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Online Collaboration Tools & Accessibility – Buyer Beware

How to check online collaboration tools are accessible and comply with the law

Imagine investing in essential business software, only to find that some of your employees and partners weren’t able to use it.

Sadly, that’s exactly what can happen if you subscribe to Cloud services that don’t conform to trusted accessibility standards. If you take that risk, you may find that people with disabilities, sight problems or mobility issues simply can’t use your new systems.

That not only damages your productivity, but it can put you on the wrong side of the law.

It’s a problem that’s endemic to online collaboration software. There are many tools to choose from, but surprisingly few of them are truly accessible to all users.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to vet online collaboration tools for accessibility and make sure you invest in software that’s right for your business, accessible to your users, and compliant from a legal perspective.

In this blog post we’ll show you how to do it.

1. Be aware of your legal obligations

Accessibility legislation varies from country to country, but most Western nations have laws that make it illegal to discriminate against disabled people in relation to employment and the provision of goods and services.

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 (the successor to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995) requires that employers make ‘reasonable adjustments’ when providing access to goods, facilities, services and premises — with ‘reasonable adjustment’ extending to the provision of accessible IT equipment. Similar acts apply to the USA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), Australia (Disability Discrimination Act 1992) and elsewhere.

While legislation differs across jurisdictions, there’s a strong chance that opting for inaccessible software can put you on the wrong side of the law. At the time of writing, the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) is taking legal action against low-cost airline bmibaby for allegedly failing to ensure accessibility for blind and partially sighted customers when trying to book flights on the bmibaby website.

But whatever laws apply, it makes sense to choose software that is accessible to the blind, disabled, hard of hearing and others — it ensures all your employees can use it, and that any person working for a partner organisation you collaborate with can access it too. That’s good for productivity as well as for avoiding the risk of legal action.

2. How to choose accessible online collaboration tools

If the principle of accessible software and cloud services is straightforward, achieving it is less so.

Fortunately, there are techniques and standards which online software providers can employ to ensure that their products are accessible to all users.

These are some of the questions you can ask providers, and checks you can make to ensure you don’t get lumbered with an inaccessible solution.

1. Is the web software WCAG compliant? The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) issues Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to allow developers to create online content and applications that are accessible to people with disabilities.

You can find full details of how to meet WCAG guidelines at https://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG20/quickref/, but it’s worth knowing it has a grading scheme for online accessibility:

In a nutshell, WAI-A is awarded to sites that conform to basic standards of accessibility and usability, while WAI-AAA is a gold standard for both. As a minimum, look for software that offers the mid-level WAI-AA compliance.

2. Does the solution’s HTML validate against W3C standards? This is a test you can try yourself. Visit https://validator.w3.org and type in the URL (web address) of the online solution. If it uses valid HTML code, this tool will tell you — and also show you any errors.

Valid HTML is important for accessibility as it ensures web pages are interoperable, allowing them to be used by as many web browsers, screen readers such as JAWS and Supernova, and other Assistive Technologies (AT) as possible.

3. Does the provider have an accessibility page? An obvious check, but one that says a great deal about whether a software provider takes accessibility seriously. Make sure there is a page devoted to accessibility, and take note of the information it contains about the accessibility of its software and the steps it has taken to help and guide users with disabilities. Be cautious of providers who use generalisations to talk about accessibility — look for evidence of steps it has taken to help specific audiences, such as the blind, partially sighted, deaf etc. If cloud application providers are really concerned about accessibility, they will also provide a dedicated contact method for users to suggest usability improvements.

4. Does the software offer access keys? Access keys provide keyboard-accessible shortcuts, reducing the need to use a mouse or other pointing device. These are essential for some users with sight problems or some physical impairment — avoid providers who don’t offer them.

5. Does the software work without JavaScript? JavaScript is a programming language that can add extra functionality to web pages, such as showing the date and time, creating animated content or displaying messages after a certain period of time has elapsed. These functions can be useful, but notoriously they often can’t be understood by Assistive Technologies such as screen readers. Ensure that the software offers full functionality, regardless of whether or not someone uses JavaScript-enabled technology to use it.

6. Does the software offer WAI-ARIA support? ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications) is another WAI standard that specifies how to increase the accessibility of dynamic web pages. It’s a complex topic, but Wikipedia summarises it well:

“WAI-ARIA describes how to add semantics and other metadata to HTML content in order to make user interface controls and dynamic content more accessible. For example, with WAI-ARIA it is possible to identify a list of links as a navigation menu and to state whether it is expanded or collapsed.”  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WAI-ARIA)

If you are considering online collaboration software that supports WAI-ARIA, it is a very strong sign that the maker has taken accessibility issues seriously.

As you evaluate different online collaboration tools, you will realise that very few meet all six of these criteria. In fact, many fail to meet RNIB’s simple five-point pledge (see https://www.rnib.org.uk/professionals/webaccessibility/180day/Pages/180_day_websight_campaign.aspx for details):

  1. Avoid fixed-size fonts, and make text size and colour user configurable where possible. Avoid the use of patterned backgrounds.
  2. Make our website or app compatible with popular screen readers, such as JAWS for Windows, Supernova, VoiceOver and NVDA.
  3. Use a consistent interface and menu layout throughout our website or app.
  4. Ensure that our website or app is fully accessible using the keyboard alone.
  5. Test our site with blind and low vision users and their support groups before implementing major changes.

So before you buy, beware! If your chosen cloud software isn’t accessible to all, you could lose productivity, lose the trust of your clients, open yourself up to the possibility of legal action and end up replacing your system with a more compliant one. It’s much better to ask some informed questions before you invest — and get it right first time.

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