Who is responsible for digital accessibility?

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a Domino’s Pizza appeal, making way for a lawsuit against the pizza chain that its website was not accessible to the visually-impaired.

There are no laws in the U.S. requiring compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), so the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) often becomes the standard for digital accessibility. The ADA was developed in 1990, before websites and applications were a fundamental component of business. 

While Domino’s says the ADA fails to recognize websites, the federal court of appeals recognizes Domino’s as a place of public accommodation, requiring it to provide measures of accessibility for consumers. In this case, “auxiliary aids and services.” 

With nothing blocking a lawsuit, Domino’s faces legal challenges over how people access its services, spotlighting digital accessibility measures companies have — or have not — put in place. Technology accessibility is a shared responsibility for businesses that extends beyond websites and basic code.

Who heads up digital accessibility

Accessibility transcends most organizations, though a heavy portion of compliance falls on IT. 

When the product of a company is the website, such as an e-commerce site, accessibility will fall to the CTO, Donovan Buck, VP of software engineering at BrandExtract, told CIO Dive.

However, everyone should have their hands in digital accessibility.

“Because accessibility, not just [for] websites, has such a broad scope and impact, some organizations employ chief accessibility officers to oversee accessibility across all of their facilities,” said Buck. A CAO embeds accessibility throughout a business, internally and customer-facing. 

CIOs can contract third-party vendors to tackle digital accessibility concerns, because it is almost always a technology issue, Brent Stewart, senior research director at Gartner, told CIO Dive.

“The technology issue is primarily located in the presentation layer of any website or any mobile app,” said Stewart. Issues usually occur in the HTML, CSS or JavaScript and have little to do with back-end systems.

“It has everything to do with how content is presented, and how content control interfaces, images, videos, are presented in, in what is called the presentation layer of any given system,” he said. 

There are four roles that are primarily responsible for handling presentation work: 

1. Designers 

Designers, including UX and graphic design roles, need to understand digital accessibility in depth and take into account features such as dimensions of certain objects within a screen or page, color and color contrast.

“When we evaluate a user interface in terms of accessibility we occasionally uncover shortcomings in a design treatment that would have impacted all audiences,” said Buck. 

Achieving sufficient contrast between foreground and background text is a consideration for those with contrast sensitivity, “but at the end of the day it makes the content easier for everyone to read,” he said. 

There are also guidelines for lighting, color usage and font that are more user-friendly for those with dyslexia or other neurological impairments. 

2. User experience writers

Companies have to lean on “the creative side” for those producing content strategy, copywriting and editing.

A lot of people assume that designing for accessibility — in both UX and graphic design — means tempering your creativity, but that is not true,” said Buck. Quality of writing is just as important as how content is written because it has to take into consideration how well each piece of content interacts with one another.  

The quality of writing is incredibly important to ensure that people comprehend the content they’re listening to when using a screen reader,” said Stewart. But the content also has to be structured in navigational-friendly way so that people understand what the main sections of the site are, “and are able to effectively drill down and navigate through the content.” 

“Anyone who’s writing content for your website or your app has to know digital accessibility really, really well,” said Stewart. 

3. Presentation Developers 

Web or app developers are responsible for coding interfaces. They think about screen designs and how they translate needs into HTML, CSS, JavaScript, in the case of applications, how the screen could react to Angular.

The roles are also responsible for putting together in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, the structure of any given web page or any given screen with an app.

“Using any of these programming languages to create that presentation layer, they are probably the single most important role when it comes to digital accessibility,” said Stewart. 

More than 80% of digital accessibility issues are related to visual impairments. So when it comes to using screen readers, there’s a way to mark up a web page, with headers, labels and tags that indicate body content navigation in the hierarchy within the page. 

“Even you and I, [if] we had our eyes closed, and we’re using a screen reader, we can logically drill down to that hierarchy of page,” said Stewart. “It will make sense to us, it will be logical,” as opposed to jumping around disparate pieces of content trying to piece them together.

There’s a way to guide the screen reader software, and even some of the hardware inputs as well by using effective HTML, CSS and JavaScript within a given page.

However, “the less JavaScript a webpage needs, the more likely it is to be accessible,” said Buck. 

The majority of those who use screen readers prefer to navigate sites by jumping from headline to headline, according to Buck. Because of this, all headlines have to have adequate tags for describing “their subordinate content,” often after designers and developers have fulfilled their roles. 

But beyond tagging done by HTML, sometimes developers have to write code for accommodating unique interfaces.

In this case, when “content is progressively revealed,” JavaScript can help with providing context and “keep the user-oriented on the page,” said Buck. More often, however, pages do not require this. 

4. Quality assurance testers

Testers should have standard scripts they can run relative to accessibility features in the U.S., assuming companies are running tests before a website or application goes live. 

QA testers “should be essentially the last line of defense in capturing these issues manually and sending these as bugs and having them fixed before anything goes live,” said Stewart.


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