Allied Podcast: Section 508 Myths with Michele Landis
November 19, 2021
Welcome to 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast, a show on all things accessibility. This month’s episode features Michele Landis of Accessible360 and is about digital accessibility and Section 508 myths.
Michele is an expert on digital inclusivity and Section 508. She is the co-founder and Chief Revenue Officer of Accessible360, a court-certified digital accessibility auditing firm dedicated to creating practical solutions for equitable access. Accessible360 offers comprehensive user testing, code development, and project management to ensure compliance continues.
Michele thinks the best part of her position is increasing awareness and helping clients learn what it means to become compliant and accessible to all. For Michele, digital accessibility is not only the right thing to do, it’s also good for business.
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ELISA LEWIS: Welcome back to Allied, the podcast for everything you need to know about web and video accessibility. I’m your host, Elisa Lewis, and today we’re joined by digital inclusivity and Section 508 expert Michele Landis. Michele is the co-founder and chief revenue officer of Accessible360, a court certified digital accessibility auditing firm dedicated to creating practical solutions for equitable access. Accessible360 offers comprehensive user testing, code development, and project management to ensure compliance continues.
Michele thinks the best part of her position is increasing awareness and helping clients learn what it means to become compliant and accessible to all. For Michele, digital accessibility is not only the right thing to do, it’s also good for business.
For the past six weeks, we’ve been sharing some widely held misconceptions about Section 508 on social media as part of our Myth Monday series. Today we’ll break down each of those myths, from avoiding accessibility overlay tools to maintaining long-term compliance. Michele, we’re so glad to have you join us today to talk more about Section 508 myths and digital accessibility.
Thank you so much, Michele. We’re really glad to have you join us today to talk more about Section 508 myths and digital accessibility. Before we get too technical, would you mind giving our listeners a bit more background on Section 508? So who does it apply to? What does it require? And when was it implemented?
MICHELE LANDIS: Sure. I think that’s a great idea. First of all, thank you, 3Play, for having me. Super excited to chat about these topics today with your listeners. And I think it’s a good idea to get the legal or the dry stuff out of the way first.
So Section 508 is actually the name of one Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. There was another amendment called Section 504. And so a lot of misconception, I think, about Section 508 is that maybe it was amendment to the ADA. It was not. Maybe it is a different set of guidelines other than the WCAG. It is not any longer.
And so to bring us back, the only federal law in place in the United States that requires digital accessibility– and this is for Title II entities as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, so easy way to keep it straight– is a Title II entity are places, public places owned by the public. So that would be government, public education, and health care. And the reason public education and health care are in there is not because they are the government or run by the government, but they are funded by the federal government.
And so Section 508, again, is the name of one amendment to the Rehabilitation Act that was passed back in 1973. There’s actually two amendments, and they are a Section 504 and Section 508. Section 508 prohibits discrimination on government websites to people with disabilities, and it requires all of their electronic information to be accessible. And 504 is an amendment made at the same time that required accessibility for any programs or services that are funded by the federal government.
ELISA LEWIS: So with your knowledge and familiarity of Section 508, why do you think there has been so much confusion about these requirements?
MICHELE LANDIS: I think first and foremost, a lack of clarity, understanding, and awareness. Number two, I think the nomenclature ran amok. It’s a little bit like ADA compliance. That took off years ago. I fought it, tried to re-educate people constantly. But lingo, nomenclature, the way people phrase things, that just takes off in our society even in a technical setting, and it’s hard to rein that back in.
The third place where I think it perpetuates is in flawed RFPs and procurement processes. So number one, the lack of clarity and understanding and awareness, again, I think people might think that Section 508 is a different set of guidelines. I want to be really clear, it was originally. And those technical guidelines were written back in 1998.
So when we started A360 at the end of 2016, you can imagine how difficult it was to perform audits on websites or payment portals or any type of platforms in use by the government, and meet technology standards that were written so long ago. The transformation and code and functionality and abilities of designers and developers just took off, and we were trying to retrofit the accessibility compliance test and success criteria back to this really old standard.
It was in 2017 when there was a one year notice period made that there would be a refresh of Section 508. And of course, everybody in the business was elated. They notified everyone that in January of 2018, they would adopt, as everybody else has, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Version 2.0 Level AA, which was the current version out there. And that was a relief. We were basically using those standards when auditing those sites in the early days anyways. But it really made everything kind of come together.
One funny story I can share with you about an RFP and the procurement process is, sometimes we’ll see RFPs written for place of public accommodation, like a grocery store or a retail store or something like that. And they’ll put in the requirements of the RFP that they need to be Section 508 compliant. And of course, first of all, Section 508 doesn’t apply to them. Section 504 doesn’t apply to them. And again, to be current, up to date, and the most accurate, they should just simply have web content accessibility guidelines, and then whichever version. And again, typically, Level AA.
I think the reason why the nomenclature ran amok was really Section 508 compliance became the topic, the nomenclature, and it was well-established, really, that nomenclature because it was about the government. So anybody doing business with the government itself, they used that term. And again, it has to do with the name of an amendment to a different law. So hope that helps.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, thank you. I think it’s actually a really great point that you bring up about the jargon that we use, and people kind of picking up on certain lingo, but not having a really comprehensive understanding. And it actually, the way you described it, kind of reminds me of the game that we all played as kids, telephone. You’re kind of getting pieces of the reality, but sort of changing along the way. So definitely lose some of that context and understanding.
MICHELE LANDIS: I agree.
ELISA LEWIS: You talked about the challenge that you at A360 ran into trying to retrofit guidance for outdated technology. And I think that’s a really good segue way to the next question. So something that we emphasize at 3Play is that it’s much easier to bake in accessible solutions from the beginning rather than retrofit accessibility later on.
I know the first sort of myth that we addressed is exactly, this and it points out that quick fix accessibility plug-ins or overlay tools actually complicate the online experience for users with disabilities. I’m curious if you could share some examples of the way these plug-ins and tools impact web accessibility in your experience.
MICHELE LANDIS: Sure, absolutely. Real quick, I just want to circle back and offer, I think, a helpful analogy. Your point is well-made. It is much less expensive, it’s much easier to build accessibility in when you’re building something new. I always use the analogy of building a new house. Before you sheet rock the walls, you put in your outlets, right? You don’t sheet rock and then decide where you want your electrical outlets.
So same concept applies to design and development, and we work with tremendous amount of client teams and/or their agencies, or agencies with their clients on new builds. This huge, I will call it, kind of phenomenon, if you will, about these overlay tools– and I saw it coming, really, back in 2018, probably in the summer of 2018, when really started to see kind of people considering these, actually.
Now I have a little bit of sass in my voice because I can’t help but say this with a little bit of sarcasm. Every single day I am stunned at how many well-educated, very technical professional people still think that this is true. So first of all, adding an overlay to your site, it can run, obviously, contradictory to the end user’s preference for privacy, for example. They may create risk of non-compliance with GDPR, the California Consumer Privacy Act, and other privacy issues out there.
Everyone needs to understand that some of these overlay tools do install cookies, and therefore, first of all, they should never be used on a site where security is an issue. And buyer beware, right? Understand what it is that you’re allowing the tracking and all that type of thing.
So the automatic application of text alternative for images, for example, is not reliable, either. Just like in a scanning tool, you can scan to see if there’s Alt text, but the test comes back pass regardless of what the Alt text is. It could be one, two, three, four and it will pass it. The automated repair of field labels, any error management or error handling of that, and then the focus control on those forms is also not reliable.
I think a lot of people don’t understand how sophisticated JAWS and NVDA desktop screen readers are. And a lot of times, we talk to people about the full usability of, say, a form field on a Contact Us page on a website. And although the full compliance is not yet reached– we can’t check every box as it relates to the WCAG success criteria, that form field could be 100% usable, say, by a blind user using screen reader technology. The problem with overlay tools is they can interfere with that assistive technology like screen readers that people with disabilities use.
I think there’s also a misconception that a person that has a disability severe enough to benefit from accessible design and development, everyone needs to understand they’re going to access the website using their own assistive technology. So it’s going to be a screen reader. They might be using a refreshable Braille display. If they have a physical disability, they might be using an eye recognition mouse or a simple switch, not a mouse like I can and I know you can.
And so backing up and just understanding how these humans use the websites is really important to understand why the overlays fail with their claims. I don’t know anyone that I’ve ever come across that would shut off the assistive technology they know how to use and engage in something else on the website that they don’t know how to use, and migrate to that other environment.
A couple of other things that we’ve noticed in our work is that overlays can drastically slow down the load times. They can cause unexpected changes in the pages, or whole pages not presented. I remember on a child product website, one of the most important things on that website was to register your product so you would be notified for recalls.
Because of the overlay when it was engaged, that page was not presented. So we’ve seen things like overlays only installed on the home page, not installed on internal pages. That seems to be falling away, but for a long time in the beginning, we saw that.
It’s also really important to understand that overlays do not repair content in flash, Java, Silverlight, PDF, HTML5, Canvas, SVG, or media files. So if you really are a technical person, and you feel that overlay has improved the accessibility of a website, we welcome that conversation, and so do all of the other 600 plus people who are working as subject matter experts in this field and trying to get accurate information about the effect of certain types of overlays on websites.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. I think your explanation at the beginning really struck me, just kind of about the really complex sort of details used to create a website and all the work that goes into it, and how if something sounds kind of too good to be true, where it’s just an instant fix, it probably is too good to be true, or to be truly accurate.
MICHELE LANDIS: Yeah. I think that if it is too good to be true, it probably isn’t, and at least warrants good investigation, a good, critical thinking mind like a lot of technologists have. And that’s why it continues to befuddle me and others, for sure. There is some great research being done. And again, have to call attention to the overlay fact sheet, where a ton of people have signed that. A lot of contributors, especially in the WordPress community and others, have contributed to a forum where we can have an open conversation about the realities of the overlays and what we’re seeing.
There’s a lot of wonderful investigative work that has been done on committed individuals’ own time to out things, and some, I think, really interesting research that will be coming out shortly as well, different tactics with regard to the overlays and how they might interact with SaaS, software as a service, like the scanning tools. When we first started A360, that’s primarily what a lot of people were doing. They were running scanning tools. And there’s, I think, going to be some pretty interesting information coming out, and results on the intersection of overlays and scanning tools. So stay tuned for that.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great heads up, and certainly sounds like there could be some really interesting things coming out there. I’m curious, in your opinion, how can these plugins and tools claim to be a solution for legal compliance, and how have they gotten away from that when they really negatively impact user experience?
MICHELE LANDIS: Oh, goodness. I don’t know. How can diet pills or protein shakes marketed to you to bring the perfect body within 14 days, especially in the United States. Claims like this, in technology claims like this, and health and fitness claims like this, and in a lot of products and services, have proven over time to not be true. Smoking enhances your social appeal. It doesn’t cause cancer. So I mean, I could go down a ton of rabbit holes there.
I think it’s as simple as that. They’re claiming it. Until somebody challenges it, you can claim whatever you want. There are some overlay tools that have partnered with plaintiff and defense firms as well, which are part of kind of like this little kickback club. And there’s definitely some experts in the industry outing that. We don’t spend a lot of time at A360 digging up that stuff or investigating it, but we certainly recognize that when we come across it. We brought a lot of solutions for litigation support into the marketplace. And so it’s definitely an area of interest for us.
I also personally feel that when uneducated investors put money into a couple of them, it somehow provided the cloak of validation. Who would invest in something that doesn’t work or doesn’t do what it claims? And again, there’s literally nothing to stop them until the industry and other key stakeholders have enough of it. And again, I really think that’s coming. But everybody would like to solve this quickly because they lack understanding in how to do it correctly, so they like to do it quick.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. I think it’s interesting. I think your point about uneducated investors kind of jumping in is really interesting. And it kind of points to a bigger picture of things move so quickly. There are so many trends that come up just so quickly in today’s world. And investors and individuals and influencers, whatever the case may be, are jumping on things because they want to get in fast without really understanding the big picture. And that certainly can have consequences, as we’re seeing here. So it’s just an interesting thing to think about.
MICHELE LANDIS: Yeah, it’s an unfortunate occurrence, I think. You’re innocent until proven guilty. Well, you can claim whatever you want until somebody checks up on you and holds you accountable for it.
I think one of the best recent cases that people could read about to educate themselves is the one with [? Eyebobs ?] that Karl Groves worked on. What happened in that one, there was a tremendous amount of discovery and a tremendous amount of findings by Carl on that one. I think that’s great. There’s a couple of other key ones as well.
And the reason why there aren’t that many is because not many organizations fight it that far. Most of the demand letters and lawsuits are settled within two days to two months. And kind of the general course of action is, you get some type of legal action, you agree to certain terms, you settle it, you move on. And then you should go about fixing your site or mobile app or whatever it is the correct way.
There are some plaintiff firms that we’ve seen in the past– I haven’t seen it incredibly recently, but I would imagine it would still be continuing– is there looking for the overlays, actually included the overlays, a screenshot of it, on the website, and then filed the suit. And so will it increase your risk? Maybe. Does it solve your problem? Not in any audits that we’ve ever done or any experiences that any of the other subject matter experts in the field that are bringing really solid information about those types of overlays out would say.
So again, continue to educate. Read. The [? Eyebobs ?] case is a really good one to follow.
ELISA LEWIS: Awesome. Thanks for sharing that. So some of the aforementioned plugins and tools offer scans that claim to evaluate website accessibility and compliance. But these are likely to report false positives, as you touched on a little bit earlier. Can you tell us more about why these scans are often so unreliable?
MICHELE LANDIS: Sure. First of all, I think it’s really important to just take a little bit of history, too. Most of the early SaaS products for accessibility were adapted SEO scanning tools back in the early days. SEO and accessibility are very closely related. A lot of the listeners understand that.
And so it made, I’m sure, good business sense. I think if I had been there that early on, and my company had a tool that we could leverage that was scanning for SEO and semantic HTML and those types of things, and we could market it as somewhat testing, also, for the accessibility on the website, I think that was probably a good idea.
Siteimprove is the one that comes to mind. It is a big company, global. They have another office in the midwest near A360. And I have to honestly say I think it was great marketing by them, really good multi-use from one tool. I don’t profess to understand their tool 100%. I’m sure it’s changed over the years. But one thing I also know is that they’re another example of a company that tells the truth. They’re honest about the limitations of their scanning tools.
A scanning tool is fine if you know what you can rely on the results for. And therein lies the crux of your question and kind of why– well, it’s really why A360 doesn’t rely on scanning tools in their audits. A lot of other companies do a hybrid, where you’re paying kind of the same amount, but the majority of it’s done supposedly by SaaS or automation, where ours are done by complete live users.
A scanning tool can certainly check color contrast. Sometimes you need a human to double check that as well. But the example that I gave earlier, too, about Alt text, a scanning tool is a pass or fail. So if there’s an Alt text, it’s going to say it has one. For the designers or anybody who did design or understand design as well as development, it’s sort of like the thought that you have a scanning tool that you can run on a website and say, oh, this has excellent UX. This has perfect design. This meets all best standards and design.
Well, it’s pretty subjective. And most of the research shows that about 25%, 30% of the success criteria called for by WCAG can be covered by any type of automated tool. And it doesn’t mean that a tool can do that 100%, either. There are false positives, like the Alt text and other ones. I think one of the most interesting things is understanding that the wave tool itself, arguably maybe one of the most used, certainly by plaintiff firms when they’re asserting non-accessibility of a website. But the wave tool, which is free. You can do the Chrome plugin. Anybody who’s tested any type of accessibility probably has that Chrome extension and running it and testing it out.
But within their own terms and conditions of use, the WAVE tool from WebAIM states that they strictly prohibit the use of that tool to determine if a website is accessible or compliant to WCAG. So again, honesty from the leaders. So pay attention to what they’re being honest about. Understand that you might be able to find some low hanging fruit if you understand how to interpret those tools. If you ran four different scanning tools on the same website, you’re going to get variability. What do you follow? What do you do with that information?
I think as a litmus test, I think it’s great. I think it’s every bit as effective to open up the website and put your mouse away and just start keyboard only navigation. If you literally have no keyboard only navigation, no focus indicators, you have no indication where you are on the website other than the small tracking URL down in the bottom left-hand side of your screen, well, then, you know you have a problem.
I challenge people to do that versus using a scanning tool. And if you’ve got great keyboard only navigation, and you can, say, on an e-commerce site, search for an item, pick out a size and a color, a quantity, put it in the cart, check out, well, then I think that tells you a little bit more, actually, than even a scanning tool.
And understanding and educating yourself about what is a reliable test is key because again, just because the site has great keyboard only navigation, it doesn’t necessarily mean that screen reader navigation is as good. There’s not a one to one correlation there. So again, understand the methods of assessment that you’re using and educate yourself.
And I think listening to honest companies. Again, back to the topic we covered early on, if everything is so easy and everything costs so little and it’s so instant, why do we exist? Why are we just drinking from a fire hose with teams that really want to understand accessible design and development, and do it the right way?
ELISA LEWIS: Thank you. I think, hearing you talk about some of these tools and using the term tool, I think that we need to be more cognizant of what a tool is. It’s something that’s meant to be used, maybe along with other tools and additional knowledge to help us get somewhere or accomplish something. But it’s not a magic bullet. And I think that thinking about it in that way is really helpful in kind of taking it for what it is. And I think the sort of disclaimer that you mentioned on the WebAIM site is really important. Yes, this can be used, but it’s not the magic bullet, like I said.
MICHELE LANDIS: Yeah. There is no magic bullet. A lot of people who have met me or have worked with me, they will kind of giggle at this, but I sometimes refer to the magic stuff as, like, the Harry Potter method of website accessibility. And I don’t mean anything against Harry Potter or that business.
What I mean is, again, if you understand design and development, you should already understand why there is no quick bullet, why there’s no quick fix. It’s the clients, and sometimes misinformed advisors, that think that there should be, or at least do that. It’s helpful. I think that’s one thing that I was thinking about earlier but didn’t add in, too. A lot of times it was a knee-jerk reaction to put something up.
But understand that you could actually be making it worse. In every single time A360 has audited those, and we haven’t audited everything on the internet, but in every single instance, the experience was worse. So please pay attention to that, and don’t make any rash or knee-jerk decisions, would be my advice.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, that’s a great point. So Accessible360 works to provide a thorough, live, disabled user audit of an organization’s given digital assets with faster remediation through developer-focused audit reports. Would you be willing to share more about what this auditing process looks like?
MICHELE LANDIS: Sure. Yes, of course. Love to brag about our auditors and our CSMs and our process here at A360. So again, when we started A360, there were really, from what I assessed, only four main real competitors out there from the start. And right from the beginning, A360 was different in that we only did full live user audit and new build support services. So we didn’t have any automation whatsoever. And it was all live user.
Our audits are done in teams of humans, so there’s always a blind accessibility engineer along with one or two sighted. And we were the first to, early on, adapt this methodology to mobile app audit space, as well as enterprise platforms, Internet of Things device products, especially in the medical field, kiosks. So a wide range of digital products, certainly not just websites.
The mothership, if you will, is the A360 hub. And this was created early to support our own technologists with disabilities, our auditors. We needed an accessible work ticketing solution, and there were none in the market. I still don’t think others are there. But our blind auditors had a lot of difficulty with the main providers. And so they worked together with our CTO, Kelly Heikkila, to build this from the ground up. And it is the only fully accessible ticketing system that we’re aware of.
So happy to learn and discuss it. There’s others, but we’re getting a tremendous amount of response from this. It’s interesting to me and shocking to me all the time when I learn about accessibility solutions or tools, and the software itself to run them is not even fully accessible. That’s a common thing. But A360 has led from the start with the truest intentions and full accessibility of the hub that we built.
So within the hub is where the audit results are logged. And again, we’re going through– let’s take a website, for example. We’re starting on the home page, where we identify all site-wide issues. We’re going through those key templates that are used in building a website. In a mobile app, we’re going through those mobile views and covering each type of unique functionality or dynamic content within those.
Here’s a big myth, too. This is too expensive, it takes too long, and it’s too hard to do it. No, it’s not. Kelly Heikkila, our CTO, he signs letters of conformance weekly, if not daily, at A360 with teams that have been putting in the hard work. And again, I liken it to somebody who goes through the process of fitness and health the right way. You’re going to get a bill of health. You’re going to get better. You do it the right way, and you’re going to be able to maintain it.
So we’re super proud of all of our client teams and agency partners teams that have done this. And it can be done. It is a myth that it is too expensive. It’s a myth that it’s too hard. It’s new, just like responsive web design was new. I’ve been around long enough to remember selling digital ads on phones when all the screen sizes were totally different, the little Palm Pixie and the big Samsung Galaxies and all that kind of stuff.
So out of necessity, invention was born. And no developer or designer would think of not developing something that is responsive and mobile first now. We’re at the cusp of the tipping point for accessibility. For all of your listeners, please understand this is not a fad. This isn’t a thing because companies are being sued. It is a thing because it is a violation of humans’ civil rights to the equitable access of publicly available information, goods, and services. I don’t remember the last time anybody filled out a paper application and walked it into a place of business. You apply online. I haven’t even had a checkbook in I can’t tell you how many years. Schools need to get up to date with electronic and peer-to-peer payment.
But our whole lives are digital, right? And COVID, especially, brought out the disparity between currently able-bodied participants in society navigating where to get information on vaccines and shots and booster shots and testing, and how to get their groceries delivered, and how to bank online, and all those things. Imagine, if you will, if you’re home alone, and you don’t have somebody there to help you do these things, and you’ve got to rely on the internet itself, and you can’t find out this vital information.
So this is not going away. It isn’t a fad. The need for universal design is global. We have never had a generation of humans aging dependent on technology like we do now. And so one of the biggest impressions I can make on people is roll up your sleeves and figure out how to do this. Learn, because it isn’t going away. And if you’re in the design or development field, if you stick your head in the sand, you’re going to be the last one that doesn’t know how to do it. Trends are moving, and it isn’t going away. And it isn’t a thing because people are being sued. It’s a thing because humans are not being provided equitable access.
Let me bring you back to A360, the hub, our mother ship and how we do it. So the big differentiator about A360 is our custom-recommended fixes. Because our auditors are technologists with disabilities, and skilled accessibility engineers, they’re going to take a look at what your code is and give you a couple of examples of moving forward.
One of the great things about WCAG now is that there’s not just one way to fix things. We started this podcast talking about Section 508. The way to fix things in Section 508 compliance was incredibly prescriptive and really, really strict about the ways that you could fix things. The great thing about, as we learn more about this and as technology continues to advance and update, there’s a couple of ways always, typically, that you can solve an accessibility issue. And so the auditors and the customer success managers at A360 work with our clients teams to make the best decision moving forward to bring that non-accessible element into compliance and full usability for everyone.
The A360 is home to the incredible knowledge base. All issues that we find on websites are linked to a knowledge base article for further learning and explanation. Those are incredibly helpful when you’re building something new. We literally start with, how do you design a image carousel to be accessible? How do you make accordion menus accessible? We’ll start with design. We’ll walk you through semantic HTML and then into specific code samples and that kind of thing.
So that is really, kind of in a nutshell, the secret sauce about A360 and why we’re different. Most of the positive feedback that I hear are given that there are other accessibility vendors out there that can certainly identify issues, they can certainly do QA, what I hear routinely from our clients at A360 is, finally, we get it. You got us that last 10%, 15%, 20% of the way. So even big organizations that are really focused on the commitment to accessible design and development, they still needed a vendor to get them that final push. So that’s what I’m most proud of at A360 is that word of mouth reputation. And I appreciate you asking the question about how we do it.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing such a thorough response. I really appreciate it. And I think it’ll be really helpful for our listeners to understand as well. How does the insight that you gained from this process lend itself to practical code development solutions?
MICHELE LANDIS: Yeah, I think that’s a great follow-up question. So our client teams, what they experience, and agency partners working on behalf or alongside of them, they learn more with A360, period. That’s what I was trying to say, and that’s a really more succinct way of saying it.
We are a mission driven organization. We want teams to understand how to do. This we are focused on their learning and getting them to commit to continuing to do this correctly so that the investment that their corporation made in the audit and the remediation QA, that there’s a return on that investment, and that they maintain the accessibility of the website.
I think what’s lacking most in the industry is everything from the cookie cutter suggestions, like copy and paste right out of WCAG, oh, if you have this issue, do this. Well, that might work, but it might not work. And so it leaves client teams feeling frustrated, wasting time and resources. And so the way that we’ve engineered our services is that mission driven, that servant leadership, if you will, in the niche area of accessibility.
I have a son who just recently graduated as a full stack web developer. It is a myth that the developers, even those that have been doing it a long time, this is not taught in school. You can graduate and start working, and you never heard anything about accessibility. When my son was going through the boot camp in his full stack web development, they learned that his mom co-founded A360. And as a routine, we sent over a couple of auditors for two hours on Career Day to expose them to this. But it is not yet part of the curriculum.
And so a lot of times when we’re working with large corporations, we’re defending those developers and designers and the agencies. And we’re saying, hey, look, c-suite of the big corporation, you not only have a misinformed idea of what it is and how to get this done, your IT team doesn’t have it. They need help. And that really helps build the relationships, I think, just that debunking of where the subject matter expertise comes from this. So.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. We’ve certainly seen that one, at 3Play with our own development team, and really kind of individuals that join the team, sometimes joining 3Play is the first time that they’re really hearing about accessibility. But also with other organizations and SaaS companies that we’ve tried to bring on, whether it be on the marketing team, a website company, or whatever the case may be, even if it’s like a video creation platform.
We want to work with other organizations and other companies that have an understanding. We need to make sure that everything we’re providing is accessible. And you really do see, kind of, that the limitation is there.
MICHELE LANDIS: You know what I think has been the best part of our relationship with 3Play is the networking, to your point, these other third party providers. Again, back when we started A360, we could see that the hit would first come to websites. It was then going to go to mobile apps. Then it was going to go to enterprise systems and IoTs and programmable thermostats and exercise machinery that has a tablet included, and all those types of things.
And then we also knew that it would hit third party providers. Anybody whose business is to support another type of digital product or platform, they need to understand, probably faster than others, that in order to stay viable, in order to stay in the marketplace, they need to adapt. And this is not going to end with, oh, this is a third party and so I don’t have to make that accessible. The pressure is coming, and it has for a couple of years, on third party providers.
And again the network, with A360 and 3Play Media and understanding how is it going for that review provider? What’s that store locator? How’s that working? What about this shipping thing that we’re adding on? What about this popup modal? How are these behaving? Yeah, and networking together to make sure that everybody is held accountable for it.
ELISA LEWIS: So you mentioned that the reason for digital accessibility isn’t because of lawsuits. It’s because of a human need. And I think that that’s a really great thing to remember. Unfortunately, lawsuits do seem to be a way to get people’s attention and kind of get action to happen. I’m curious, organizations that choose not to prioritize digital accessibility, they could be at risk of legal action. And many organizations incorrectly believe that they won’t be sued again after the first lawsuit. Could you tell us more about the business risk that this mindset poses?
MICHELE LANDIS: Sure. Well, first of all, in the great country that we’re in, you can be sued for anything at any time by anyone. We’re just an incredibly litigious society. Our neighbors to the north in Canada, where another division of our company is located called T-Base Communications, they do Braille, large print. They also make PDFs accessible. We have another new member to our corporate family, and that’s CommonLook. We’re super excited to marry all three of these brands and services at A360 and cover the full gamut of both digital and tactical accessibility, if you will.
But what I want to say about organizations believing that if they are targeted for a lawsuit, a couple of things that I see out there. Number one, I think there’s a misnomer that a demand letter or a lawsuit means that I don’t know who, but that some credible third party legal entity plaintiff law firm did an audit on your website and found out it wasn’t accessible. That’s not what I’ve ever seen.
What I see is an accusation. What I see is a report of a plaintiff trying to access the website and having difficulty. What I also see is really common cookie cutter language in demand letters and lawsuits filed repetitively. I agree with your statement that lawsuits have raised the awareness of the need, the human need for this. The methods are varied, just like every business. Plaintiff firms that are in the business have a wide range of tactics and a wide range of what they do.
It is true that settling one lawsuit does not protect you from something else. And I’ll be honest, and no one wants to hear this, but you can actually fix your website and get a letter of conformance, and you can still get a demand letter or a lawsuit. And the reason for that is circling back to my opening comment on this answer. And that is, who’s sending that out?
So what I see when I look at the federally filed lawsuits, and I see the ones in state district courts, is I see trends. One week it’s child care products, cribs, car seats, tyke bikes, all that kind of stuff. The next week it might be certain universities in a certain area. My past history in marketing and sales tells me there seems to be a method to that madness. They’re kind of grouped. And internally, and I think everybody can see this, it’s like, oh, real estate companies getting hit again. OK, they’re back to suing banks. OK. So I’m soliciting these.
And it’s a very easily spotted trend. And I’m not knocking their marketing. I’m not knocking their approach. What I will say, in a little bit of comic relief here, is I am shocked that the high volume plaintiffs themselves, who must be on the website, on the internet constantly, aren’t getting better at navigating a JAWS or NVDA.
And I’m not trying to be salacious here or invite any type of criticism, but I don’t feel, in my personal opinion, that every demand letter or every lawsuit that I read that comes after a client or a potential client of A360’s is accurate. And I’m not stating that the website is fully compliant. But a lot of times you can get legal action on a site that is completely usable by somebody that is dependent on screen reader technology. And again, this goes way into the weeds about these cases and kind of business risks and that type of thing.
So I’ll bring it back to your original question. The reason they can get sued again is because there’s no provision in the United States Court system that protects you. There’s no double jeopardy. Your website is a living, breathing piece of code. So let’s assume that the first plaintiff was correct, and your website’s not usable and it’s not compliant. And you don’t make a mistake and put up an overlay, but you actually get an audit from a credible vendor. You fix the issues. You receive a letter of conformance. And then somebody else sends you something.
Well, at that point, A360 has, for years, really disrupted the industry with how to defend organizations that are improving their site. And this is the struggle, I think. It’s the part that really is frustrating because organizations that put a tremendous amount of money and effort into making things accessible can still get sued.
And the only way that I can sum it up is that’s the country we live in. And so there are certain strategies and tactics that A360 puts into place for their clients. But the facts are I’ve seen larger plaintiff firms sue an organization. Then you might see one or two smaller plaintiff firms send a demand letter or file a lawsuit.
The other thing I want listeners to understand is, for every lawsuit that gets filed, I would say there’s a minimum of 100 to 500 demand letters that go out. So again, the difference is a demand letter is like a nice little letter that says we’re fixing to sue you, also known as an invoice. If you settle it, then a lot of times they won’t file that lawsuit. You settle it, and so you’re done with that. So again, tons of details there. But trying to round out a really thorough answer for you there.
ELISA LEWIS: Yeah, thank you for that. Many of our myths are the result of the general 508 confusion that we talked about earlier, including claims that the standards are unclear or the belief that organizations are independently responsible for maintaining long-term compliance. How can organizations develop a clear plan for improving and maintaining their accessibility standards?
MICHELE LANDIS: I think this is a great question. And it kind of ties all these different moving pieces together. The point that the standards are unclear– no, they’re not. The standards are very clear. The international standards brought to us by the W3C 22 plus years ago when they launched the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, certainly there’s things that are added to it. There’s a Version 2.1, there’s a Version 2.0. And so we build on the prior versions.
But they’re not reinvented constantly. It’s not this huge moving target. There’s consistency. There’s four main areas. We add success criteria to the WCAG versions when developers and designers create something new. And we need to have accessibility guidelines for that to ensure that there’s equitable access.
So all I can say is anybody who still thinks that it’s unclear isn’t really paying attention or doing their homework. There is just overwhelming case law that not only that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines are the recognized standard, mostly by the fact that Section 508 was retired and they adopted them. And that happened back in 2018. They made the decision sometime in 2016 because they issued the one year notification period in 2017.
So it’s 2022. Get over it. These are the standards. Now there might be some other standards in different regions or countries. Up in Canada, the Ontario Accessibility Act, we deal with a couple of extra success criteria and reporting measures up there. The UK and other regions and countries around the world, certainly, have tweaks to it. They certainly have additional things and reporting requirements per business vertical. But WCAG is the standard.
If you’re ever speaking to a vendor that says, oh, we came up with our own standards. We’ve taken the WCAG and we’ve tweaked it to be more whatever, easy to reach or what have you, I would run from that. And I think everybody in the industry would agree with me on that.
So going back to the second part of your question, and how can organizations develop that clear plan? First and foremost, they have to put money for it. And you’ve got to measure it. That old adage in corporate America, nothing gets done that isn’t measured. So if you just get a lawsuit, and you give the directive to your IT team to find a vendor and fix it, and you never understand what it takes, you never understand the cost of it, you never understand the education required, you’re not going to be any further ahead.
Let’s use the analogy of sexual harassment training. Companies a long time ago understood that there was a need to train and bring in independent trainers and cover this as far as an HR issue. Training and learning about it and being informed and educated on that topic certainly doesn’t prevent a company from ever having an employee that harasses someone else. So there’s no guarantee.
But companies put money to that training. Companies put money to diversity and inclusion training. This is an extension of that. It wasn’t too long ago that I was speaking at a longtime standing conference on diversity and inclusion. And when I was asking questions from the audience of the keynote speakers, and they were along the lines of, what about people with disabilities? Where are they in the scorecard? How are you measuring that?
And the answers consistently from the thought leaders in diversity and inclusion at the time– not everybody, but the ones I was talking to– was well, they’re already included in another group. It was kind of a pause, an awkward pause. And the reality is I don’t think they thought about it. They were thinking about the different characteristics that they have in diversity and inclusion. And then in their head, they just thought, well, you know, somebody that has a disability is either male or female. They’re either white or multiracial. And so on goes the differentiators.
But the fact is that people with disabilities deserve their time in the sun, and it’s been a long time coming. Organizations need to have a plan. They need to sit down and plan for this, just like they do with every internal corporate initiative. Take the SEG, the Sustainability Environmental Governance that’s now being launched. Or take GDPR, or take cybersecurity. Organizations sat down. They planned. They put money in the budget. Why aren’t they doing it for accessibility? They need to.
And so the takeaways are, sit down and plan for this. Put money towards it. Assign ownership. We kind of joke– when I teach continuing legal ed, I joke about how well, the business unit manager says legal should own accessibility. Legal says it’s for the product and IT guys. And they say it’s for the UX team. So the finger just keeps getting pointed, and nobody is taking accountability for it.
If you’re a large enough organization, you should have an accessibility coordinator, and you should have multidisciplinary members from your executive team and your front line team concentrated on this. You’ve got to put money in your budget for it. You need to select a credible vendor. And you need to give your team the resources and time in order to accomplish this. And it needs to be coordinated from legal, from finance, and from the technology leaders. So we have solid plans for any size corporation, everything from nonprofit, small nonprofit up to any state’s 10 largest employers.
So take action. Learn what you need to do. And I think the biggest thing we can do now, at the end of the year, is to encourage the listeners to not do nothing, to get started. I think a lot of people who are in compliance or in IT or development or in UX or marketing at a company, they tune in to things like the podcast today, or they watch a webinar. And they want to learn about their risk, to your question. How do the corporations move forward after they’ve done a good risk assessment?
And action is what they need to do. You don’t have to do everything. You need to start. And that’s the biggest takeaway that I could give any of the listeners is, get an independent live user assessment of the website or mobile apps that you operate so that you understand where you’re starting from. So another super long answer, but you’re used to that with me.
ELISA LEWIS: Thank you so much for sharing all of that great information. And really, your passion comes through in the conversation. And I appreciate the advice on behalf of myself and our listeners to kind of get going and take action. I think that’s a really great note to end on and great piece to leave as a final takeaway.
We’re really so glad that you were able to join us on Allied today. How can our listeners connect with you online to stay in touch and to stay on top of all that we talked about post-the podcast episode?
MICHELE LANDIS: Sure, thanks. First of all, hit me up on LinkedIn. Love to connect. Reach out, let me know what you’re working on. Michele, I only have one L in my name. My mom only gave me one. And my email address is just first name at company. So Michele, M-I-C-H-E-L-E@Accessible360.com. Or visit our website at Accessible360.com.
And again, the other divisions in our now ever-growing accessibility solutions company would be T-Base Communications and CommonLook. And we’re super excited to fold all of these services and brands together under our one new name and be the one stop solution for any need in accessibility. So thanks again for the opportunity. And I look forward to hearing from listeners if we can be of help. Thank you.
ELISA LEWIS: Thank you.
Thanks for listening to Allied. If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to help support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media, or leave us a rating and review. To catch all the latest on accessibility, visit www.3PlayMedia.com/alliedpodcast. Thanks again. And I’ll see you next time.