As accessibility compliance deadline looms, CNIB, Ottawa firm partner to offer website audits to businesses

An Ottawa-based web design firm, Craft&Crew, has partnered with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) to assess the digital accessibility of Ontario organizations.

The move comes ahead of the June 30 deadline for some Ontario businesses and nonprofits, as well as all public sector organizations, to submit an Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) compliance report.

Private Ontario organizations with over 20 employees must submit an AODA compliance report by June 30.

The legislation, which is part of the province’s goal to make Ontario accessible by 2025, requires companies with over 20 employees to submit a compliance report that addresses accessibility standards pertaining to customer service, access to information, public transportation, employment and outdoor public spaces.

The previous deadline of December 30, 2020, was extended due to COVID-19. Organizations that contravene the AODA “can face penalties and fines” of up to $100,000 per day.

After web design firm Craft&Crew heard from a number of businesses unprepared to comply with the AODA, it reached out to CNIB to determine whether this was a widespread problem. When CNIB confirmed it was, the two organizations decided to team up to address the issue.

Together, they aim to help Ontario organizations balance website accessibility and design principles by providing website audits to “the top standard of digital accessibility” and a full report with remediation recommendations. Proceeds from the audits will go directly to CNIB’s programs and mission.

As of January 1, 2021, all Ontario businesses and nonprofits with over 50 employees are legally required to ensure that their websites satisfy WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines, an internationally accepted standard for web accessibility developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). They are also required to submit an AODA compliance report once every three years. W3C guidelines stipulate practices surrounding such elements as non-text navigability and use of contrast.

Over the last four months, David Hale, Craft&Crew’s co-founder and partner, told BetaKit that the web design firm has digitally audited roughly 90 Ontario organizations and found “80 percent-plus do not pass what would be considered the bare minimum for accessibility.”

“The pandemic has exposed how heavily we rely on the Internet in our social, private and professional lives, and lack of accessibility for individuals living with disabilities severely compromises how they can participate in the community, economy and job market,” said Hale.

Hale cited the growing visual design trend towards the use of pastel colours as a common example of inaccessible design. “As soon as you place any form of white or grey text on a lot of those pastel colours, the colour contrast ratio becomes such that if you have a mild visual impairment, [you’re] not actually able to see the words.”

“Digital accessibility is critical to Canadians with disabilities in many aspects of life, including education, employment, government, commerce, health care, recreation and more,” David Demers, executive director of CNIB Quebec, told BetaKit.

Demers said people with disabilities have faced “unique and heightened challenges and vulnerabilities” due to COVID-19, from equality of access to healthcare, to access to information and communications, and as a result, “digital accessibility has never been more important than it is right now.”

Hale thinks organizations need to start thinking of accessible design as good design.

“The inaccurate perception that an accessible website cannot be customer-centric has held businesses back from making meaningful changes to their web practices, even in the face of the AODA compliance requirements,” said John Rafferty, president and CEO of CNIB.

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Hale advises businesses that need to comply with AODA take the following four steps to ensure the accessibility of their online presence: run a website audit, create an action plan, build accessibility into their digital marketing efforts, and practice “lived experience testing.”

“Lived experience testing basically means that to ever attempt to truly be certified as being fully accessible, you would need to have employed a person who actually suffers from severe sight loss or blindness to use your digital products and confirm that not only did you make these changes, but they themselves can use them,” said Hale.

Craft&Crew and CNIB plan to include lived experience testing in their audits.

In order to ensure accessibility, Demers also recommends that businesses test their websites and web forms without a mouse, using only a screen-reader and keyboard. He also advises companies to include alt-text descriptions for all images, ensure colour contrast ratios satisfy guidelines for low vision users, and proper titles, page, and section nesting.

Hale also recommends that companies begin this process early. “A lot of the sites that we encounter are going to take a long time and some decent dollars to make the enhancements to meet these guidelines,” he said.

Craft&Crew, formerly known as Soshal, recently rebranded and decided to abandon its marketing division in order to focus on enterprise website design. The firm serves a variety of companies, from large financial institutions to tech startups. One of its clients is Tehama, an Ottawa-based enterprise software startup that recently hit the 50-employee threshold and sought Craft&Crew’s help complying with the AODA.

RELATED: Tehama raises $14 million CAD to address demand for remote working solutions

Private organizations with less than 20 employees are exempt from submitting compliance reports under the AODA, while businesses and nonprofits with between 20 and 50 employees are required to file a compliance report addressing only the AODA’s customer service standards.

Administrative penalties for corporations who breach the AODA can range between $500 and $15,000, and are dependent upon an organization’s contravention history and the severity of the violation. Major violations by corporations with a history of contravention carry a possible maximum daily penalty of $100,000.

Craft&Crew recently launched an online evaluation tool to help organizations assess how well their websites satisfy the AODA’s main requirements. Other free digital accessibility analysis tools also exist, such as AChecker.

Vojtech Okenka via Pexels

Josh Scott

Josh Scott

Josh Scott is a BetaKit reporter focused on telling in-depth Canadian tech stories and breaking news. His coverage is more complete than his moustache.

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