TL; DR: “Does the website work on JAWS” is a bad goal, a bad judge of accessibility, and a bad defense in a lawsuit.
Recently, I had the opportunity to work on an accessibility lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiff. The defense counsel in this case attempted to have the case dismissed because, they argued, the experience of the website on JAWS is allegedly better than the experience of the website in the plaintiff’s screenreader of choice. The defense’s argument suggested that because the website could be used with JAWS it was possible for the user to attain “full and equal enjoyment“. Apart from the fact that I found the UX on JAWS to be equally as bad, I find that the basis of this argument to be severely flawed when you consider the reality of user demographics, possible platform combinations, and the features of assistive technologies.
Quick note: I plan on sidestepping a lot of the legal ins and outs because I’m not a lawyer. Instead, I’ll focus on the facts that make it a bad idea to focus on a single assistive technology product.
Interoperability with a specific assistive technology is a by-product of good code
The most important thing to remember when discussing interoperability of a system with assistive technologies is that no assistive technology can overcome bad code. In fact, assistive technologies rely on good code in order to properly convey content to the end user. Screen readers, in particular, make heavy use of platform accessibility APIs to convey content to users. These APIs “…provide a set of interfaces that expose information about objects and events to assistive technologies. Assistive technologies use these interfaces to get information about and interact with those widgets.” [Source]. In other words, the code of the website is the core dependency for what gets conveyed to the user. In a very real sense, the user experience with assistive technologies is greatly subject to the effects of GIGO. If the website’s code is inaccessible, there’s no choice but for the assistive technology to carry through the poor experience to the user.
The converse is (mostly) true. A website that has been specifically coded to be accessible will obviously be more accessible because, as I just described, it will convey the proper information to assistive technologies via the accessibility APIs. That said, take note of the use of the word “mostly” in the earlier sentence. Unfortunately, there’s actually a chain of responsibility in play with accessibility. The website’s code, the browser, and the assistive technology all have to carry through the information so the user can understand the content. This can break down anywhere in the chain, leaving some features within HTML and/ or ARIA completely unsupported even among popular, high-quality platform combinations.
The same user may use multiple platforms or assistive technologies
One area where it makes little sense to focus on one specific assistive technology is because the same user may make use of multiple assistive technologies. If you think about it, this just makes sense. These days most people use multiple devices. For instance, today I had to get a part for my lawnmower. I started my search on my phone when I first noticed the need for the part but came inside to search on my laptop later. Similarly, it is quite common for users who are blind to use a Windows laptop with JAWS while at work and an iPhone with VoiceOver enabled while at home. Just because a website is optimized to work on JAWS doesn’t mean that the user will even have the ability to use that platform.
There’s no such thing as an average user
Further complicating the above is that there truly is no such thing as an average user. Optimizing a website for one Platform and Screenreader is only optimizing for 2 out of over 1400 different Platform/ OS/ Browser/ and AT combinations. It makes little sense to argue that a website is accessible because it works with JAWS, especially when over 46% of screen reader users use a different screen reader than JAWS!
It is a bad defense
Legal risk aside, working on any specific screen reader doesn’t equate to accessible. In fact, by volume, users of screen readers are a minority in terms of the overall disability population. While it is true that the majority of plaintiffs in accessibility lawsuits are screen reader users, that’s not always the case. Furthermore, people who are blind are not the only people who have standing to bring a suit.
If your lawyer attempts to use a defense that alleges that your site is accessible because it works with JAWS, you’re going to want to find a new lawyer.