How to make organizations aware of an accessibility issue

Hand holding antique rusty oil can

Companies are more likely to take care of its squeaky wheel customers. This is how you can squeak. How loud you squeak (and who joins you in squeaking) is up to you.

You’ve found an accessibility problem, in a website or app from someone we are going to refer to below as “OffendingCompany”.

  • Maybe you have vision loss and rely on a screen reader or magnification, which failed to work properly.
  • Maybe you can’t use a mouse, and have to use a keyboard (or keyboard simulator) to navigate through a system
  • Maybe you work in accessibility and have a habit of using assistive technology when you are out shopping.

Typically the next step is you exhaust your patience trying to report the issue through standard customer service channels. To someone far away. Who might not care. Sometimes people in customer support know what accessibility is, many times they don’t. Sometimes you get an acknowledgement of your report, most of the time you don’t. Rarely does the problem get fixed. If it does get fixed, it’s even more rare that you, the original reporter and person inconvenienced by the bug are notified the accessibility issue has been fixed.

What now?

The hero / heroine of this particular story doesn’t give up, they try one of the approaches below.

Collaborative approaches

I usually start with a collaborative approach before I ratchet up the volume of the message. I want to give OffendingCompany every opportunity to acknowledge that:

  1. Accessibility is important
  2. They’ve made a mistake
  3. They are going to fix the mistake
  4. They are going to adopt process changes to make sure that mistakes like this don’t recur
  5. Possibly the most important — they know someone is watching them on this issue

Approach 1: Email

Many companies have a generic inbox for accessibility issues at Apple has one. VMware has one. Google does not (at least the last time I tried, it bounced). The “generic email inbox” approach prevents names of employees and contractors from getting exposed, and also allows seamless transition when accessibility team members change.

Approach 2: Google OffendingCompany “accessibility manager”

If the email to bounces, or you don’t get a response, the next step is to try and find out exactly who are the accessibility personnel for OffendingCompany. Google to the rescue. Try to track down their email addresses.

  • Sometimes it will be in the Google results
  • Some services will tell you the likely patterns for email addresses at a company (“first initial last name” or “first initial . last name” are common patterns
  • RocketReach or ZoomInfo sometimes has individual’s work emails

Approach 3: Look on LinkedIn for <OffendingCompany accessibility>

Same idea as Google, with a specific focus on searching for the right person to reach out to in the business realm. If you find likely people with this approach, connect with the individuals saying you would like to report an accessibility issue. That way you have proof of your attempted contact if you decide to proceed with one of the “scorched earth” approaches below.

Approach 4: Look on Facebook for a page for OffendingCompany

Same idea as LinkedIn, with a focus on finding someone who cares about corporate reputation. Same approach as the other social media formats — find someone and tell them you want report an accessibility issue.

Approach 5: Try visiting

Many OffendingCompanies have accessibility pages that discuss their “commitment to accessibility”. There may be contact info there to report accessibility-related issues. Although this is a simple approach, I put it lower on the list because with the first three approaches, you are contacting a responsible individual whose job it is to deal with these things. When I emailed PG&E about their inaccessible emergency web pages through their accessibility page during the Public Safety Power Shut-off, I never heard back from them. Though I did hear from another source that an accessibility company had received an urgent contract to perform accessibility testing on them. So clearly they got the message, and then made the deliberate decision to ignore the person who reported the issue.

Approach 6: Tweet <OffendingCompany>

I don’t use twitter a lot, but I hear that tweeting companies about problems in general is a good way to publicly notify them of issues. Tagging people who are known in the accessibility twitter community would also probably be helpful. That would include @a11y and @a11yisimportant just to name a couple. Also use the hashtag #accessibility. For a master class in how to handle an accessibility complaint using Twitter, see this article on how Haben Girma reacted to an AirBnB host canceling her reservation after finding out she had a guide dog. She still didn’t get what she wanted in the end, but the path she took is typically considered the most effective.

Approach 7: Go to a meetup/conference or other event that you know the company frequents

This is a longer term approach, but if you happen to know people from OffensiveCompany attending various business events like conferences, introducing yourself and identifying your issue in person might help.

Scorched earth approaches

The approaches I have identified up to this point are collaborative. They speak of “you have a problem, and I want to help you fix it”. Depending on how aggressive you feel like being, you may want to take one of the more “scorched earth” approaches below. My definition of the “scorched earth” approach is that you don’t care about your relationship with OffendingCompany, and you *really* want to send a message that their behavior is totally unacceptable

Scorched Earth Approach 1: Reach out to a regulatory agency

The DoJ handles federal accessibility complaints. They have not been investigating nearly as many under the current administration, however, so the chances of yours getting accepted for review are slim.

If you live in an accessibility proactive state, reaching out to the government agency that enforces disability / accessibility laws can be helpful. In California, for example, the Unruh Act is enforced by DFEH and the complaints can be found here.

Scorched Earth Approach 2: Reach out to a news reporter

When I was trying to get PG&E to pay attention to the fact that their emergency pages were inaccessible, I had several chats with local reporters from and the MercuryNews. Haben Girma used Tech Crunch to publicize her issue with AirBnB. Find a reporter who has done articles on disability related issues previously, they are most likely to listen to you. If you can’t find one, just look for the news desk.

Scorched Earth Approach 3: Reach out to a lawyer

Three lawfirms are responsible for something like 80 % of the accessibility lawsuits that are filed. Mizrahi and Associates and Carson Lynch are two of the big ones. Other people to contact are Lainey Feingold (who does structured negotiations, she is not a litigator), Pacific Trial Attorneys, and The Karlin Law firm.

Sometimes all it takes is a “nastygram” from an attorney to get a fire lit under people when all they had to do was properly handle the customer support call in the first place.

With many thanks to Pia Zaragoza for the idea for this article.

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