What marketers need to know about a looming AODA deadline

For Ontario firms, new web accessibility requirements come due next year.

Marketing leaders across the public and private sector must act quickly to meet a looming deadline for website accessibility in Ontario if they wish to avoid the possibility of hefty fines, advises Craft&Crew CEO Dave Hale, whose digital experience design agency has received a large number of compliance-related assignments, such as audits, in recent months.

At the time of this writing, organizations have just 67 days to meet the Jan. 1, 2021 deadline for new Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) imposed by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), a law passed in June 2005 whose goal is to remove and prevent barriers for people with disabilities in all public establishments by 2025.

As part of the AODA, public sector organizations and private or non-profit organizations with more than 50 employees must adhere to specific web accessibility standards before the Jan. 1 cut-off. Firms found guilty of non-compliance could be fined a maximum of $100,000 for each day they are found to be in violation of the rules.

Sara Clodman, VP of public affairs at the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA), says inquiries from members about the new requirements “have been steady and have not spiked,” an indication that marketers “are aware of what they need to do.” The Canadian Marketing Code of Ethics and Standards has included provisions for accessibility since 2015, she says, and the industry group has been providing webinars and information sessions to members on an ongoing basis. This has allowed them to put accessibility measures in place over the last few years, she says.

However, in recent months, Hale’s Ottawa-based agency has fielded calls from a range of clients, including banks, universities and tech startups, that are eager to make the upcoming deadline. One client, Ottawa’s software startup Tehama, did not have the AODA on its radar a year ago, when it had around 30 employees. But having hired its fiftieth employee this year, it’s now legally required to do so.

While the requirements under the AODA are technical in nature, Hale says clients’ marketing departments are frequently challenged with ensuring they are met. That’s largely because few companies have a leader whose primary duties include compliance.

Often, Hale says marketers perceive the AODA as an inconvenience, but there are reasons clients “should not look at this as a burden.”

The accessibility requirements align with good user experience design principles and can help brands reach the more than 10% of Canadians with a disability who are not currently part of their addressable market, he says. “It really is an opportunity.”

According to Hale, there are several components that must be addressed to meet the WCAG requirements of the AODA – three of which pertain more directly to marketers. (Content that has been on a website prior to 2012 does not need to be modified, although it would have to be provided in an alternate format if requested, notes Clodman.)

First, marketers must ensure brand guidelines, such as the use of specific fonts or colour contrasts across branded materials, meet accessibility requirements when applied on the web. If they don’t, they must either tweak their existing guidelines for use online or revisit them to be more accessible across the board.

Secondly, they must follow content best-practices, such as breaking long paragraphs down into bulleted or itemized lists, so that screen readers can more easily make sense of them. These changes, Hale reminds clients, are also SEO best-practices – and should be done anyway.

Finally, some requirements touch specifically on multimedia. For example, under AODA guidelines, a video is not supposed to automatically start playing when the user lands on the webpage – causing screen readers to process the information incorrectly – and videos must be captioned. Images must have proper alt text. As with other aspects of the guidelines, these changes also improve the user experience for all visitors, Hale says.

When it comes to enforcing the guidelines, Hale believes the government is likely to make an example out of a few high-profile cases – as was the case with Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL), which came into effect in 2014. With CASL, individuals can be fined up to $1 million and businesses up to $10 million. The first company to be fined under the rules, a corporate training company named Compu-Finder, paid $1.1 million. Rogers Media, Porter Airlines and dating website PlentyOfFish have also faced significant fines.

That said, Hale suggests clients get to work right away on meeting AODA compliance, even though it’s likely many will not meet the deadline if they haven’t already started. Client teams would at least want to demonstrate that they are undertaking the work, should they be singled out, he says.

Similarly, Clodman says organizations should first audit their websites to determine whether they are compliant and then develop a plan from there, working with accessibility experts as needed.

“If an organization is unable to meet the deadline, they could consider sharing their plan with the Accessibility Compliance Office and seeking an extension but there is no guarantee that it will be granted,” she says. “It’s possible that some organizations might need extra time because of the impact of the pandemic on their organizations. In situations where a plan is clear and in progress, we hope organizations and the regulator can work together to address timing.”