An opinion article by Robin Christopherson, Head of Digital Inclusion at UK tech charity AbilityNet. All opinions expressed are of the author.
This week saw the ruling of America’s Supreme Court in the case of Domino’s vs Guillermo Robles; a blind man who was unable to successfully use their website or mobile app to select his favourite pizza. The Supreme Court said “Hard cheese” to Domino’s and found in favour of the claimant.
Domino’s clearly don’t care for disabled customers
Despite it being a clear legal requirement under the American’s with Disabilities Act (1990) to make reasonable accommodations for people who use assistive technologies (like the built-in VoiceOver screen reader on your Mac or iPhone) or whose disability or impairment requires that an app or website considers their needs in its presentation and usability, Domino’s were having none of it.
A similar need for straightforward accommodations is very evidently enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as in the statute books here in the UK, in the EU and across much of the developed world. So, it’s quite clearly been the law for numberless years to ensure that users with disabilities aren’t left out on the digital sidewalk and, I think we’d all agree, it just feels like the liberated 21st century sort of approach to take, right?
Domino’s disagreed and, when faced with defeat at lower legal levels, appealed it all the way to the Supreme Court. Pizzas may be their passion, but both the purple pound and the good favour of any right-minded American (or global citizen for that matter) obviously is not.
Is accessibility hard?
Do Domino’s have a case for being so intransigent when it comes to tweaking their website or app to make it inclusive for all? Is it unreasonable to accommodate us disabled customers (I’m blind too, by the way)?
Well, it is estimated that considering the globally-recognised and comprehensive Web Accessibility Guidelines(WCAG – currently v2.1) or their equivalents for mobile app development in any new project represents a possible 2-5% additional cost. Whilst that’s not peanuts, it’s dwarfed by the spending power of customers with impairments (mentioned above as the purple pound and estimated to be circa £249bn – $304bn US – each year in the UK alone) and that of their family and friends so easily swayed by online reviews, Squashed Tomato ratings and the like.
This is because, if an app or website is easy to use by those with extreme requirements, then it’s extremely usable for those without. Thus, make it extremely usable for all and you give every customer a good experience and, voila! Good ratings, high customer satisfaction, increased revenue and repeat business. But Domino’s wants none of that.
And what about if you don’t factor inclusion in from the start? Well, it’ll cost more of course. Will it cost as much as the loss of custom and good will that comes with such lengthy legal proceedings? I wouldn’t have thought so. Not by a long way.
In this case, by the way, the issue revolved around the simple ability to customise your toppings to get the pizza you actually want. Not on the scale of a manned mission to Mars, then, but still they dug their heels in.
Who is accessibility for?
So we’ve established that Domino’s don’t care about their disabled customers – that’s clear. Whilst this isn’t at all what their filing says, of course, it’s the obvious take-away from such an action (excuse the pun).
Their stated reason for going nuclear on a no-accessibility stance? It was to seek clarity from the law as to what is and isn’t covered. Bricks and mortar, yes. Clicks and mobile taps? Unclear. They were asking for a clear ruling along with clarity on which guidelines to use. Hopefully they’re now crystal clear on both – both of which we’ve covered above and which the vast majority of forward-thinking organisations have accepted as read for years. We’ve long had legislation the spirit of which is evident, and in-depth technical guidelines whose sole intention is to help put them into practice.
What Domino’s may not realise, however, is that turning their back on those guidelines and seeking to continue with the status quo (i.e. creating digital products that avoid the fiddly bother of inclusive design) ignores the very significant fact that it is no longer just disabled users that need accessibility. I’ll explain.
There’s no doubt that we’re living in a mobile-first world. The average daily traffic to any given website is predominantly mobile – well over 60% – and that’s not factoring in mobile app equivalents to those same websites which are, by definition, from users on the go. So the vast majority of any company’s users are accessing their services on small screened devices without keyboard or mouse and found in every sort of situation – they’re well and truly ‘computing on the edge’.
Someone trying to access a website without sufficient colour contrast or with poor font choices will struggle on a sunny day. For that moment they have exactly the same requirements as someone with a vision impairment. Using your phone one-handed (which I guarantee you’ve already done several times today) you are in very real terms temporarily motor or dexterity impaired. You needed the exact same design requirements as someone with Parkinson’s or a tremor does 24-7. Got less than a minute to squeeze buying a train ticket into your coffee break? You need extreme usability just as someone with a learning difficulty does. Ditto when ordering an Uber after a ‘good’ night out. Noisy, bumpy bus or train? That’s a hearing impairment and motor difficulty. I could go on and on. In fact, in many of my articles I have.
So who is accessibility for? It’s for everyone. Each and every one of us. We all slide up and down the scale of impairment on an almost hourly basis depending upon what we’re doing and where.
Domino’s needs to begin to wise up to the fact that turning your back on the widely recognised (if yet not universally adopted) guidelines for inclusive design doesn’t just hurt your disabled customers and your brand, they make your digital products and services frankly unfit for a mobile-first world.
Everyone suffers and (even if you don’t care about doing the right thing) that’ll really hurt your bottom line.
Out with accessibility – in with inclusive design
When we think of creating a digital world that offers everyone a pretty good experience regardless of their environment and what they choose to use, it might be best to turn away from the label of accessibility altogether. It has too much baggage. It’s always been thought of as being for those disabled people over there – a bolt on that, when push comes to shove, can be left off altogether.
Two decades of equality legislation on both sides of the pond have left us with a digital landscape in which 90% plus of websites don’t even meet the bare minimum of requirements when it comes to accommodating disabled users. It’s still a rampless world for many (nightmare CAPTCHA challenge, anyone?) and a simple but significant shift towards the idea that those same guidelines now benefit every user may make all the difference. So out with the idea of accessibility for those with disabilities being the reason why you’re doing the right thing – and in with the idea of inclusive design that benefits every user. That’s one tempting take-away that Domino’s has yet to digest.
Getting stuck into Domino’s with some teeth
Please make your websites and apps inclusive because you know it’s the right thing to do. Failing that, do it for the strong and very real business case. And for those like Domino’s that just plain refuse – really refuse to do the right thing – then let’s get stuck into them with some teeth. It’s vital that the law has teeth to make companies do the right thing regardless of their reluctance to do so.
I’ve long called for the government to enforce the law when it comes to accessibility. We get a parking ticket if we stay a millisecond over time on a parking meter. Try to avoid taxes and the HMRC are down on you like a tonne of bureaucratic bricks (we all know the saying about birth, death and taxes), but block millions of users from participating fully in a flourishing digital future and the government looks the other way.
The funny thing is that it wouldn’t take an army of traffic wardens or tax inspectors to enforce the law when it comes to digital compliance. It’s a nice, comfy, desk-based task to ascertain whose being naughty and whose being nice. In a more recent post I outlined how several governments are taking their obvious obligation to a fair online world seriously and actually monitoring and fining offenders. Unsurprisingly, this has seen some startling results.
The Norwegian government is one that has chosen this proactive approach to enforcement. They evaluate websites for compliance and then issue a deadline and subsequent fines.
One example is their national airline; SAS. It was given a year to comply and, when it didn’t, was given an additional week and simultaneously threatened with a tough €15,000 fine ($16,500 US) every day thereafter.
After no movement for a year (and lots of complaining about how hard it would be to remedy the issues), they then fixed the issues in 12 days to everyone’s satisfaction.
You can hear from myself, representatives from Norway, and presenter Peter White on a recent BBC In Touch programme discussing enforcement and how a new approach such as this is actually making a difference.
There’s still a long way to go, but Norwegian travellers can now at least browse and buy tickets with their biggest airline regardless of disability or impairment – along with many other sites too.
So that’s one example of how readily the law can gnash its teeth. Wouldn’t it be great if this was the last time a company like Domino’s was able to avoid its bite?
I like a slice of Domino’s pizza as much as the next person – so long as that person is both a really huge pizza fan (really huge) and who also loves Hawaiian but without the ham, that is – but, so long as I can’t customise it to meet my needs, I’m taking my purple pennies elsewhere.
About the author
Robin Christopherson is Head of Digital Inclusion at UK tech and disability charity AbilityNet, which he co-founded over two decades ago and since has been tireless in championing digital accessibility across all platforms and sectors – as well as through a busy blogging and public speaking schedule around the world.
Recognised with an MBE for his services to digital inclusion in the 2017 Queen’s new year’s honours list, Robin was most recently named in the top 100 most influential people in digital government in October 2019. This was primarily for needling government about the sort of things included in the article above – both from afar and also whilst serving on a number of rather dry government committees and working groups. Robin was also an expert witness in a not-too-dissimilar case under UK legislation; PMI vs Latif.
You may also bump into him at Mobile World Congress each year, where he has judged the accessibility category of the prestigious Global Mobile Awards for five years running.
He also tells terrible jokes.
I am an absolute geek who loves technology. I also happen to be severely sight impaired and that has meant my journey with new technology has been challenging. What I've learnt is what I want to share with others and I do that on air in the UK on RNIB Connect Radio's weekly Tech Talk radio show and podcast, and on AMI-Audio's Double Tap Canada radio show and podcast. I'm also a very lucky husband and the owner of the world's coolest dog!