Aaron Cannon is an engineer, who specializes in online accessibility. Cannon, who is totally blind, has been a screen reader user for the past 30 years. He has recently served as an expert witness and consulted companies in a rash of accessibility lawsuits and settlement demand letters. In this phone interview he offers his expert opinion on the state of accessibility in today’s business world, and discusses trends, improvements, and how “drive-by lawsuits” are affecting online accessibility issues and progress.
Kuali: As communication trends move toward increasingly visual communication like clickable images, gifs, memes, and emojis, how is that affecting accessibility?
Aaron Cannon: Emojis a lot of times are read out to me by screen readers, so those actually get read pretty well. We kind of have been moving to more visual means of communication. I can see where that perception has come from. I’m not totally convinced that it’s a huge shift. There have always been situations like that. We’ve always had, for example, maps, and things like that. I think there is a little bit of a push toward visual interfaces, more visual type interactions, but I don’t think we’ve really seen that come to fruition. I think there’s been a lot of talk and a lot of hope, though I don’t know that those thoughts and hopes have really panned out. But that being said, we are seeing a little bit more of infographics and things of that nature, and that can be a little bit of a concern. …
A lot of the information that we are conveying visually can also be fairly easily conveyed through text. If it’s data, tabular data, a simple markup table as an alternative can be sufficient. So there are definitely ways to overcome that. It’s sometimes a hinderance. It’s kind of hit or miss. I haven’t seen a huge negative impact yet. But it’s definitely something to be conscious of if you’re involved in developing content and producing content for the web.
Kuali: Do you find that there are different levels of prioritization of accessibility from state to state or region to region?
AC: I don’t know that there’s a huge difference from state to state as much. Obviously some states are a little more proactive than others. This is not an area I have a great deal of experience in compared to folks who are working in state agencies. As far as in general business, I think it’s pretty equal across the United States simply because if you have a presence in one state, you probably do business in all 50 states. In regards to the drive-by or click-by lawsuits that have been sort of a plague recently; you can be sued in any state but those have traditionally happened in California and Florida. Those tend to be the big states just because they have some state laws that make it a little bit easier to make a claim.
And then again, different countries have different requirements. I think it’s kind of interesting. A lot of countries have harsher or more particular laws than the United States does, but the enforcement is not there. So it’s kind of interesting. It’s kind of a mix. But I mostly have experience with the U.S. and you know, here it’s usually complaint-based. The Department of Justice has kind of dropped the ball in many cases recently in terms of accessibility. A lot of the stuff that’s happening is private action. It seems to be initiated by a private party. Some of it is legit. Most of it, unfortunately, seems to be more about the money—you know the drive-by lawsuits. So it’s a really big problem.
A lot of the information that we are conveying visually can also be fairly easily conveyed through text.
Kuali: Is that a problem because it diminishes the importance of having it in the first place.
AC: Because of these demand letters and these frivolous lawsuits, what’s happening is now we’re having conversations not about how ‘OK, how do we make the web more accessible?’ Or ‘How do we provide equal access to the disabled?’ But now the conversation is more about ‘How do we stop these lawsuits? How do we protect business from these claims?’, which is totally legitimate. When you have situations where a company has put hundreds of hours of work into becoming accessible and yet somebody goes out and downloads a scanning tool and they run it on their website and the scanning tool says there’s errors, well, you know, that may or may not be true. But it doesn’t stop them from getting demand letters. There’s a real sense of frustration in the business community, which it’s hard to blame them. I think, you know, ultimately, harm lawsuits delegitimizes people who do actually have valid claims. And it doesn’t exactly engender goodwill I don’t think. I think it really sets us back a great deal in terms of ADA advocacy and positive accessibility. It just doesn’t help us at all. I’ve written rebuttal reports for demand letters for a system that, you know, you get on there [the website] and they are extremely accessible. But because a scanning tool said “Oh I can’t use it” you know, they’ll just send out a demand letter. It doesn’t cost them hardly anything, and a lot of times folks will just pay up to make it go away.
I think, you know, ultimately, harm lawsuits delegitimizes people who do actually have valid claims.
Kuali: Have you noticed a specific industry or industries that place more value on accessibility than other industries?
AC: It’s really interesting. You can kind of track these lawsuits. You can watch the trend and see that they kind of go down their list of businesses and then they go onto another industry. A big one was community banking and other banks and financial institutions. And then it was retail. And then different sectors in retail like furniture stores and then ... grocery stores has been somewhat more recent. As far as industries that pay more attention to it, I think tends to be industries that are involved in government whether that be providing services to government or things like that just because a lot of the requirements state that ‘OK, you have to meet Section 508.’ I think education is an industry that tends to pay more attention to it simply because of all the additional requirements they have for students with disabilities and, of course, there has been plenty of legal action within education. Education is a little bit unique because to my knowledge there hasn’t been a lot of the drive-by action in education probably because it would be a lot harder. I don’t see how you would pull that off because you have to be a student in order to make that happen. Although, I guess there was one person. I guess that’s not totally true. There was a situation with a person who basically went around to K12 school district websites filing complaints with the department of education. I think it was the department of education. She was filing complaints with somebody over all these schools. She didn’t have any kids in those schools, and didn’t even live in the area, but she found inaccessibility on the website and they had to look at it and investigate and all this other stuff. That’s been kind of a mess and hasn’t really done anyone any favors.
Kuali: What do you envision as the future of accessibility for web-based software?
AC: I am not sure. I think if I knew that I would be making a lot more money than I am now. Ya, that’s a great question. I don’t foresee any major changes that I’m aware of. I think what has to happen is we have to get a lot better at training our developers. That’s really the only thing that I see as having the potential to move the needle. I don’t think at this point, unless there is some breakthrough, I don’t think technology is going to do it for us. We’ve largely exhausted technology; at this point, we as humans just have to become better about thinking about accessibility and understanding accessibility and knowing how to test accessibility when we build stuff. And that’s really what it comes down to.
Kuali: What do you see right now as the biggest strengths of current accessibility efforts?
AC: I think ultimately it will prove to do more harm than good, but you can’t argue with the fact that these drive-by lawsuits have gotten attention so there’s a lot more people talking about accessibility. They’re really not talking about it in the way that they should be or that we would want them to. But it has gotten it on the table, and I think developers are starting to very slowly recognize that this is a legitimate skill, a valuable skill. I think another thing that we’ve got going for us is the standards process. We’ve been keeping up or been pretty good at keeping up with new standards, ARIA standards (Accessible Rich Internet Applications). I mean, yes they definitely have problems, but they are better than nothing. Those are certainly helpful. I think something else that we have right now that’s really valuable that we didn’t always have is a really solid, modern screen reader that’s free and open source. In the form of NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access). So now, if a developer wants to test their site for accessibility, they can download a free screen reader and get a really good sense of what shape it’s in. Previously when we only had screen readers that you had to pay for, like JAWS, for example, well you could technically download the demo version and then you’d have to reboot your computer every 40 minutes. But the problem with that is that’s actually a violation of their terms of service, so even though you could do it, you weren’t supposed to, so it was really weird. So it’s just nice to have that free and open source screen reader that you can use that a significant number of the blind population uses as their primary screen reader.
I think developers are starting to very slowly recognize that this is a legitimate skill, a valuable skill.
Kuali: I’m not a developer, but what I’ve learned, is there are a million ways to skin a cat so to speak. I was under the impression that there was a checklist. But that would be impossible. With that in mind, what do you think would be the weakness of accessibility?
AC: Well, I think just quite simply lack of understanding. That’s definitely the biggest is just the lack of education that I talked about. I know that’s an easy one but that’s the case. Definitely not having those standards or not being able to give black-and-white, 100 percent guidelines on what constitutes accessibility and what doesn’t is unfortunately the case. It’s definitely the problem. But it’s the nature of the beast. There’s not much we can do about it. It’s like trying to say ‘OK, let’s write down standards that will in all cases tell us what constitutes good design, or good visual appearance, an aesthetically pleasing design.’ You are setting for yourself an impossible task because there’s so many ways to get there. And you can imagine ways that you could have a document that told you exactly how to get there and in some instances it’s not going to work out nearly as well as you think it would. It kind of reminds me of the experiment this university did where they—well, I don’t know if it was necessarily an experiment, it was more of a joke— but they basically studied all of the No. 1 hits for the past, I don’t know how many years, and then they figured out, what do those have in common. And then they took all those common elements and composed what they called the greatest song in the world. The result is fairly amusing, but it’s kind of like that. How do you define it? Well, you really can’t. You’ll know it when you see it. To some extent anyway. It’s another part of UX I think.