-baked digital accessibility plan before, it’s no longer an option in today’s evolving digital landscape.
“You could maybe bring in a consultant, who would look at it and give you some advice, and you could do some fixes, and it was all static, that legacy approach just does not work anymore,” said Dermer.
“Now, it’s a lot different. You’ve got multiple digital assets: they’re dynamic, constantly changing. You don’t fire your digital team, your digital teams actually growing. So there’s a recognition now that this [accessibility] has to be embedded in the development process because this is very fast-moving.”
What’s being done about it?
Given the scale of the problem, the Ontario provincial government introduced the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in 2005.
As part of the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR), AODA attempts to target these key areas:
- Customer service standard
- Information and communication standard
- Employment standard
- Transportation standard
- Design of public spaces standard
Since 2019, all businesses and non-profit organizations with 20 or more employees and designated public-sector organizations must submit accessibility compliance reports. The deadline for 2021 was June 30. Following the June 30 deadline, the certificate must be renewed every three years and every two years for critical public sector organizations.
Organizations that aren’t AODA compliant can face harsh financial penalties up to and including a fine of CA$100,000 per day. Moreover, people in key leadership positions can be fined up to $50,000 per day.
Despite the urgency and the ongoing call for accessibility, nearly 98 per cent of the one million most popular web pages have detectable accessibility issues, as revealed by a comprehensive evaluation by WebAIM. The study used criteria outlined in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Overall, the one million pages produced 51.4 million high-impact accessibility errors.
Most of these errors are easily addressable but are hidden in plain sight. For example, over 86 per cent of home pages in February 2021 had low contrast text. Over 60 per cent of images also lacked alternative texts that described their functions. Other common issues include empty links, missing document languages, and buttons that point to nowhere.
The situation is exacerbated by the web’s rising complexity. Today, an average modern home page contains 887 elements. These the divs and blocks that constitute a website’s content and layout. WebAIM’s study found that 5.8 per cent of all home page elements tripped the accessibility error threshold. In other words, users with disabilities would encounter a visible error on one in every 17 home page elements.
But navigating the compliance poses many challenges for many IT professionals. AODA compliance is time-consuming, and while many have the technical competency to achieve it, they simply lack the time to file through the law’s nuances. The Wave Website accessibility evaluation tool provides a quick, non-exhaustive view of a website’s accessibility.
Breaking down the penalties
In a report, Anneli LeGault, a partner of Denton law firm, explained that enforcement isn’t based on complaints. Rather, the whole motion is to encourage education and outreach of issues surrounding digital accessibility.
However, the government will perform audits on select companies based on risks and the submitted accessibility report. Companies that fail to submit a report are much more likely to be audited. The government will also perform random audits on fully compliant companies.
When an organization is found to be non-compliant, they can negotiate a Return to Compliance Plan that details the commitments to bring the service up to par. Further failures will involve an inspector ad penalties depending on the severity of the fault.
Some simple tips
Of course, improving accessibility is a perpetual effort. It’s almost impossible to be 100 per cent compliant. But even small fixes can greatly improve user experience.
Most infractions are caused by smaller errors: missing links, empty buttons, and missing alt tags accumulate in a snowball-like fashion. But above all, low contrast text is the most common issue, affecting 86.4 of the top one million websites.
|WCAG Failure Type
|Percentage of home pages in February 2021
|Percentage of home pages in February 2020
|Percentage of home pages in February 2019
|Low contrast text
|Missing alternative text for images
|Missing form input labels
|Missing document language
WCAG conformance as outlined by WebAIM.
It’s in everyone’s interest to improve accessibility. Accessibility Canada estimates that people with disabilities spend about $25 billion annually across Canada.
There were notable differences in accessibility errors for sites in different categories. Home pages in the Food & Drink category were most improved since 2020 with errors reduced from 66.1 to 46.8 errors on average.
But things are getting better, especially in Canada. Overall, Canadian domains saw a nearly 40 per cent reduction in errors. Furthermore, the Accessible Rich Internet Applications format, a set of attributes for coding applications to make them accessible, is being adopted faster than ever. In its evaluation, WebAim found that 68.1 per cent of the million pages use ARIA, amounting to a staggering 47,883,732 attributes, a 25 per cent increase in just one year.
For the full WCAG guideline, refer to the full document.