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Food Retailers Need to Know About the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Food Retailers Need to Know About the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
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Mercatus Radio presents the Digital Grocer - Episode #4

In this episode of the Digital Grocer podcast, Sylvain Perrier discusses the business implications of the Americans with Disabilities Act on grocery retail, and the pitfalls of not adhering to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG).

Helping Sylvain unpack the issues are Michele Landis, Co-founder and CRO at Accessible360, and Eric Slezak, Client Development Consultant. Accessible360’s mission is to make the digital world a more accessible environment for all. They do so by helping companies audit and fix websites and mobile apps, giving more people access to products and services.

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Sylvain Perrier:              Welcome ladies and gentleman to the Mercatus podcast Digital Grocer, episode 4. Recorded in our studio at Mercatus HQ. You know, Mark, it’s deep, blue skies out there in downtown Toronto.

Mark Fairhurst:             Yeah, the sunny streak continues.

Sylvain Perrier:              You got to love summer, right?

Mark Fairhurst:             It’s fantastic.

Sylvain Perrier:              It’s crazy. I’m your host Sylvain Perrier, President and CEO of Mercatus technologies, and joining me in the studio today is Mark Fairhurst, Marcatus’s own Senior Director of Marketing.

Mark Fairhurst:             Welcome everyone.

Sylvain Perrier:              At the board is our sound engineer, Kevin Glenn.

Kevin Glenn:                 How’s it going?

Sylvain Perrier:              You know guys, we have a topic today that most people aren’t talking about and quite frankly some of them are very uncomfortable talking about. Not just in retail, but out amongst us technologists, especially in the context of building new and emerging web technologies, and quite frankly to a greater extent, when you build hardware, and you guys know my background even before building websites and mobile apps was designing hardware.

Sylvain Perrier:              It’s about ADA, the American Disabilities Act, and specifically, not a lot of people know this, it’s a Civil Rights Law that protects individuals that are disabled against discrimination. Now before we decided to do this episode and I did a little bit of research, and this stat here blows me away. It’s from the US Census bureau, that one in five people in the US have a disability.

Mark Fairhurst:             Wow.

Sylvain Perrier:              That’s huge. I really want to be honest with the people that are listening and be super transparent and clear, that these people are our friends, our families, they’re our coworkers and are part of our communities, and they really deserve better when it comes to technology.

Sylvain Perrier:              Now, you’re going to hear a lot of things out there about ADA. You’re going to hear stuff about what’s called WCAG 2.0 and apparently recently 2.1, and WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. This was developed in conjunction with the W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium, with a bunch of individual partners and so on, to kind of give these guidelines that are out there to help groups and to understand how do we build technology and tool sets that makes it that much easier for people that have accessibility issues to be able to consume kind of all these new and amazing technologies that we’re coming up with.

Sylvain Perrier:              Now, this has become a very hot topic for the last two years, and there’s multiple reasons for that. I think what we’re seeing in the context of ADA, and again, this is my opinion, this reminds me of the days of patent trolls, where these organizations are cropping up, and I’m not dismissing the whole civil rights aspect of ADA, which I think is really critical, but we’re seeing organizations that are cropping up out there that are just blindly scanning a retailer websites, rightfully or wrongfully, and they’re issuing letters. A lot of our retailers that are out there in the market, not just in grocery, I think anyone that’s operating a dot com quite frankly, are getting these letters and they don’t know what to do.

Sylvain Perrier:              Worse than that, it’s not ingrained in their processes and their culture to cater to that one in five, to be able to support them properly, and to avoid having to deal with this. There’s a landmark legal case, and I had McMillan Bench here in Toronto is our law firm, and this came out from the same time last year, June 13th, and they had them pull the judgment from the judge, and it was Gill vs. Winn-Dixie. It was a bit of a landmark because we’re seeing now, it’s setting precedence in the space saying at a bare minimum, if you’re building a website or you’ve built one or if you’re hosting one or you own one, you need to comply to ADA WCAG 2.0 level AA.

Sylvain Perrier:              That means a lot of things. I really want to get to the meat here of what the topic is. We’ve enlisted some experts, and I’m super biased because we’re about to start working with them, and they’re out of Minneapolis, Accessible 360, so on the phone with us today is Michele Landis. She’s a co-founder and VP of Business Development and Strategic Partners, and Erik Slezak who’s a Client Development Consultant.

Sylvain Perrier:              Welcome to our show.

Michele Landis:             Thank you very much. Thank you for having us.

Erik Slezak:                   Yeah. Excited to be here.

Sylvain Perrier:              Awesome. Can you guys help situate the audience? Give us a little bit of history on your firm. What is it that you guys do on a day-to-day basis?

Michele Landis:             Well, at Accessible 360, we are a very fast growing company, to your point about this emerging need out there in the market place. We’re committed to making the digital world a more accessible environment for all, and what that means is that we help companies audit and fix current websites and mobile apps, and/or work with agencies or platform providers, who are also doing the right thing and developing accessible platforms from the ground up.

Sylvain Perrier:              Excellent, so can you demystify for me and for the listeners, the notion of 2.0, 2.1, specifically around WCAG?

Michele Landis:             Sure. Yeah, so the guidelines sometimes can be confusing. There is a lot of information on the web about this topic, which means by default there is a lot of bad or misinformation about this topic, so to be very clear in all of the hundreds of audits that we’ve done so far this year and that we’ve done for the past years, we have always used WCAG 2.0 level AA. There are, as you referenced, multiple layers or levels of conformance, A being entry level, AA being the one that is used across our industry and other credible vendors that do the work that we do as well also use AA.

Michele Landis:             It is also the standard level that is incorporated and written into European laws, laws in the UK, and in Canada. From our perspective, the auditors, there’s no question about which level you audit to. It is always WCAG 2.0 level AA. You mentioned earlier that 2.1 was just announced last week. We will be rolling and moving forward to that as well, but just please keep in mind that just because those were published doesn’t mean that they’re A, either being called out in any of the litigation, there’s no case law regarding 2.1 obviously yet, so those will take some time to be incorporated into the industry.

Sylvain Perrier:              Great. Michelle, I think it was last week or maybe a couple weeks ago, I received a phone call from a prospective client.

Michele Landis:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sylvain Perrier:              We were talking about ADA compliancy, so I asked them the question, had they ever faced a law suit? Do they know if they’re compliant. Their CIO was on the phone, great individual, knows his space through and through, and said to me, “Not an issue. We ran a scanning tool on the website, Double A, we came out in flying colors.” I’m literally on the edge of my seat, because I’ve been working with you guys, and I kind of said, “I don’t think that’s enough.”

Sylvain Perrier:              Can you maybe share with the listeners, is that enough?

Michele Landis:             No. It’s not at all enough. I’ll say a couple words and I’ll toss it over to Erik for this. Erik used to actually sell one of those scanning tools. Scanning tools are a way to get an initial pass through a website. There’s a lot of independent studies about every scanning tool out there on the market. They’re inherent with limitations. They can only test certain parts of it.

Michele Landis:             One of the best studies that we reference all the time is one from the UK in which a group independent from any accessibility auditing companies, built a website with 143 known accessibility issues in it, and they ran every scanning tool through and the average success rate was somewhere around 25, 30%. Some went as high as 40. However, those that are free, and those that you are asked to pay for, had about the same success rate, so our takeaway for the audience is this: Don’t ever pay for a scanning tool. You can run a free one through your site if you’re dying to know, but you are correct. It is not at all a validation of accessibility or usability.

Michele Landis:             The US Government has a statement out on their section 508 compliance page. It says that manual testing is always necessary, and it is always necessary. Just as if you couldn’t run a scanning tool through any website or platform theme that you wonderful designers and develops make, and the scanning tool could say, “This is beautiful. This has awesome UX.”

Michele Landis:             You have to test it. That’s why there’s a thing called QA. That’s why when you’re building technology, you need to test it. Scanning tools are not the end all, be all, and in fact, many companies are really understanding that now. They came out a few years ago, right Erik, and you had some experience with one. Do you want to share with the audience what that was like?

Erik Slezak:                   Yeah, absolutely. Michelle, I think you hit the nail right on the head. Scanning tools, they can give you a little bit of understanding of some issues on your site. They certainly can’t help you get to that compliance standard, and they’re going to miss out on a lot of things.

Erik Slezak:                   I get a lot of questions from prospects as well. What kinds of issues can get missed by a scanning tool, and I think, as Michelle mentioned as well, when you’re building a site for accessibility, you’re building that for people and not a robot, so a great example would be an image alternate text. Not to get too technical here, but simply a description of an image on your website so that people who can’t see that image understand what it’s there for, and what purpose it conveys. You need to have a text on there to identify what that’s for.

Erik Slezak:                   A scanning tool can tell you if you have an alternate text or not. It can simply give you a yes or no, but it can’t provide that human context understanding of what is the picture actually of and does it help a person understand why it’s there. A really simple example of why again you need to have people looking at these to understand exactly what’s wrong and how to make those fixes.

Sylvain Perrier:              In your expert opinion, when you see new and emerging technologies, specifically focused on web, is there a disregard for people that have a disability and is this notion of compliance a complete afterthought?

Michele Landis:             It depends on who you ask. I will tell you, I think across the board there’s a lack of understanding or a lack of awareness even. I meet with VPs of huge companies that have been in that position for digital 10, 15 years, and they’ll often say, “Michelle, I feel so bad. I never even thought about this before.”

Michele Landis:             I think it’s a situation where people just, it hasn’t occurred to them. It hasn’t occurred to them that people that are blind or have vision issues or have a different physical disability might go on the internet and have a different experience than the rest of us who can us a mouse or a tracking pad.

Michele Landis:             There are some staggering numbers. You mentioned earlier in your kickoff about how many people have a current disability. Two other things I’d throw out so that the audience really understands the magnitude of this and why it’s important to take steps now to work with a platform provider who is working on the core code of your grocery store sites in order to ensure that accessible design can be reached, but by the year 2030, 71 million baby boomers will be over age 65. 10000 Americans turn 65 every single day.

Michele Landis:             When you think about people with disabilities, don’t think about just totally blind people, or just people in a wheelchair that can’t use a mouse because they have a spinal cord injury or something like that. Think about people like my parents, who are in their mid-80s. Both have iPhones. Both schedule doctors appointments and do their banking online. They have Facebook and much to our chagrin they have Twitter, but we are the first generation, I am at least, I don’t know how old the other gentlemen are on the call, but I’m going to age dependent on technology, to stay in touch with my children and everything else.

Michele Landis:             This is an emerging compliance issue, but it is truly an emerging social issue. It is a social issue that we can do something about. Companies have a lot of policies about inclusivity when they hire and all those types of things, but those are the same companies who don’t take even a moment to have their HR application portal tested to see if somebody could apply to bag groceries perhaps if they had a disability. That is one of the things where there’s just a lot of aha moments.

Michele Landis:             I think where we find ourselves, companies, vendors, platform providers and merchants, we find ourselves in an environment where, when we know better, we do better, and we’re here to just help everybody know better.

Mark Fairhurst:             To that point, I think there’s a huge education effort, and it’s one of the reasons why I think we wanted to discuss this topic.

Sylvain Perrier:              Yeah, when we sat down and we talked about what are the hot buttons in the industry today, right, we talked about GDPR, cyber insurance, and then ADA compliancy.

Mark Fairhurst:             It ranked right up there, yeah.

Sylvain Perrier:              In our conversations with Erik, we went in as a technology service provider, realizing a bunch of things. We came to the table being super honest and transparent, and telling even our retailers and sharing this with the team at Accessible 360, we don’t have people in the office that necessarily face the challenge of having a disability. Our approach as much as I hate to say it, for the most apart, we aware of ADA compliancy, we do scans.

Mark Fairhurst:             Right.

Sylvain Perrier:              To a certain extent it’s like the race horse with the blinders on, right? A bit of tunnel vision. I think within the first meeting with Erik, and Michelle touches on this in her answer she just gave us, this is fundamentally a cultural shift. It’s not going to be, again for anyone that’s listening, this isn’t you’re going to wake up tomorrow morning, you’re going to hire a firm, you’re going to do an audit, you’re going to scan, and you’re going to be hunky dory. Technology changes, right, so it has to be a complete cultural shift in terms of how do you approach the design of the technology you’re working on? How do you make sure post development that it is compliant and remains compliant?

Sylvain Perrier:              When you guys go out to market and you’re working with tons of different companies, what’s the biggest challenge that you’re faced? Is it the education portion of this or is it just making sure people understand, like this isn’t a single moment in time?

Michele Landis:             I would say the biggest thing hands down is that this is a new process for development. It is not a project. It’s not a bug list. Often, I first deal with internal legal teams or an external legal counsel who is helping strategize a defense for a company who’s been legally targeted. Then we bring in all the different players, whether that be an agency or an implementation partner for the platform or the platform provider developers themselves.

Michele Landis:             In the opportunity of working with your wonderful company, we are partnering with the people who will take care of probably about 70% on average of the accessibility issues on a end website. One of the biggest things that I try to get across to companies right from the start is, everyone plays a role in accessibility. Your listeners have an opportunity to benefit from the platform moving forward and ensuring that their templates, their themes, and the core code is accessible, but they have to understand that if they touch the front end of the website, they have to be trained and they have to understand how to do that correctly as well, because, here’s my good cop, bad cop, I am here to tell you that a platform company can give you a completely compliant template, and if you change the front end of it, you can bring the site out of compliance. Specifically, to answer your question, what I’m trying to get across right from the start is that everyone that touches that website or that web application or that native app, has to understand accessible design, and when they change anything, they’ve got to have it reviewed until they know that their process is in a place where they can rely on it to provide an accessible environment, thus allowing everybody into the audience.

Sylvain Perrier:              Michelle, if you had to recommend something to the retailers that are listening out there, best practices, what would those be?

Michele Landis:             I think some of the best things that they can do is to research. Number one, I would say, only work with a platform provider that has already made accessibility a core part of their offering, and by already, I mean those that are getting to it right now. This is new for everyone, but companies like yours that are jumping in and owning the part, they’ve got to partner with a platform provider that is focusing on accessible design from the ground up.

Michele Landis:             Number two, they’ve got to teach their internal teams to ensure and that they understand how when they change anything on the front end, that they need to make sure that that’s accessible as well.

Michele Landis:             Number three is, rely on a qualified accessibility vendor, like A360, one that does live user audits, to bring the best practices forward for both of your teams, regarding accessible design best practices. Rely on them to bring you the updates when the versions or WCAG rules change. Rely on them to bring you training. Rely on them to double check things as you’re introducing new templates and landing pages to the site.

Michele Landis:             Our role is to support everyone’s activity in development, and we’re a very mission driven organization. Teaching everyone how to do an accessible design is what we want to do.

Sylvain Perrier:              Excellent. Michelle and Erik, it’s been a pleasure having you on the show today. How can the listeners out there get a hold of you?

Michele Landis:             Thank you for asking. Accessible 360 can be found at our website, www.accessbile360. com. We’re also on Twitter, @accessbile360.com, and we can be reached directly in the States in Minneapolis, Minnesota, like you called out, at 612-440-3601.

Sylvain Perrier:              Excellent. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening, and don’t forget to download our next episode where we’re going to be tackling another juicy subject. I’m not sure what it’s going to be at this point, Mark, we’ve got a list of things that we want to tackle.

Sylvain Perrier:              Mark, how do people get ahold of us?

Mark Fairhurst:             Through the web, it’s www.marcatus.com. Our social handles are listed on the website, as usual. We’re on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn.

Sylvain Perrier:              Excellent. Thank you everyone.


Sylvain Perrier

Sylvain is president and CEO of Mercatus Technologies, and the driving force behind the leading digital commerce platform in grocery retail today.

Michele Landis

Michele leads the Business Development for Accessible360 by identifying potential partners, consulting on creative website strategies for clients’ businesses and strengthening community relationships to further her company's mission.

Eric Slezak

Eric is a Client Development Consultant at Accessible360, which helps make websites and mobile apps accessible and WCAG 2.0 compliant.