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Accessibility Compliance – Why Automation is Not the Only Answer

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Compliance Vs. Usability

Accessibility testing has been a critical aspect of the software testing arena since 2010 when the Department of Justice published the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for digital accessibility design. The standards require that all electronic and information technology be accessible to all people including those with disabilities. Since that time, the need to be inclusive has driven companies across the world to deliver communications that can be interpreted by anyone in any circumstance. A lot of positive results have come from the effort but today, there has been a push to make compliance easy through automation which has proven to be a concern.

Compliance is a challenge that impacts the business community and while many are holding themselves accountable internally, others are relying on third parties for accessibility testing. However, it is important to understand that not all accessibility testing companies approach the responsibility in the same way, and one specific company has come under fire for its lack of empathy and failure to provide the user experience that the visually and cognitively impaired community requires.

AccessiBe is an accessibility testing company that offers an automated tool purporting to ensure compliance with the ADA. The company also offers support for companies who are sued by protecting them with the minimum standards accepted by the regulations. Unfortunately, AccessiBe’s focus seems to be on avoiding litigation and not on features for the community they are serving. To better understand how the automated tool is failing assistive technology users, let’s examine what the visually impaired community relies on to use the internet effectively, and why this community would like to hold AccessiBe accountable for its failures.

Assistive Technologies Provide Access

There is more than one type of assistive technology but a good example to describe what users often rely on is a screen reader. A screen reader is a software application that enables people with visual impairments to use a computer and the technology offered by them. Screen readers provide information about icons, menus, dialogue boxes, files, and folders. The assistive technology uses a Text-To-Speech (TTS) engine to translate information on the screen to audible speech heard through speakers and headphones, as well as offering braille support.

Assistive technology tools like screen readers make it possible to execute everyday tasks that most of us take for granted—tasks like navigating web pages, listening to music, reading documents, paying bills, and retail shopping. For many with visual impairments, the ability to navigate the internet would not be possible without a screen reader. This need is why many are demanding better from companies like AccessiBe. As it stands, these automated services may make it harder to navigate sites and in some cases, nearly impossible.

Automation is NOT a Quick Fix

In recent months, complaints have multiplied with visually impaired users claiming they have experienced issues with sites using AccessiBe automation. These users have suggested the sites are incompatible with screen readers which prevents their devices from accurately reading pages.

A recent NBC news article profiled the company along with a community of impaired users that were speaking out against them. Steve Clower, a blind software developer who specializes in accessibility said that the automated tool interfered with his ability to pay rent online. He was so frustrated by the issue that he developed a way to block the AccessiBe tool to successfully navigate any website he was using.

Fortunately for Clower, his experience with software development and screen readers provided a workaround but many others in the community are not as lucky. While the tool is supposed to provide more compatibility with readers, instead it has made it virtually impossible for them to access vital aspects of their online engagements.

Paul Morris, head of engineering and founder of the accessibility department at QualityLogic is also visually impaired and suggests that automated tools alone aren’t sufficient. They are not a quick fix and based on the complaints and issues with AccessiBe, what was once conjecture is now solidified. Manual testing is an absolutely critical part of a comprehensive accessibility program.

Automated tools aren’t sufficient on their own. They are not a quick fix and based on the complaints and issues with AccessiBe, what was once conjecture is now solidified. Manual testing is absolutely critical. — Paul Morris, QualityLogic Director of Engineering & Accessibility Testing

Morris goes on to say that real accessibility needs to include a humanistic approach. QualityLogic’s accessibility testing strategies include automated testing tools but are heavily supported and verified using manual testing by visually impaired testers. Morris himself is blind and knows what it takes to comply with the regulation while meeting the needs of users.

Clearly, accessibility compliance is a priority but along with that compliance, QualityLogic is focused on providing inclusivity and real accessibility solutions giving users the best experience possible. When companies are more concerned with avoiding lawsuits than meeting the needs of users, there is a problem that needs to be called out and addressed. QualityLogic is passionate about being part of the solution.

Avoiding Litigation is the Wrong Priority

According to the NBC News article, federal lawsuits claiming websites are not compliant with the ADA rose by 12 percent last year, with thousands more claiming websites fail to meet the standards for accessibility.

Failure to comply has reached a level that hundreds of visually impaired internet users and accessibility advocates penned an open letter to companies like AccessiBe voicing their concerns and experiences with the automated services and imploring them to stop offering the service as a legitimate accessibility tool. They went on to suggest that offering a tool that will help in avoiding litigation has only further positioned assistive technology users as litigious and greedy.

“It capitalizes on this fear that disabled people are out there to sue you and make your life difficult,” said Holly Scott-Gardner, a blind person and disability rights advocate who raised concerns on Twitter and on her blog about how AccessiBe didn’t work for her. “It furthers this really horrible view of disabled people that we’re literally out there to get money and that we just use our disabilities for that.”

Providing access to all internet users is not a request, it is a law and until companies like AccessiBe start to address the human issues, users with disabilities will continue to be ignored.

Exclusion vs. Inclusion

“Disability” doesn’t pertain strictly to permanent physical impairment. It covers cognitive, behavioral, and learning challenges, too. Added to these categories are people who are temporarily unable to complete routine tasks due to illness or injury.

The risks of using an automated tool to solve accessibility issues are abundant but most importantly that disable community is being treated in a very narrow way. These automation tools do not take into account the broad spectrum of user needs.

Even within the blind community, the biggest fear they share is that the disruption caused by accessibility automation will keep users who are visually impaired or cognitively challenged, and new to screen readers from accessing parts of the internet and frustrated in the effort.

According to Paul Morris of QualityLogic, there are two main issues. First, it doesn’t really improve accessibility. Second, it makes individuals feel like they are being pushed into a “special” experience that makes them feel excluded, not included.

Civil rights lawyer, Lainey Feingold agrees, telling NBC News the following:

“Accessibility is really about inclusion or exclusion. If you have a website, do you want to include disabled people or do you want to exclude them? That’s why it’s a civil right,” said Lainey Feingold, a civil rights lawyer who has worked on digital accessibility since the mid-1990s, including the first U.S. settlements that made ATMs talk and pedestrian signals audible. “The whole idea of disability rights is about disabled people participating in society, and in 2021, without digital accessibility that participation is impossible.”

Accessibility Testing Should Include Humans

What it all comes down to is this: with hundreds of millions of assistive technology users worldwide, it’s critical that your web and mobile applications be easy to access for those who use assistive technology. Accessibility testing determines how well your website or mobile application can be understood, navigated, and used, regardless of the technology or platform used to access it. Accessibility testing for ADA compliance is best met when manual testing by users with disabilities is included in the overall program.

Making your website or mobile app accessible to all takes more than running tests with a screen reader, with mic and sound turned off, or without a mouse. Your site and app need to work across a broad range of platforms with all popular assistive technologies. Software testing companies should understand regional and global accessibility standards, including WCAG and ADA, AODA in Canada, and EU standards as well.

Every aspect of your app should be accessible. A comprehensive accessibility testing company like QualityLogic will have the in-depth experience and skills to identify problems as well as offer a full range of accessibility testing services including both automated and manual testing.

When ADA and WCAG standards are met and effective accessibility is accomplished, there should be no need to worry about lawsuits. The advantages of an expert software testing solution far exceed the cost.

Let’s have a look.

Bonus Benefits of Accessibility Testing

1. Expands Your User Base
Reducing time to market is key for mobile apps, but it’s never wise to push accessibility features to the end of your development process. Adding accessibility late in the process invites the problems and costs often associated with new features and bug fixes. It also alienates a large part of the user base. When the goal of the product often includes expanding the user base, rushing or overlooking accessibility could result in faulty features and issues which directly impact a large segment of users. Alienating the users with disabilities segment will not only caused a decrease in the user base but also impact financial goals and other opportunities for growth.

2. Pushes Your App Beyond Compliance.
The U.S. government has requirements for the accessibility of information and communications technology as well as telecommunications equipment. Section 255 is part of the Communications Act of 1934, and Section 508 is short-hand for the Workforce Rehabilitation Act, which went into effect in 2001. Both were updated in 2017 to ensure that federal agencies meet accessibility standards in the procurement, use, maintenance, and development of various communications devices and technology. Like most government policies, the language and the guidelines can be overwhelming which is why an experienced QA company versed in the details of accessibility compliance can be invaluable.

However, an experienced accessibility testing company might also tell you that compliance isn’t enough. Despite setting standards for accessibility, the government doesn’t require testing using assistive technology. In fact, your app may be Section 508 compliant while presenting a highly negative user experience when interacting with a screen reader. Successful testing needs to involve humans that have the same perspective as all users or the nuances will be missed.

Working with a QA company that knows the laws but also engages with the software, website, or mobile app from the impaired users’ perspective can help ensure that your app goes beyond compliance by incorporating common sense accessibility options.

3. Enhances Automation
If you develop an app that works with accessibility, it also improves automation because many UI automation hooks are the same. Decorating controls properly for test automation means they’re decorated properly for accessibility.

For example, when developing a YouTube app, if you don’t have a button decorated properly for automation, it will appear on a screen reader as a “button.” A properly decorated button will announce to accessibility and automation technologies that this is a “play button.” The use of alt text to add descriptive information to controls can enhance both accessibility and automation.

4. Defines “Disability” Broadly
“Disability” doesn’t pertain strictly to permanent physical impairment. It covers cognitive, behavioral, and learning challenges, too. Added to these categories are people who are temporarily unable to complete routine tasks due to illness or injury.

For example, if you’re a programmer with a broken hand, you’ll need to type with one hand unless you can access your computer, tablet, or phone using one of the many assistive technologies available. A qualified website accessibility testing company can ensure that your app defines “disability” broadly to serve as many users on as many devices as possible.

Corporate Culture Matters to Users

Over the past decade, there has been an increased focus on the importance of corporate culture. How a company demonstrates its values through honest and positive behavior matters to customers, consumers, and users alike. When a company is more concerned about avoiding lawsuits than delivering proper function to all users, the perception is reflected negatively, and the brand will suffer. However, when your company values include empathy for the user, the business will see more value as the product delivers beyond the bottom line.

“There is an increased focus on business value and testing skills, which means you have to bring more to the table than just the ability to do it cheaper.” Keith Klain, Head of the Global Test Center for corporate and investment banking and wealth management at Barclays Bank.

With any kind of industry, success is usually generated from balance. Today’s market might even lean away from the bottom line and more heavily in line with a humanistic approach especially where technology is concerned. Some might even say that if people are your priority, profit should follow. Less expensive test automation could very well cost you in the long run. AccessiBe may be the example not to follow.

Do you have questions about your accessibility programs? With a quick, informal call, we can help you assess your accessibility testing options and clear the clutter or quell the chaos for the straightest line to success.