This year, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 30 years old. Since it first became law back in 1990, the Act has provided public and private-sector organizations with clear guidelines on how they should make physical spaces accessible for people with disabilities: the location and number of dedicated parking spaces out front; the optimum angle for wheelchair ramps; the correct height for restroom handrails and washbasins.
Today, the pressure is on to make digital spaces accessible, too. After all, if disabled people struggle to use websites or mobile apps, then they’re effectively excluded from participation in the digital economy.
At Misericordia University, a private Catholic university in northeast Pennsylvania, inclusion has long been treated as a priority in the design and management of both physical and digital spaces, according to David Johndrow, the university’s manager of PC Services. But in 2016, he and his team were asked to take a closer look at website accessibility, after university president Thomas Botzman received a letter from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). The letter warned of a law firm actively targeting NAICU member institutions with lawsuits that alleged non-compliance with the ADA when it came to their websites.
Picking through legal complexity
This is where things get tricky: the 30-year old ADA makes no mention of websites and mobile apps, which didn’t even exist when it was drafted. It does, however, state that ‘public accommodations’ (broadly speaking, organizations open to the public) are required to provide ‘effective communication’ with the people they serve. With that in mind, disability advocates argue that, in today’s world, effective communication is impossible if digital channels aren’t accessible to all. Some businesses, however, argue that’s not the case. In short, the rules are very vague and wide open to interpretation - a situation that has led to an avalanche of lawsuits in recent years.
According to law firm Seyfarth Shaw, the number of these website accessibility lawsuits filed in federal courts rose from 814 in 2017 to at least 2,258 in 2018. As recently as October 2019, the US Supreme Court refused to review a case brought before it by pizza chain Domino’s, which is being sued by a blind customer who claims he was unable to order food on the company’s website and mobile app using screen reader technology. Because the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, an earlier decision, made in a lower court, remains in place, stating that Domino’s should make its digital channels accessible.
Back at Misericordia University, the IT team was able to assure Dr Botzman that not only was the university’s website accessible, but also that it was more so than many others in the higher education sector.
Like most organizations that take digital inclusion seriously - recognizing it as the right thing to do, rather than merely a compliance issue - the University uses standards published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), known as the web content accessibility guidelines, or WCAG. These were first issued in 1999, updated in 2018 and have come to be seen as the de facto international standard, so adherence to them (or otherwise) is often taken into account in legal cases.
When benchmarked against these standards, the average accessibility score for universities and colleges back in 2016 was around 65%, says Johndrow, but Misericordia was already achieving upwards of 70%:
But we knew there was more we could be doing, and we wanted to take accessibility to the next level. So we formed a task force to focus on our online presence and to keep up with changing technology that would help us deliver inclusivity.
An eye on the next level
It was during conversations between this accessibility task force and the university’s content management system (CMS) provider Finalsite that AudioEye was first mentioned. Launched in 2013, AudioEye is a cloud-based service that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to automatically evaluate website content and make it accessible to people with visual impairment, as well as other disabilities including dyslexia, epilepsy and colour blindness.
Customers embed a basic script into their website pages that gives Audioeye control to find and remediate issues through a number of autonomous and manual processes. Sites that use AudioEye, meanwhile, display a toolbar that gives visitors access to personalization tools, so they can adjust color contrast, font types and sizes, and space between words and letters, for example, to suit their own particular needs. Customers include payroll specialist ADP, automotive company Kia and electronics giant Samsung, and Nasdaq-listed Audioeye has forecast revenues between $10 million and $11 million for the year ending 31 December 2019.
Since working with Audioeye, Misericordia has now boosted its accessibility score to around 95%, compared to a current education sector average of around 71%. Says Steve Filipiak, web content coordinator at the university:
That level of accessibility is something we’re very, very proud of offering, because when we’re more accessible, it’s just a better, more positive experience of Misericordia for our students, our faculty, for family and friends. It’s really a total win-win, but most importantly, it’s the right thing to do in terms of being a good citizen and including everyone.
Looking ahead, this low education sector average could be a problem for many colleges and universities in 2020, says AudioEye co-founder, president and chief strategy officer Sean Bradley, since they are likely to find themselves targeted not just by law firms, but also by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which has really stepped up its enforcement efforts in recent years, he says. But there’s no room for complacency in any industry, he adds:
Across every sector, we expect the trend of rising numbers of lawsuits being filed in federal courts to continue in 2020. The tide is rising and we don’t expect this to slow down. We built our technology with this situation in mind. Early on, we said that the ADA was going to apply to the digital world. It was inevitable - and sure enough, here we are today, where there’s just huge activity as people increasingly assert their civil rights to digital content that is accessible.