I recently returned from DEEP 2012, a conference on ICT accessibility organized by G3ict and sponsored by the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University. The conference was held in Toronto and brought together thought leaders and experts in areas of ICT accessibility, covering an array of topics and brainstorming sessions related to moving ICT accessibility forward a greater clip.

Although not on the agenda, one topic pervasive in both the formal and informal conference discussions was related to the frustration around the lack of solid ICT accessibility business cases.

AODA – a useful model of intervention?

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) took center stage on day one with representatives involved in shepherding and implementing provisions of the Act speaking on various aspects of it.  AODA is applicable not only to Ontario’s government bodies, but to private sector organizations (effective in 2016).
How well AODA works to increase ICT accessibility adoption remains to be seen as the implementation of many of the important provisions has just begun, and there will no doubt be a few bumps along the way. But the fact is, Ontario has done what no one else has done to date: require entities in both the public and private sector doing business in the province to make their ICT(web specifically) accessible thru a governance model that includes a requirement for organizations to report specific criteria thru an online filing system operated by the province.

Civil rights not business cases

How was Ontario able to adopt such a law? Do you think there was a business case that supported it?  If there was, it would have certainly been externalized by now, right?  AODA didn’t need a dollars and cents kind of business case for ensuring equality to all of Ontario’s citizens including people with disabilities, because it views accessibility as a civil right.

For what I consider an “apples to apples” comparison, let’s look at accessibility regulations for the built environment…choose a state, province, country, etc. Were there business cases that justified the cost of fitting new and existing buildings for accessibility? While there  were probably numerous impact assessments done, I’m not aware of any use of business cases, because business case justification is not relevant when dealing with civil rights issues.

If you follow this rationale, and the precedent set for accessibility of the built environment, why is business case justification a valid argument for providing access to ICT? What’s different about giving people physical access as opposed to ICT access?  Civil rights wise I would argue…nothing.

Before accessibility regulations for the built environment were enacted, entities rarely would have decided to expend financial resources of their own volition for accessibility because physical accessibility was an expense that they would have rather not incurred and didn’t see the need to incur it. So if left up to the entities themselves to “do the right thing”, very little would have been done, leaving those with disabilities literally out in the cold.  To solve this problem, regulations were enacted. While enforcement was and can still be challenging as new situations arise, the initiative has been very successful given the scale of the built environment. In the US for example, you will rarely encounter a commercial building code that doesn’t require full compliance to accessibility laws. Also, oversight and enforcement is fairly strict.

Examining the business case for investment in ICT accessibility

Now, let’s turn to the ICT environment. What motivation, other than “doing the right thing” do organizations have for investing (yes, it does require investment) in ICT accessibility? Let’s be honest here. When comparing the ratio of the number of organizations that develop, sell, or use ICT worldwide to the demonstrated business case and ROI examples for increased revenue and profitability from implementing ICT accessibility over the past 10 years, the ratio is pretty darn low.

The same holds true on the litigation side. Sure, there have been a few high visibility cases, (mostly settled and not ruled on by judge or jury) but again, not many in relationship to the number of organizations in the global ICT environment.

When private sector organizations looks pragmatically at such data points, the business case for investment in ICT accessibility adoption doesn’t look all that compelling, leaving little in the way of incentive to take ICT accessibility seriously.

So, if the ROI case isn’t clear, and the risk of inaccessible ICT is low, how can organizations be convinced that ICT is important and needs to be adopted?

What’s missing in existing accessibility regulations?

Equal access to goods and services, be it physical or electronic, is not a business option, it’s a civil right. Therefore, we must look to government to ensure equality for all citizens at all levels of ability by enacting better regulations to guarantee all individuals access to ICT based goods and services…just like the built environment.

“But there already are regulations”, you say.  While this is true, most current disability regulations (not to be confused with technical standards) with respect to ICT accessibility governance are not well defined and therefore not very enforceable.

One element missing in many accessibility regulations is a simple, yet fundamental element that could significantly increase adoption: Include provisions in ICT disability regulations requiring organizations to have and implement an ICT accessibility policy.

What would a regulation that mandates ICT accessibility policy look like?

It might look something like AODA, with respect to requiring organizations in the public and private sectors to have a web accessibility policy and report accessibility criteria through a government operated database.

The state of Texas has rule provisions that apply to all state agencies and institution of higher education requiring them to have an ICT accessibility policy; however, the provisions do not encompass other governmental bodies or private sector organizations in the state, nor does it retain a database of agency compliance to ICT accessibility criteria.

The idea behind integrating ICT accessibility policy mandate into disability regulations and requiring the filing of those policies with a government body is to compel organizations to drive themselves towards higher ICT accessibility adoption through compliance to their own “official” (filed) accessibility policy. (I call this Policy Driven Adoption) The policy provisions would have to contain criteria as to what would be required in organizations’ ICT accessibility policies which, by the way, would be filed with the government authority responsible for accessibility regulations.

Requiring a filed policy shouldn’t be too difficult to enforce / audit, as the high level action of filing criteria may be fairly binary…an organization’s policy is filed or it isn’t. It contains the correct criteria (setting achievable deadlines, and requiring organizations to show progress in their initiative, for example), or it doesn’t.  Audit-ability of how well organization’s ICT complies with their own policy gets a bit more challenging, which is where ICT accessibility technical standards might then come into play, but perhaps just reserved for situations when an actual complaint is filed and investigated. (similar to how complaints are handled dealing with the built environment)

The benefits of Policy Driven Adoption.

I would also predict that Policy Driven Adoption would encourage innovation in ICT.  As an example, look at automotive mileage standards which are essentially policy driven. While the automotive industry was initially opposed to stricter standards, they have now fully embraced them, which has given rise to countless innovations in automotive technology, promoting healthy competition, and resulting in a better, cleaner environment that benefits everyone.

The same could hold true for ICT innovation due to the increased demand / requirement for  accessibility…invention of new developer tools to automate and facilitate the development of accessible ICT and accessibility technologies, leveraging of cloud resources to enable accessibility at the end user level (SIRI as an example), or creating other things that we can’t yet even imagine, much of which could benefit everyone.

If a Policy Driven Adoption approach takes hold and begins to be embraced by industry and innovators, the benefits (and business cases) will emerge.

To make this happen, efforts need to be focused on getting policy requirements for organizations into regulation, which isn’t a trivial task, but a highly necessary one.

Additional Reading:

Web accessibility myths 2011 – a call for accessibility advocates to be more business-minded Myth #5. We won’t get enough Return on Investment – Jonathan Hassell, Hassellinclusion