Summer Hires- Culture

Part 4: Accessibility is the New Normal

I’m sitting down to write this blog on Global Accessibility Awareness Day. We’ve been thinking about accessibility here at SD for a few years, and we’ve been speaking about it publicly for a little over a year now – and in just that short period of time the world has changed. We are seeing a huge new round of ADA-centric lawsuits for 2nd and 3rd tier (5-25MM annual revenue) digital commerce sites. We have a retail sector in crisis in North America with bricks-and-mortar stores shuttering at a pace not seen in nearly a decade since the financial crisis. Some of those very bricks-and-mortar businesses are embattled on both sides – with major brands like Foot Locker, Toys ‘R Us and Brooks Brothers also dealing with ADA lawsuits on their websites.

And yet, digital commerce is booming. Last holiday season mobile overtook desktop for site visits for the first time; and mobile conversion is on the rise overall. Millennial shoppers in developing nations are beginning to outpace an aging Boomer population – today there are more millennials shopping on Alibaba in China than there are men, women and children in the United States, period.

A digital transformation is taking over commerce – and as a larger proportion of the marketplace becomes digital-first it’s a matter of time before accessibility becomes a de-facto requirement for ecommerce; much the way that handicap ramps and accessible bathrooms are the norm in building codes today. In 2016, over 240 lawsuits were filed against websites for lack of accessibility, the vast majority of them being class-action lawsuits. And because the cost of retrofitting sites for accessibility is being driven down across the industry these lawsuits are looking more and more attractive to those who profit for them – mostly because Title III exemptions for “undue burden” is harder and harder to claim for successful retailers; especially for those with a larger corporate backing.

In 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law the World Wide Web didn’t exist; and websites weren’t considered a place of “public accommodation”. And the law hasn’t been amended to adapt to modern times, so it’s being steered by case law. And that’s not working toward the favor of the retailer today.

So how does a retailer plan for this? In the consulting realm, we seem to see a lot of parallel here in 2017 to how our clients were approaching Responsive Web Design back in 2014. Many of our clients are aware of the necessity of designing for accessibility – but the additional cost is prohibitive and they’re not feeling the pressure from their customers. We anticipate that this will shift dramatically in the next 12-24 months and retailers need to be planning an accessibility exercise in the context of their next build.

If there are downsides to the ADA being applied to websites, then there are upsides as well. Brick-and-mortar retailers have had annual tax credit incentives for the better part of 30 years to implement physical infrastructure improvements to increase accessibility – such as wheelchair ramps, striping or parking reconfiguration, signage or widening of doorways. There is a strong suggestion that the IRS’ deferral to the DOJ in the application of rules as it pertains to eligibility for website accessibility access to Capital Expenditure tax credits may have opened the door to businesses being able to apply for and receive credit for web accessibility work. Our suggestion to merchants: begin budgeting over the next 2-3 years to make continual ongoing improvements. Listen to the good advice of your trusted partners when implementing new tech or new site features and ask how they impact your accessibility. If your ecommerce platform is nearing end-of-life or it has been 4-5 years since you last replatformed, now is a good time to start thinking about accessibility.

We’ve spent a good amount of time over the last year convincing you that accessibility is necessary. In that time, we’ve seen some great resources come to the forefront for us to help continue the conversation. Microsoft recently released its Inclusive Design website detailing its vision for equitable digital experiences. We love the work happening with Microsoft across a range of platforms – not just web – and we feel there’s a lot to learn from their leadership in the space.

Salesforce has a User Experience team who have developed some thought leadership in this space as well. Their UX blog has a dedicated section to learning about and improving leadership in accessible site design.

For those of you who can’t wait 2 or 3 more years before getting started on your accessibility projects you may want to do some additional research. Thankfully there are some great resources available, the US Government’s Section 508 website is particularly helpful and has a great getting started guide.

And finally, we’ve just wrapped up a series of live events talking about this very topic. I spoke at Magento’s annual conference in April of 2017 about SD’s approach to compliance and how to budget for additional levels of compliance in your business. If you like charts and graphs as well as case studies this is the talk for you!

We hope that this has been as valuable for you as it has been for us. We hope to continue the story on Merchant to Merchant, our series of podcasts where merchants get together and talk about their struggles and successes. We hope the you’ll join the conversation – we want your feedback – tell us your story!

Written by: Phillip Jackson, Ecommerce Evangelist