An Interview with ClearEdge’s Head of Technology, Gordon Jackson
The Head of Technology for ClearEdge Marketing since 2020, Gordon Jackson has long been a passionate and engaged advocate for diversity and inclusion in the world he knows best: the digital marketplace. In this Q&A, you will hear directly from Gordon on why he has made accessibility, inclusion, and ADA compliance cornerstones of the technology transformations he leads and the web solutions he builds.
Q: Can you share why digital accessibility has become an important issue for you?
A: In my family, there is a genetic disorder that affects the eyes, and therefore your vision. My mom has it, which means more than likely I have it. Time will tell. It’s scary to think how I or my kids might one day need to navigate the world with a visual impairment. It hits a little closer to your heart, and for me it has generated even greater empathy for people who have to navigate a world that was not designed with them in mind.
Beyond that personal reality, accessibility is also something I believe in strongly, and I know it’s something I can impact in the technology space. One thing I like to do is take the digital systems and landscapes we work in as technologists and reconfigure them back into physical ones. It’s a mental exercise that I think helps us better understand the challenges and address the needs of different populations. Here’s an example of what I mean. In the talent industry, I like to think of candidates as out in the world looking for and applying for jobs. Imagine you are out there with them on the street, and there is a “help wanted” sign outside of a store. To apply for that job and get a fair chance at being hired, you need to only see the sign, open the door, and talk to someone.
But what if you are differently abled? You see person after person walk up to the door and go inside. Then, you walk up but the same door does not open for you. Perhaps you can’t see a handle to pull. Or, the instructions are in symbols you can’t understand. On top of that, no one is willing to help you. You are stuck on the outside of opportunity while everyone inside is getting ahead. And that is the story of so many websites out there right now. People are left outside of opportunity.
That’s why I have made it my mission to ask every business or partner I work with this question: Are you truly an equal opportunity employer (EOE) if your website is not ADA compliant?
Q: ADA digital compliance and WCAG compliance are not widely understood. Can you share what they mean?
A: All federal agencies, from national parks to the IRS, are required to be in compliance with section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That section requires information and communication technology (ICT) to be accessible. Now if you are not part of the Federal government or one of its contractors or subcontractors, you may think, “I am off the hook.” Not so fast.
The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation. While Title III does not explicitly address whether websites or apps are “places of public accommodation,” the Department of Justice has taken a position that they are as this excerpt from the American Bar Association explains:
“Title III does not directly address whether places of public accommodation include websites, mobile applications, or other emerging web-based technologies. However, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the primary federal government agency responsible for enforcing the ADA, has taken the position that Title III applies to all public-facing websites used by companies that otherwise qualify as places of public accommodation.”
- 2023 American Bar Association: Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Website Compliance (americanbar.org)
If you are offering services to the public (selling products or solutions), your business too could be subject to serious fines for non-compliance with Section 508 or Title III of the ADA. Federal lawsuits are also on the rise as more and more plaintiffs take their cases on website accessibility to court. On top of that, many of your own clients and partners do adhere to section 508 and require their vendors and partners to do the same. As diversity and inclusion understanding increases, businesses need to be prepared for ADA compliance to be a factor in how they are evaluated by prospects, job seekers, and potential partners.
WCAG, or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, are part of a series of web accessibility guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium. It provides international specifications on best technical practices for creating and maintaining the most accessible website. Websites can be ranked by WCAG conformance as A, AA, or AAA. While these are not legal international standards, they do serve as a reference for 508 and ADA compliance in the U.S. In other areas of the world, these guidelines have been codified into law. For example, in the EU public websites must achieve AA WCAG compliance.
Q: How does universal design play into ADA compliance and which comes first?
A: I love Universal Design and its principles. That said, it’s a concept and not a law or set of requirements. Just because you have followed Universal Design principles that doesn’t mean you are ADA compliant. And just because you are ADA compliant that doesn’t mean you are using Universal Design.
Builders of websites and applications need to pay attention to both universal design and ADA compliance in my opinion. That’s why my advice is to plan or become compliant quickly in the process. Put the right and required technical elements in place ASAP using tools like AccessiBE, our compliance partner here at ClearEdge. There are wonderful tools that can accelerate the path to Level A and AA compliance with some quickwin fixes. Once you are compliant on an existing site, then dive into the Universal Design principles that correlate to websites, such as flexibility, tolerance for errors and low physical effort, and work to increase accessibility in more ways. New sites would have ADA principles defined prior to design and therefore have a better chance of adopting those principles.
Q: Who benefits from increased web accessibility?
A: It’s everyone. Even if you consider yourself to be a 100%-abled person with no friends or family that might need consideration, at the very least, you will still benefit from a better user experience that comes with compliance. We all benefit when lawsuits are not clogging the court system. And for employers, outstanding candidates who might have once been blocked from navigating a job site are now inside your database. I see it as growing benefits and success for all.
Q: What are the risks to business if they aren’t thinking about and designing for accessibility?
A: Some risks are obvious once the law is understood, but then there are also the risks of missing opportunities to engage prospects, candidates and partners.
According to a University of Utah study, over 96% of website homepages are not compliant with WCAG standards and are therefore breaking the law for ADA compliance. Meanwhile, around one in four Americans have some sort of disability. While not all disabilities affect web experience, it’s clear that many millions of people out there do require accommodations. Businesses that are compliant are lowering the risk of legal issues while also improving UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) to better engage a bigger, more diverse audience.
I also want to add a word of warning around risk. Right now, there are useless scam tools out there purporting to handle ADA compliance. Let me just say this: Seals indicating compliance on a website sometimes mean nothing. In fact, you might just earn a seal to learn that your site is still not compliant. If you have any questions about an organization offering some sort of seal of ADA compliance, my team at ClearEdge is happy to answer your questions. And look out for extortion. If you get a letter about non-compliance, take it to your legal team to ensure it’s legit.
Q: We are very lucky to work in the talent industry where our clients are helping people around the world find work and succeed in the workplace. What’s your #1 piece of accessibility advice to our staffing, recruiting and talent tech clients as they build and manage their digital assets?
My number one piece of advice is to make ADA compliance a priority from the start. Make accessibility part of the culture of your business and not just the website. The last thing you want is to come to the end of a website and application development project and try to retrofit accessibility.
And here’s the good news. You don’t have to tackle everything in house. Compliance is complicated and things change. While the implementation costs are usually cheaper than the fines, there are people and tools that can help.
Adding an AI compliance tool to your website is only a few hundred dollars at ClearEdge, and we also have the technical skills to enhance or build websites from the ground up to be better and more universal. And, at ClearEdge, we do not make money on this. We would rather give advice. We want to see companies become compliant and embrace accessibility.We want to help solve the compliance issue and make websites better for our clients and their customers. We want the doors of opportunity to be unlocked and open to all!