You can find anything on the internet. You can watch videos that teach you to code, listen to podcasts that keep you up-to-date on politics, and shop for almost anything, from a home to a vacation to a course on Facebook Ads. But that’s not true for everyone. For many people with a disability or impairment the internet is full of barriers without a ramp in sight. For companies, their websites can be that barrier. Ian Lowe, of eSSENTIAL Accessibility is here to show us how to make our sites accessible, compliant, and ultimately, more successful.
Rich: My guest today is the Chief Marketing Officer for eSSENTIAL Accessibility, the leading digital accessibility solution provider. He brings 20 years of growth focused technology marketing experience, 10 of which have been in the digital experience space. Prior to Essential Accessibility, he was the VP of marketing at Crownpeak, as well as senior director of global marketing operations at Sitecore, both leading players in the digital experience platform market.
Today, we’re going to be talking about how to ensure that your website is accessible to all your potential customers, with Ian Lowe. Ian, welcome to the podcast.
Ian: Hi, Rich. It’s great to be here. Thank you very much.
Rich: So, how did you personally get drawn into the accessibility space?
Ian: Well, as you mentioned in the intro, I’ve been in digital experience for quite some time. And when you’re making digital experiences and you’re making websites, you always have to be at least somewhat aware of digital accessibility. I think like a lot of people, I knew that we should be making experiences accessible, but it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.
And then earlier this year, eSSENTIAL Accessibility reached out to me and we started having conversations. And the more I learned about the space, the more interesting it became to me. And it’s really about how do we, as purveyors of experiences, when we’re trying to market and connect to people in this most important channel – digital – these days, how do we make sure that everybody’s able to hear our message? That everybody is able to enjoy the experiences we’re creating. To work with the stores that we built to just be able to read and engage in the content, whatever that is. And that’s really what got me interested in it and understanding the depth of the problem, the interesting ways that we have to solve the problem. And ultimately, it’s extending what I’ve been doing for the last 10 or 12 years, helping people deliver digital experiences, but making sure everybody gets to enjoy.
Rich: All right. So talk to me for a minute about what does eSSENTIAL Accessibility do? What’s their role, your role, in the process? Do you don’t build accessible websites yourself, do you?
Ian: No, that’s absolutely right. We don’t. We help organizations that are creating these digital experiences. You can think of us as the sort of trusted experts who come in with a technology and a platform and a managed services to help organizations through every phase of achieving digital accessibility. It’s actually a fairly complex environment when you first start getting into it. It’s one of those things where on the surface it’s, I just have to make sure that this works for every user. And then the more detailed you get, the more complicated it can seem as you kind of pull back the layers of the onion, so to speak. We often talk about how digital accessibility is kind of this convergence of technological issues, of human issues, of legal issues, simultaneously. And we can get into that in more detail.
But our job is to make this as simple as possible for every business out there. How do we tell you where you’re at from a digital accessibility standard? What do people who have disabilities or people who are using assistive technologies, what did they experience when they use your website? And what you should be doing about it. What priorities should you be addressing issues? And heaven forbid you get a demand letter or a litigation, how should you respond to it? We’re not anybody’s lawyers, but we have the deep expertise to help you understand what is that demand letter about, what are some strategies to respond to it, what your next step should be.
And so you’d take all that together, the technology, the managed services, and the legal expertise, and we bring that all together in a box we call ‘accessibility as a service’, as advisors to the business and to the developers of the experience.
Rich: So you just hit on something that is of interest to me. And that’s the legal side of things. You know, a lot of people do this because they want to do the right thing. Other people do this because they want to be able to reach the widest audience. And some people do it because they get a letter from a lawyer. I’ve had a few of our clients and other businesses I’m connected to over the years who get a letter, that all of a sudden either they’re in hot water or somebody in their industry has gotten into hot water. So in America – I know you’re up in Canada – in the U.S. we have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I’m sure you have something similar up there. According to the ADA, we’re actually supposed to have accessible websites that anybody can use. What are some of the legal ramifications or problems people might run into if they don’t take this serious?
Ian: Yeah. Yeah, I can walk you through it. And just so you know, I happen to be Canadian, but our company, we do most of our business in the United States, most of our staff is in the U.S. So we’re very familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act. So what actually happened was about two or three years ago a user who was trying to order a pizza off Dominos.com, this person happened to be blind and was unsuccessful in ordering the pizza. And he decided to sue about it under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
What’s interesting about the ADA is it was signed into law in 1990. It itself does not refer at all to digital accessibility, to websites, anything like that. However, this person sued, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court said, yeah, there’s this nexus, there’s this connection between the digital world and the physical world of acquiring the pizza and you can’t discriminate. And basically, yeah, the ADA applies in the digital world. There’s also been, the Department of Justice has made a number of findings. There’s been a lot of private lawsuits. But it opened up the world to private enforcement. And that’s why there’s so much litigation. Accessibility.com last year estimated there was 265,000 demand letters in the United States around ADA accessibility.
And what ultimately happens, where people kind of run astride is essentially this issue about, can you order the pizza. Is somebody who is using assistive technology, is somebody who is a member of a disabled community able to go through the steps. That the site is there for the ‘public accommodation’ is the phrase that’s used in the ADA Title III. Are they able to get access to these goods? What often happens is, people have not considered if somebody is using a screen reader, is every button on this site going to announce itself properly.
So we just saw a lawsuit a couple of months ago, for example, where the shopping cart icon on the desktop, everything was flying, because the shopping cart icon actually said ‘shopping cart’. And then the screen reader was able to say, “Hey, this is what it is.” But then on mobile, it reduces the size on mobile. It condenses it and that text disappeared, and all of a sudden it no longer announced what the button was about. So that’s a problem. You’re discriminating, somebody who’s using one of these technologies isn’t able to get into the shopping cart. It’s also bad business if somebody can’t actually finish buying something with your website.
Another common thing is a contract. People just don’t think about how easy it is to read sites. And I know we’re on a podcast, I’m looking at a video right now. Both of us are wearing glasses. I’m now of the age where I have the Progressive’s. This isn’t just strictly speaking for people who think of themselves as disabled. It’s just an issue with everybody, right? An aging population, visual acuity gets impacted. There’s a bunch of rules around how easy it is to read the content.
Another place that people get themselves into trouble is the structure of the company. There are people that are using a screener or someone who is blind. We kind of talked about that issue already. People who just have regular visual issues that come with aging. But there’s people who, for example, navigate sites using keyboards, they can’t use a mouse. And so how does that happen as you’re tabbing through the site? Does it actually make sense? Can you navigate through it? If you don’t have the ability to use a mouse, are you still going to be able to enjoy the experience? There’s lots of others, as you can imagine, but those are three common ones that I think people can sort of understand. Like, how would I use this site if I couldn’t use a mouse? How would this work for me if literally everything on the screen had to be read to me before I could understand it? That starts to give you an idea of where things are at.
Now what’s going to happen. Are you going to get a demand letter? I’ll say most of the time if somebody actually has a problem with their site, they’d much rather email you about it. They’d much rather talk to you about it. They’d much rather the site works for them. But there are situations where that just falls on deaf ears if people aren’t able to accommodate. And then they’re like, I have to take this to the other step and get people to pay attention to this.
Rich: Let’s not sell American short. Our superpower is suing other people. So, I mean, there’s always going to be a lot of us out there who, the first thing that we do is going to be to get a lawyer involved.
Before we got on the call today, before we hit record, you and I were chatting a little bit about the pandemic and the impact it’s had on our lives. What impact has the pandemic had, if any, as far as accessibility goes?
Ian: It’s been really huge. So I mentioned before, we had this change where there was a lawsuit under the ADA, and that really sort of changed the litigation landscape. When the pandemic hit and so many businesses had to close down and there was lockdown, what happened is the digital channel websites and other digital experiences went from being a channel of engagement, to often the only channel of engagement with an audience. So you can imagine if before maybe I couldn’t use your website for a variety of reasons, maybe I could just still go to your store. Well, now if I can’t go to the store and I can only use your website. It’s not just maybe your store was physically closed, but maybe I’m not safe to go outside and actually go to the store anymore. Those both equally apply. Now that I can only engage with you or your service through the digital channel, we really have to make sure that’s accessible because there’s no other way to get to the experience or get to the goods and services.
At the same time, you had lots of organizations who were adopting a digital experiences for the first time. Their first store standing up, the first website, because they always had a physical store before and now they can’t use it. And that meant that they could be creating experiences without any understanding of digital accessibility issues. So those two issues combined. Digital became the only channel for a minute. Lots of digital acceleration ended up in an environment that was really right for this litigation environment we found ourselves in. So people in the disabled community, as I mentioned, they often want to engage with you. They want to send you an email or know, “Hey, I’m having trouble here. Can we work on this?” And then there’s litigants, there’s some organizations that basically have said, hey, this is a great way to kind of identify lots of people who have a challenge, and we’ll just hit all the retailers. It had all the law offices or whatever, they’ll just do sort of a lawsuit at scale, so to speak. And that was a real opportunity for them. Or they could find these people who’ve gone online for the first time and really go after them. So that really raised interest in digital accessibility.
Now at the same time this was all happening, and another issue that developed around the same time not directly tied to the pandemic, is the rise of interest of diversity, equity and inclusion. I think a lot of people are sensitive to some of the things that have happened over the last couple of years. This has really changed. I guess you’d call it the competitive landscape or the brand landscape. The expectations that consumers have around issues like this is really heightened, and access to people who are members of the disabled community is definitely a part of diversity, equity and inclusion. And so lots of organizations have said, hey, we have to move this forward. This is a part of our brand. This is part of our value proposition. And we can’t be seen to be excluding people, particularly at this time when they can only get access through the digital channel.
Rich: Okay. You mentioned a couple things, some things that might be going wrong with our website, if we happen to be completely blind or if we need more contrast or bigger fonts because we have some seeing problems. What are some of the other common things that you see on websites that trigger some kind of reaction to ‘this site is not accessible for all”?
Ian: Yeah, so those are big ones. Color contrast, you know, all images are a big one. Or the images that you have on their site, are they described properly. And described properly is more than just oh, I’ve got a picture of a person. And I say a picture of a person it’s like, what is the purpose of that picture? Why is it there? If I can’t see that image, you want to be able to describe it to me in an effective way.
Another common one is the lack of an accessibility statement. An accessibility statement is just sort of a page on your site that you link to from your footer, that declares what you’re doing about accessibility, that you care about it, that you’re making motions towards it. That if there are things that are going on, who should you contact about? Organizations that don’t have an accessibility statement probably aren’t thinking about the problem at all. So that’s a really important one to have. Just the structure of your site.
A very common one that people run into is I said there’s a keyboard navigation. One of the things that comes up is, imagine if you’re using a screen reader and every time you navigate to a new page on somebody’s website, the screen reader reads the whole page. Well, it starts off by the logo and the menu. So imagine every time you navigate it to new page, you got hit again with somebody taking several seconds or minutes or whatever to go through that whole structure again. So a very normal thing to expect is if you hit tab on a page, it should have a skip to content link that allows you to flip over all that sort of header content that would be repetitive. That’s a very common one that somebody can check very quickly. Has this organization even thought about accessibility yet? Is that there? Those are some common indications.
Rich: So what you’re saying is, actually using those AI overlays, and I think I mentioned to you before our previous chat that I had just gotten an email about a webinar about that. You’re saying that those AI overlays can actually be be litigated against because it kind of draws the attention of those lawyers that might be going after a class action lawsuit or something.
Ian: Yeah, it’s exactly the case. We’re seeing that an increasing number of lawsuits where these overlay companies are being specifically cited to say, yeah, they did this, but we knew it didn’t actually fix the problem. There’s recently a big settlement for an organization called Eyebobs, which does eyeglass work, where they work with an overlay company, and it didn’t help them. And it ended up being a big settlement for them. We see this kind of thing repeatedly. And it’s really too bad. I think they create a lot of noise in the market. They do a lot of marketing, but we want people to understand, to create digital accessibility experiences it’s not going to be driven by an AI bot or a single line of code that takes thinking about how you’re building these things correctly.
One of the things that our organization does is not just look at the code or what’s on the web, but work with companies to think about how was this designed in the first place? What are the colors that you’re using on the site in the first place? Because if we can get that right before you build the site or you build the next version of your site or you launch your next page, then you’re going to get it right by default. You’re not going to have these issues that then you have to go back and fix or remediate. And that’s the most critical element. This is ultimately a question of human people experiencing it, not code bots, experiencing the webpage.
Rich: We’ve talked a lot about some of the visual impairments that people might have, but let’s talk for a moment about auditory. There are definitely websites that have video, that have audio or podcasts like this one that are on a website. What are some of the things that we can do to make the audio more accessible for those who are hard of hearing or deaf?
Ian: Yeah, it’s very straightforward actually. You want to make sure that you’ve got transcripts available. You can do that. A lot of tools today, even zoom for example, has automated transcription. We actually go beyond that when we’re doing our webinars, for example, we get live transcription and then we get professional transcription after the fact. That just make sure that human – again, not a robot – is looking, listening in, and really making sure that it’s a high-quality transcription that gives an accurate reflection. It’s not just the live transcription though. It’s really helpful to then get the whole transcript and make the script available so people who can just read through the entire content.
And you can also do things like making sure you’re paying attention to describe things when you’re doing the conversations. And all that kind of goes back to visual, but these are all tied together, right? You want to be thinking about how is everybody going to be experiencing this? Are they going to be experiencing it by listening to it, by reading it? Are they only able to read, are they only able to listen? And figuring out what’s the best way to describe that entire piece of content. With people with auditory challenges, just make sure that when you’re building your digital experience that audio is not the only cue that you should be doing something. Sometimes you’re on a site and there’s like a ping to tell you there’s a message or something, but if that’s all that you get, it can be very difficult for somebody who can’t hear that to know something has happened. So make sure that there’s a visual indication at the same time.
This is a really good recommendation across the board. Don’t rely on just one thing to communicate. So for example, we recommend when it comes to hyperlinks in your text, don’t just make it a different color, make sure it’s underlined. Don’t just have a ping or a noise, make sure there’s a visual indication as well. Just think through all the different ways people may be engaging.
Another one that trips people up is, sometimes they’ll push popups on people. And that if you’re using assistive technology, not only may you not know that pop-up happened that might be giving you a discount or something, there may be no way to get out of it once it does pop up. So just think about how everybody’s going to be working with these things.
Rich: I’m sure there are people listening or people you’ve worked with in the past that say, yeah, that’s all well and good, but what I really don’t want to do is dumb down the experience of my website. What would you say to that audience?
Ian: I totally understand it. I think it’s a reaction A lot of people have, and they think accessibility means plain, and it doesn’t. You can have beautiful, interactive, just really engaging digital experiences that look great, that feel great, that behave great, that are useful for everyone. That’s what this is all about. It’s kind of a usability question. Not only did I make this beautiful, gorgeous, interactive experience, but I have confidence that everybody in my audience is going to be able to engage with it.
I’ll give you an example. A lot of times we’ll have a form, you fill out a form that you’re trying to buy something with, your name, address, and all that kind of stuff. A very common thing we talk about is the text that tells you this box is for first name and this box is for last name. Don’t put that directly in the box, because then the screen reader may not be able to connect it. Or if you’re a person who’s having short-term memory challenges or attention deficit challenges, you may not be able to remember what that link was, so you just put it above it. That doesn’t make it worse or less appealing or not as fun. It’s just something you think about and make sure it works for everyone.
So it’ll be just as beautiful. It’d be just as great. It’ll just now work for everyone. And the easiest time to do this, as I said before, is when you’re thinking about how this looks in the first place. Before a line of code is written, be thinking about getting design reviews from an accessibility expert early on in the process, it’s going to make this way easier to implement. It’s a lot harder once it’s live.
So the joke, I always tell it to developers. They always say, what’s the most expensive time to fix a bug… when it’s live. Once it’s actually up and operating. And to take it down, you’ve got to figure it out. Accessibility is the same way. When’s the most difficult time to fix an accessibility issue when you’re being sued about it, right? Like, by the time you’ve waited for the lawsuit or the litigation or the demand letter, you’re kind of way down the path. Bring it as early in that process as you can. Trust the provider like ourselves is going to be able to work with you that entire lifecycle, whether it’s your team or a third-party team, we’ll work with you to make sure that it’s right from the start.
Rich: The other thing I just want to bring up is, I told you the story when we had our pre-chat about what’s called the ‘curb cut effect’. And very short version of the story is back, I think it was in 1973, a bunch of handicapped, disabled students at Berkeley College, they were having trouble getting from class to class because of the curbs on the sidewalks. And they actually in the middle of the night, went out, poured concrete to make their own ramp so they could get up and down it. And that led to the government or the local government actually passing laws that made people actually do what are called ‘curb cuts’, those ramps that are everywhere. Now, they thought originally it was only going to benefit the disabled community. But what they discovered is that all of a sudden, all the delivery people and all the parents who were pushing carriages would go out of their way to use these ramps because it made their life easier. And the lesson that we can take from this, is very often when we think we’re doing something, just for one segment of the audience, we’re actually improving the experience for all people in this case, coming to our website. So think about that curb cut effect. If you are feeling like, oh, I don’t want to dumb… you’re not dumbing it down. You’re bringing it up, would be my take on this.
Ian: I think it’s a great way to think about it. A lot of people think that there’s the idea of usability when it comes to digital experiences. Like, can somebody actually do the thing, the user experience? Can they do it? Is it easy for them to understand, and so on. And then they think about accessibility afterwards and they go, oh, oh. And then, let’s make it accessible.
We think of it the other way around. We think accessibility is the process of making things usable by everyone. And so you just sort of went through that process, like what is the right way to build a sidewalk so everybody can enjoy it. It kind of becomes obvious in retrospect. And it’s the same thing with these digital experiences, if you think about how do I make sure everybody is going to be able to enjoy the storefront? How do I make sure that everybody is going to be able to understand this landing page? How do I make sure that everybody is going to be able to contact me. It just makes sense. It’s broadening your audience. And if you’ve made it useful for people who have a challenge, you have certainly made it easier for people who don’t have a challenge. And so you’re just going to get better engagement and better results by taking this process into account.
Rich: For people listening who are like, oh man, this is important, and I already have a website, I can’t start from scratch right now. What are some of the ways that they can test their own site and maybe take a remediation action to improve their current website if it’s just not in their budget or timeline to rebuild something from the ground up? What would you recommend they do next?
Ian: So first of all, I’ll just say that that’s true for almost everybody in this space. Usually you’re starting from an existing digital experience that is not as accessible as you’d like, and you’re going to have to figure out what you’re going to do next. So we call this ‘remediation’. It’s identification of what are the problems, what priorities should you be resolving them in and getting those fixed, because the live thing is the most important thing. And then we just sort of say, hey, as you’re building new stuff, think about accessibility as early as you can. So I think that’s totally normal. S
o one of the things that you can do even before, I would say engage a trusted third party like ours, right? That’s going to be the best bet. But if you want to kind of take a look at this and get a feel for it yourself, one of the things you can do is you can get an accessibility checker. For example, WebAIM has got a free tool that is a plugin to your browser, and it will tell you about the accessibility challenges and errors that may be present on your site. And you can see that can give you a really quick look at what’s going on on your site and is it good or bad. If you’ve never thought about it before, be prepared. It’s probably going to be bad. It’s actually typically not hugely difficult to fix. Once you understand the problems, it’s more of a priority issue and how fast you can get through everything. But it is often things like these images don’t have descriptive text, this form is not structured the right way, the color contrast here is insufficient. Somebody might not be able to read it if these issues that we’ve talked about before, that are fairly straightforward to fix, once you understand them. So run the WebAIM, kind of take a deep breath, it’s probably going to highlight a whole bunch of stuff on your site.
And then start thinking about what would actually impact somebody’s ability to use the site. So the example I always give is very often people have in the bottom of their site, if they have a footer and it has like a little copyright notice, and that copyright notice is in gray text or something. That may not pass the standards for color contrast. But that’s not as important as that example from before where somebody can’t click the shopping cart. So think about what’s actually your site about make sure that those things really work, but to identify key identification of, we call it the ‘critical user flow’. What is the steps that somebody has to take to start and finish everything in between? Make sure that all works. I can add an item to the cart. I can go look at the cart. I can complete the cart order. I can fill out my payment information, surprising number of people can’t fill up payment information because your form is not accessible. Right. Make sure all that stuff works. You’re paying a lot of money to get these experiences out there.
That’s where I’d start. Ultimately you do want to get these evaluated by somebody who’s using assistive technology, who is actually a member of one of these communities. You’ll probably have to end up using a partner for that. But if you take these best efforts, hey, I’m really looking at it, I’m paying attention to it. And then if you’re working with a third party, like an agency who is building your experiences for you, talk to them about it. They’ll understand digital accessibility in the space and be able to have a conversation with you about where you’re at and what it might take to get to a better place.
Rich: Does this work have an impact on other digital marketing initiatives we might be doing, specifically SEO? That would always be a concern that while we’re trying to make our sites more accessible. Maybe we’re shooting ourselves in the foot in terms of some of our marketing initiatives.
Ian: It’s actually the other way around when it comes to search engine optimization. A site that is well-structured for accessibility purposes is way easier for Google and the other search engines to understand. So you will be giving yourself a great favor by following accessibility best practices on your website. And not only will you be doing yourself a favor just from Google’s ability to understand your website, Google really cares about the human experience. So they’re watching what happens when people go to their site, do they go and leave right away? Do they engage, or whatever? So by making sure the maximum audience is able to enjoy your experience, you’re giving yourself a double boost.
So first, Google understands your content better. Second, more people are sticking around and using your site. Those are both strong signals to Google that, hey, this is good content that people should be looking at when it comes to other digital activities. You have to keep in mind that digital accessibility is for all digital experiences. So you want to be thinking about this when it comes to your mobile sites or your mobile apps. Even in your social media. So you’re when you’re posting on social, all of the major social media sites will have the ability for you to provide descriptive texts to the images that go along with your post. And you should be doing that to make it more available to everyone. When people click on your links, what’s the kind of landing page they’re getting to. Is that something that you’ve thought about as you’re trying to increase the awareness of your brand. You’re obviously going to be sharing to a much larger audience and you need to be thinking about how they’re engaging with every one of these touchpoints.
I I’d say though, there’s no downside to thinking about digital accessibility and all these different scenarios. They’re always going to make it more usable. They’re always going to broaden the reach. They’re always going to make it so anything automated on the other side understands it better as well.
Rich: Yeah. I’m thinking about my own posts to social media, and obviously I’m always including captions. But it just dawned on me as you’re talking, like LinkedIn especially is always asking me if I want to put in alt tags behind my images, and I never bothered because I’m writing underneath it. But now I realized what a missed opportunity that is. So going forward, I’m going to look for all of those opportunities on the different social media channels to use those alt tags and to give people who might need assistive technology a little bit of a leg up in terms of understanding what that image is and why I may have used it in that instance.
This has been fantastic. Ian, this has been such an eye-opening experience. And hopefully a lot of people are getting some great ideas about how they can make their website better for their end users, which is only going to improve their own business. If they want to learn more about you or more about what eSSENTIAL Accessibility can do for them, where can we send them?
Ian: Obviously you can come to our website, essentialaccessibility.com. You can also just reach out to me directly. I’m on LinkedIn, I’m on Twitter, and I’m happy to engage with anybody and talk to them. I’m a marketer myself, so I’m happy to talk through the marketing issues that are related to it. And we’d be happy to take a look and maybe even show you what’s a quick audit of your site look like if we were to look at it from an accessibility perspective.
While you’re there, if these topics are interesting to you, if you’d go to our website at essentialaccessibility.com, there’s a blog you can subscribe to. We’re often putting up content about accessibility issues, about new legal issues that are involved in the market, and how different organizations are finding ways to solve this problem.
Rich: Fantastic. Ian, thank you so much for stopping by today. Really enjoyed our conversation.
Ian: Thank you very much, Rich, it was a real pleasure.
Ian Lowe has helped countless businesses understand and embrace the importance of accessibility for all when it comes to how businesses speak to and reach their audience. To discover more ways he is helping businesses, check out his website and blog. And definitely connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.