The Gist

  • Inclusive web. Web accessibility is not just about checking boxes, but rather it's about making content available to everyone.
  • Accessibility obligation. Brands need to be educated about web accessibility, as it's not a choice but a legal requirement.
  • Inclusive leadership. Web accessibility affects everyone, so it's important for leaders in companies to ensure their websites and third-party media are accessible to everyone, not just those who are able-bodied.

According to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History, the disability movement emerged in 1945, when a disabled veteran and lawyer named Jack Fisher celebrated a victory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with the installation of the nation's first curb cuts. These installations facilitated travel for wheelchair users and others who couldn't navigate the 6-inch curb heights.

Today, curb cuts are a ubiquitous feature of American cities, but accessibility in public spaces was not always a given. The curb cuts and the idea of accessible public spaces has been made possible by activists like Fisher, federal legislation and better design.

Digital accessibility is another story. Despite these accessibility advancements, web accessibility remains a challenge for many people with disabilities. With a surge in web accessibility lawsuits in recent years, the issue has come to the forefront of the digital landscape, forcing companies to address accessibility issues head-on.

In this Q&A, CMSWire Contributor Steve Olenski, senior vice president of engagement for System 1, and Steve Barnes, founder of Barnes Creative Studios, discuss what brands need to know about making their websites and content accessible, following the law and avoiding unnecessary lawsuits. You can also check out Olenski’s CMSWire contributor post, Web Accessibility and What Brands Need to Know: Q&A With Steve Barnes.

Editor’s Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Dom Nicastro: Hello everyone, Dom Nicastro, managing editor of CMSWire. And we are here with a couple of Steves: Steve O., Steve B., Steve Olenski and Steve Barnes. Steve Olenski is a CMSWire contributor. Thank you by the way, Steve O., appreciate that. Coming back to us and writing great content. And Steve Barnes is an interviewee he was Q&A-ed up with Steve Olenski for this very important article, a very important topic on web accessibility. Let's start with each of you. Give it a little hey, this is who I am kind of thing. So Steve O. we'll start with you.

Steve Olenski: Well, first of all, thanks for having us, Dom. It's greatly appreciated. So I'm a kind of jack-of-all-trades. I think I even have the word unicorn, Dom, on my bio. So I've done everything from creative directors at agencies, I wrote for Forbes for 10 years, I've done work with companies like Oracle and MMA Global, the Mobile Marketing Association. Done a lot of different things in my life. And I've gotten to know and meet so many amazing leaders, CMOs, celebrities, athletes, you name it. The gentleman on this call is on that list for sure of just really good smart people. So I've been blessed. And and I don't want to take up any more time, because I'll keep talking. So thank you.

Nicastro: Now appreciate that Steve O., and Steve B, Steve Barnes of Barnes Creative Studios. I'd love to know a little bit more about you and your role.

Steve Barnes: Sure. Thanks for having both the Steves on, Dom, really appreciate it. Barnes Creative Studios is my production company, we primarily focus on a commercial real estate and hospitality with content creation of all kinds. And then the last several years, we've gotten involved with ADA compliance, which came about from a very large brand having issues with this. And we couldn't find a way to fix it, kept looking and looking. And so we created one, and that's kind of why we're here today.

Exploring the Importance of Web Accessibility in Marketing 

Nicastro: Yeah. I'm so happy to have you here today, kind of being part of the CMSWire content family today. And Steve, you know, Steve O., we'll start with you. I mean, you could feel the passion in your writing. I love how you tap people that are in the trenches, you get leaders, marketing leaders, brand leaders to talk to you. And you certainly did that today in this column that the Q&A would Steve B. So what was the passion, particularly with this one, you know, behind web accessibility? And the reason you tapped Steve Barnes for this?

Olenski: Well, it's a topic that I'm extremely passionate about. I mean, I know and everybody I think, either knows somebody or knows somebody who deals with some kind of disability, right, in their life. So we're all touched by this, or at least we know, people who are touched by this, right. And I've always been one to, I have a responsibility with my platform to share stories like this, right.

So not only bring it to people's attention from a marketing perspective, from, in this case, just the humanity perspective, right. And when I researched the topic, and I was talking to Steve Barnes, I knew he was, quote involved in this, but I had no idea the depth of it. I mean, he's an absolute expert in the field. And as you'll see, by the by the Q&A, I'm very much a big believer in teeing up thought leaders and giving them my platform to share their knowledge. So this, I've done it my whole career. So this was no different.

Web Accessibility: Common Trouble Spots Brands Should Know About

Nicastro: Yeah, no, and it's perfect topic for it. And Steve B., you know, what are some of those common trouble spots, we see with web accessibility, I couldn't believe what you were telling me off air about the knowledge some folks have about this. It's nil, some of them I mean, you know, they put brand content out there. And the level of knowledge is not quite there for everyone. So So what are some of those common trouble spots you see with brands?

Barnes: You know, the common trouble spots are the biggest one is education. A lot of people don't realize that this is not a choice. It's not something you get to decide if you want to do and making your content available to everyone. It's a law. And it's, you know, you'll find yourself in court and you can check sites like, which was mentioned in Steve O.'s article, they have a running tab of lawsuits.

It will blow your mind how many lawsuits and they range from — they don't discriminate, no pun intended — they go from mom-and-pops to massive Fortune 500 companies, and they're like, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. And usually the marketing department is the one that gets the first contact because they're in charge of the website most of the time, but the problem falls off where third parties are creating websites for these marketers, handing them back over with no agreement in place for compliance.

So what happens is when the lawsuit comes in, it doesn't go to the developer, it goes to the domain owner. So all of a sudden, you've got a bunch of people. And I've seen these meetings where they're like, How could this have happened? You've got to start way back at the beginning and plan for this accessibility now that you're aware of all the lawsuits, and you just can't sit around and hope it's gonna just go away because the lawsuits are up year over year.

Web Accessibility: More Than Just Alt Text

Nicastro: Yeah. As you're thinking about this, I'm thinking or writing down web accessibility is more than just the alt text, right? I mean, because that's what a lot of people think it's just like, okay, and I'm cool, I put in girl at a baseball field, so I never gonna be sued. Because I put that in, it's just not the case.

Barnes: And what's interesting is, if you do a technical audit one of these sites, they say, put your domain and and hit the button, and we'll tell you how accessible you are, they might give you a 95 score. But that's because there's not a human checking the context of your alt tags. So while you may have an alt tag that says car, you've got to have — and imagine you're writing for someone blind or with you know, low vision, you've got to describe that scene. That is what the alt tag is for.

But alt tags while they're cited a lot in lawsuits, that's just the beginning. And it can be overwhelming, especially if you're like a real estate site that may have 50 images per listing, you've got to do one for every image. And the usual reaction is, ah, who would do that. And then I just send a link sometimes to the 10,000 lawsuits that are just around alt tags from the last year and a half, and they go, oh, but it's, you know, it's more than just the website, you've also got to think about third party media.

And that's where we come in, we focus on Matterport virtual tours, YouTube videos, things that you don't have control of, because they're hosted on this big third-party platform. But it's not the third party platform, who is to blame? It's you for putting your content on there, and then putting it on your website. So there's a lot of education around that. 

Related Article: Accessible Content Is Good for Everyone — Including Businesses

Marketing Leaders Urged to Take Hands-On Approach to Web Accessibility

Nicastro: Yeah. And marketers are the ones that are leading the charge with content and putting it out there, like you said, marketing get it gets pulled into this. And Steve, I'll kick Steve O., I'll kick it to you. You have a passion for, you know, giving messages and talking to CMOs, chief marketing officers. So what would be your message with web accessibility and leadership that CMOs need to take with this?

Olenski: It's a great question. And I think the first message would be don't think this doesn't apply to you. Right. And kind of a one beat to that to that is don't assume it's being taken care of by someone under you. Right. Get in there be hands on. And then the third part of that is don't assume to Steve Barnes’ point about you're not just quote checking the box, if you will, slapping up a logo on a window in a store that says we're ADA compliant? And I'm done. Right? It's so far, as you see in the article, in Steve Barnes' words, it's so much deeper than that. Right.

And unfortunately, the lawsuits are a great example. And I think they're going to keep going, because so many brands either have their head in their sand unwillingly or unknowingly, right? That they're coming, right. If you don't address this, no one is immune to this, nor should they be immune to this. So the message is to CMOs, you better find out what you're doing right now, on your site and your properties. Right. Because if you don't, you know, they're coming, and they should. So that's my message.

Barnes: It’s funny, Steve, I’ve just spoken to three CMOs just today. One was for a university. One was for a major retailer, and one was for a real estate area, type site. And these are all people we've had conversations with in the past. And what's happening is they're taking advice from peers on how to solve and when you say check the box, I say, these are the ones trying to throw what's called a layover on top of their website and call it a day.

Learning Opportunities

That's a Band-Aid and it's just purely a facade. If you look at what the courts have said, they have said that those layovers are not deemed accessible. And there is a settlement against ADP that late last year was published. And it clearly states and even named some of the companies they say that those are not going to cut it.

Olenski: Yeah, no, it's just a head in the sand thing, right. Sorry, Dom, you were gonna say something.

Related Article: Web Accessibility and What Brands Need to Know: Q&A With Steve Barnes

Web Accessibility Compliance: The Importance of Collaboration Between CMOs and CIOs

Nicastro: Nah, I'm just taking a sip of my coffee — staying caffeinated for this. But Steve O., I was thinking great points because you know, as you were talking with the CMOs angle, I was thinking, your last article before this was about the CMO and the CIO relationship. Yep. And how that needs to be solid on point, they need to be best friends pretty much. And I was thinking that applies here. Because if you were a restaurant that was trying to make everything compliant, ADA compliant, you would have a contractor that was to the letter building everything like ramps, and stairs and elevators and all that. That's like the CIO on a digital sense, right? The CIO is the contractor in digital, right.

Olenski: Great point. And you're right, the onus doesn't only fall on the CMO, right? It's the CIO, CTO, who absolutely has a role in this. And I'm sure, you know, Steve Barnes will agree with with that completely, that it's not just one person's responsibility, which actually leads to an interesting point or conversation or topic that you also don't want to make it an assumption, if you're a CMO, that it's the CIOs responsibility. Right, or vice versa. And I don't know if Steve Barnes if you've come across that, but I'd be shocked if you haven't. Even if you haven't, that it does not exist, where it's kind of that's not my problem. Someone else’s.

Barnes: Yeah, that we see that a lot. Denial is absolutely the first reaction. And there's kind of a finger pointing first, it goes from CMO to CIO or CTO, then it goes to third-party platforms, and then it bounces back at them. It's really the company. So someone needs to step up.

And by the way, this is a great opportunity to be a hero and open your content up to 25% more people just in the US alone, but also to stand for something and to move this narrative forward. Because it's not going anywhere. The Department of Justice has made that very clear. If you don't conform to this, you will pay. It is so much cheaper to address it now grab the team. I'm seeing these in real time.

Over the last two years, I've been involved with remediating sites for third-party media, they go “Why didn't we just do this?” And no one ever has an answer. It's because well, we didn't want to spend the money. We didn't understand it. Look, we help try to get you to understand it by doing things like this interview. Like we'll talk to you call us even though we have no piece in websites, I'm loving just sharing the information, so you're aware.

Anticipating a Surge of Web Accessibility Lawsuits

Nicastro: Yeah. And Steve B., Steve Barnes will stick with you for the final word. And I'll open the door for Steve O., if you have any last second thoughts. But Steve B. looking at the future. There's so many emergent trends, technologies that marketers brands are keeping on top of this litany of stuff out there. Is there something in particular that they need to be watching in 2023? Beyond 2024, when it comes to web accessibility?

Barnes: Yes, there are a couple of things. One thing I mentioned earlier about how the website and your third party media both need to be looked at independently because anything you do to that website is not going to affect that third-party media. So pay attention to that, because you could leave yourself vulnerable by doing the right thing for your website, but ignoring content.

And the reason that's important is as you see the content is ramping up with COVID. Especially in retail, we're seeing a lot of lawsuits and retail right now in real estate and universities. Because all of that is being pushed online even greater than before. So brands are creating virtual tours at a much higher clip. We haven't even talked about YouTube videos, those have to be accessible.

And I'm not just talking about, oh, we have closed captions, we're good. No, it goes way beyond that — audio descriptions, transcripts, all of this stuff needs to be there for blind users, or you're going to get stung, but it's just a smart thing to do to save money in the end is to avoid all of this.

Nicastro: Great thoughts, gentlemen, I appreciate it Steve O. Did you have anything else?

Olenski: No, just just to restate my point that you know, if you're if you're watching this and you're a leader in a given company, don't assume it doesn't apply to you and don't assume someone else who's taking care of it?

Nicastro: Well, Steves it's been great. Thank you. I appreciate it. The column Steve O. and the time you've took Steve B. for his column and this interview, much, much appreciated for sharing that with our audience. I appreciate it very much, gentlemen and I hope you have a great day.

Olenski: Thanks, Dom.

Barnes: Thanks for having us. 

Nicastro: All right. We'll talk soon.