To Hell With Compliance

A few weeks ago, Asa and I added a page to Tenon’s documentation that lists What Tenon Tests in reaction to questions about “How much WCAG coverage” Tenon has. I had already covered, at a high level at least, what can be tested and how quite a while ago and, while Tenon only tests a subset of that, it also serves as a useful reminder of what sort of coverage you can expect from an automated tool. The page is really cool – it is driven by the actual tests inside Tenon so that it is always up to date and accurate. The process of creating that page on what Tenon tests also reminded me of my general disdain for the word “Compliance”. Compliance, you see, is synonymous with doing the bare minimum for users.

Here’s an image that comes to mind whenever I hear “Compliance”. Sure, this ramp has a pole in the middle of it, but hey, its a ramp right?

Many people will see that image and say that the ramp above is not compliant, because the pole is in the middle of it, rendering the ramp unusable. In fact it violates ADA guideline 4.8.3 for ramps, but I still love the analogy with WCAG “compliance”.

1.1.1 Non-text Content: All non-text content that is presented to the user has a text alternative that serves the equivalent purpose, except for the situations listed below. (Level A)

The above quote, from WCAG 2.0, discusses non-text content. The actual success criteria content is longer but not any more detailed. Of course there’s also the Understanding SC 1.1.1 and How to Meet WCAG 2.0. These last two documents are only informative in nature, anyway. Regardless, they’re all written in standards-speak and none of them explicitly state what I think is the most important part of this Success Criteria: that the equivalent to the non-text content must approximate, as closely as possible, the purpose and meaning of the non-text content! There are no failures listed that say “failure due to using a non-equivalent alternative” though admittedly G94 does discuss equivalence. In any case the normative information doesn’t discuss the quality of the alternative. Normative content on conformance contains no discussion of quality user experience, either. In fact, WCAG’s own introduction says:

Note that even content that conforms at the highest level (AAA) will not be accessible to individuals with all types, degrees, or combinations of disability, particularly in the cognitive language and learning areas.

But this post isn’t about WCAG. I fully believe that it is the intent of WCAG to improve user experience and that by following WCAG the users’ experience will be better than it would had WCAG not been followed. That said, compliance with WCAG is not quite the same as usable by persons with disabilities as evidenced by the quote above. WCAG compliance isn’t “the goal” but rather one of many means toward the goal of an accessible user experience. As a standard that seeks to codify what is quite often subjective in nature, WCAG is excellent. But, it is exactly this subjectivity that makes WCAG so challenging and so different from other standards. This subjectivity is what causes people to do only that which is the absolute bare minimum necessary to achieve what they want to call “compliance”.  This bare minimum attitude misses the point entirely, even if your goal is only to mitigate legal risk.

These express terms of the ADA provide plaintiffs several alternative bases upon which to state a claim regarding the inaccessibility of Southwest’s Web site: (a) the Web site is a service, advantage or privilege of Southwest’s travel service, and the Web site’s inaccessibility constitutes a prohibited intangible barrier to that service, advantage or privilege for persons with disabilities; (b) the Web site is a method of providing the travel service’s information to the public, and the Web site’s inaccessibility constitutes a failure to provide auxiliary aids and services necessary to ensure that the information is effectively communicated to persons with disabilities; (c) the Web site’s inaccessibility imposes a prohibited eligibility criteria because it requires people to be able to see text on a computer screen in order to access benefits of Southwest’s travel service; and (d) Southwest’s practice of posting information on its Web site in an inaccessible manner denies persons with disabilities the right to participate in or benefit from the services, privileges or advantage of Southwest’s travel service. ADA Friend of the Court Briefs Filed for Access Now v. Southwest Airlines

What you will notice if you peruse the List of Web Accessibility-Related Litigation and Settlements is that few, if any, mention WCAG compliance in the complaints. When they do mention WCAG, it is merely used to strengthen the complaint. The bulk of the legal complaints revolve around the fact that real users (the complainant) is prevented from performing core system tasks due to the system’s lack of accessibility. To this point, the site’s WCAG compliance doesn’t matter except as it contributes to bolstering the legal complaint. What truly matters, even when attempting to mitigate legal risk, is how usable the system is for actual users.

What this means is that if you think you can do only the bare minimum and call it “compliant”, you’re mistaken. What you need to be concerned with is the experience of the user: give a damn about what you’re doing, and make it usable. Then you’ll be compliant.

If you are interested in learning about the next generation in Web Accessibility Testing, give Tenon.io a try.
If you or your organization need help with accessibility consulting, strategy, or accessible web development, email me directly at karl@karlgroves.com or call me at +1 443-875-7343. Download Resume [MS Word]

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