2023 volume 33 issue 4

What IROs Need to Know about Digital Accessibility


Now that our phones and tablets top every packing list and are a necessity for boarding a plane, driving a car, or otherwise navigating today’s world, digital accessibility is a topic that matters more than ever. For companies, too, the IR site only has value if it can be easily accessed – by everyone.

Laws from the Accessible Canada Act to the AODA, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, determine what accessibility features a public company needs to include in its digital communications. Many of the fixes, such as providing written transcripts or closed captioning and ‘describe video’ features, are easily made.

Other changes take more effort. One important issue, explains Mark Miller, Sales Director for TPGi, an accessibility consultancy, is making an IR site navigable without a mouse, which is important for those with visual impairments and/or mobility issues.

Disabilities run the gamut from hearing or vision impairments to mobility issues and problems with cognition (such as serious difficulty concentrating). At its essence, digital accessibility can be thought of as “the practice of making digital experiences usable by people with disabilities,” says Jonathan Avila, Chief Accessibility Officer at Level Access. He continues: “The question is: Can a person with a disability, who may be using an assistive technology, access your site?”

Miller describes digital accessibility in a software metaphor, as an effort to address user-experience “bugs” that affect people with disabilities.

A Growing Stakeholder Group

The sheer number of people who have disabilities is making this issue a pressing one. 

In Canada today, 22% of the population – a whopping 6.2 million people – identify as having a disability, according to Canada’s 2022 Disability Inclusion Action Plan. Within this large catchall, for instance, 357,000 Canadians identify as culturally deaf, with another 3.21 million as hard of hearing, according to the Canadian Association of the Deaf.  

For IROs at companies with shareholder bases that skew older, these statistics are probably conservative, as individuals tend to experience greater disabilities with age. 

While making sure digital communications meet the highest accessibility standards is both a requirement and the right thing to do, IROs may find that the greatest benefits accrue to their reputation with stakeholders.

Digital accessibility, says Chris Makuch, Senior Director at Notified in Toronto, “is not always top of mind, unfortunately, but I think there’s an obligation to start considering it more seriously.”

“People are proud to be investors in companies that are compassionate and embrace all facets of experiences in the world,” says Makuch. Going above and beyond what’s required in terms of accessibility, he continues, is the message “you want to convey about yourself.”

Regulatory Pressures

Whether you fall under the AODA, which governs companies operating in Ontario, or the Accessible Canada Act for federally regulated industries like telecommunications, banking, and the railways and airlines, digital accessibility is becoming a must-have for an increasing number of Canadian companies.

Often, a company’s industry determines how high the accessibility bar has been set, says Melina Nathanail, President of 3Play Media Canada (formerly, National Captioning Canada). She points out that “the most onerous obligations around accessibility exist under the Broadcasting Act and the regulations there.”

For companies that dual list on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq, the pressures to be digitally accessible are also great because these companies are subject to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Even though the Accessible Canada Act, the Broadcasting Act, the AODA and the ADA went into effect long before our current digital age, courts frequently side with plaintiffs who have a disability and sue for lack of access to corporate websites.

Often, too, regulations carry hefty penalties and fines. Failing to publish an accessibility plan or provide a feedback mechanism for people with disabilities can cost a company under the Accessible Canada Act, according to Level Access’s Avila. “For minor violations, fines can be as small as $250, but they can go to $75,000, too,” he says. “For serious violations, they can even be $250,000.”

There are also some very solid business reasons to take accessibility to heart, regardless of what the regulators are mandating. For instance, the buying power of people with disabilities in Canada has been estimated at more than $50 billion.

Meanwhile, a 2018 report by Accenture indicates that U.S. companies that championed people with disabilities outperformed others by some impressive margins. Revenues were 28% higher, net income 200% higher, and profit margins 30% higher. 

Some companies even enjoy reputations that rest on ‘getting it’ when it comes to digital accessibility. Take Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, a company that routinely embeds the latest accessibility features in its product offerings. Cook has described accessibility as “a human right” and so, he has said, the company never looks at its return on investment for accessibility. 

Getting Started

Resistance to digital accessibility measures sometimes arises when a company sees the price tag involved.

That is changing, says Nathanail, as less human intervention is needed to make digital communications accessible. “Technology has really driven down the price of captioning and audio description and it will continue to do so,” she says.

The accessibility movement has also benefited from a set of clear, internationally accepted standards: the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (better known as “wa-KAG”). While WCAG 2.1 is available today, WCAG 2.2 is slated to arrive in 2024.

Because of interventions by software providers, some IROs may already be practicing good digital accessibility without knowing it. At Q4, for instance, “our approach is to build accessible websites from Day One,” says Frontend Developer Jessica Moore.

For IROs committed to making a bigger commitment to accessibility, TPGi’s Miller suggests starting with an accessibility audit looking at a representative sample of screens and components.

A good first test is asking whether users would be able to successfully navigate an IR site exclusively with a keyboard, as people who are blind or who have mobility impairments often do. This type of testing is simple. “All you have to do is not touch your mouse and you can glean a lot of information about how your site may not be accessible,” says Miller.

As with many accessibility fixes, benefits often accrue to stakeholders who are not disabled, as well. For instance, making an IR site fully navigable on a keyboard benefits so-called ‘power users,’ or individuals so quick and adept at using computers that toggling between the mouse and keyboard slows them down. Power users, says Miller, “have better experiences – as do many people without disabilities – when something is fully keyboard accessible.”

Ditto for meeting colour-contrast ratios at levels set by WCAG. If colour contrasts meet certain standards, then people with colour blindness and low vision can generally read what’s been presented. (One place to experiment with these changes yourself is WebAIM’s contrast checker.)

At the same time, Miller notes that aligning a site’s colour contrasts to the accessibility standards is a sound practice for all users. Higher contrast colours are a boon for everyone because they can be more easily read on mobile devices in bright sunlight.

Nathanail raises a similar point, noting that accessibility fixes often appeal to the neurodiverse or the chronically busy. She says that teens and twenty-somethings tend to switch on closed captioning “because they are multi-tasking, and they process information better this way.” 

Finally, accessible sites typically rank higher on Google and other software engine searches – and so an “SEO boost” is yet another advantage to being more digitally accessible.

“Search engines prioritize accessible websites, leading to better search rankings,” according to AbleDocs, a digital-accessibility service provider with a head office in Oakville Ontario.

Bringing Your ‘A’ Game

For savvy IROs, telling your digital-accessibility story may be an untapped opportunity.

Makuch maintains that accessibility should be viewed as “an extension of ESG,” falling under the umbrella of “social concerns.” He also sees a natural role for accessibility in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) discussions taking place across Canada.

Similarly, when Miller is evangelizing to companies with DEI initiatives, he lobbies for “A,” or “accessibility,” to be included, too. “How about renaming it DEI&A, or diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility?,” he likes to ask.

IROs can highlight accessibility progress on their websites, even linking to any accessibility action plans a company has adopted.

Above all, it’s important to remember that a commitment to digital accessibility can begin small.

Miller, for instance, recommends assigning someone on the IR team to spend an afternoon keyboard testing and suggesting minor improvements.

“People get overwhelmed with the big picture of what’s this going to look like,” concludes Miller. “No one is saying you have to be perfect tomorrow. What we’re saying is, ‘You can’t still be ignoring this tomorrow.’ My mantra is: Do something. Find a place where you can create a small win and just start there.”

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