My experiences with inaccessible legal docs and processes – and how to fix them
To observe this year’s International Day of People with Disabilities (IDPWD), I would like to share my experience with e-signature software. This experience highlights the importance of digital accessibility as it relates to the full engagement of people with disabilities while promoting the rights, respect and dignity of those who daily live with unique challenges and special abilities.
Let me start out by asking you some preliminary questions: Would you ever sign an important contract without reading it, at least at some level? Would you sign a legal document that could directly impact where you live and what you would pay for shelter without reading it and understanding all the terms? Do you think it is unreasonable to ask that you be given a right to read and understand a legal document binding you to terms for a year without reading it? If you would do so, then this story probably won’t mean much to you. If you do feel it is important to understand your legal obligation then read on.
In 2021, in the middle of COVID-19, I made the decision to sell my home of 30 years for a new piece of heaven in Texas, since I had gotten hooked on working from home and wanted to chase my dream of living closer to the country life. As nothing in life worth having comes quickly and easily, I decided to rent an apartment while my new home was being designed and built.
Finding the perfect apartment in the right location with the right amenities was easy. The website for the community wasn’t perfect but it was usable (accessible) for the most relevant information. After selecting the unit and going through the process to be qualified, the contract was the next step. I was e-mailed a 70-page apartment agreement for which I successfully read and understood every page. Thanks to the document signature management software used by this specific apartment complex, signing the document was easy, quick and accessible to me using my JAWS screen reader. I made the transition from my home to my new apartment without a hitch but with a lot of physical labor.
Fast forward one year, and I have designed my new home, picked a builder, and am in the full-scale building process for my new home, but it isn’t move-in ready yet. It’s now time for a new lease agreement to be signed for my apartment. Here’s where things get interesting.
After negotiating the terms of the new lease, the lease is sent to me via email which contains a link to the apartment management software we use for all things related to my apartment unit. I received a custom link to my document, thinking this will be an easy task to knock off my list today. I click the provided link which presents me with a web page that is pretty much empty. No text, no controls, no buttons, just blankness (silence). I immediately know I am up for a new challenge. This experience stumps me–at this point, I have e-signed many documents for the sale of my old home, the purchase of my new lot, the mortgage process, and the like.
I have reviewed thousands of web pages, always with an eye for accessibility, and not many are this inaccessible. After looking closely at the link I am redirected to, as well as the underlying code of the page, I am almost certain the document being served up is from a different e-signature company, since I am very familiar with the major brand of e-signature software most commonly used by a variety of organizations who have adopted this technology for contract management.
Armed with this information, I am off to the leasing office for a conversation about lease signing. Not only am I having problems signing the lease, but I also haven’t even been able to read it. I explain the situation at hand and ask if I can sign a hard copy since I can’t access the electronic document. I was told, “no,” and was offered a new document to be sent to me in hopes the new one would work (this turned out to just be the inaccessible contract sent to me a second time). I asked that they talk to their corporate office to come up with a solution.
After some additional conversations with the leasing office manager that don’t go anywhere, I am asked to email corporate directly with my request for an accommodation. I now have 3 problems on my hands:
- How do I read a 70-page document so I can understand my responsibilities, both physically & financially before signing?
- How do I independently sign the document to signify my agreement with the contract?
- How do I get the right people to be aware of the problem that my access to independently read and sign the contract has now been eliminated?
Let’s take these problems one at a time to see how they were handled.
How do I read a 70-page document so I can understand my responsibilities, both physically & financially before signing?
While I know the entire contract most likely didn’t completely change, knowing what did change is the challenge. Having an independent spirit and not being the type of person who gives in and just finds a friend to review it for me, I reach out to my original leasing agent who was a part of the positive experience one year before, who has now moved onto a new property due to a promotion.
After explaining the situation, I am told that, technically, I don’t need to read all 70 pages because the majority of the document hasn’t been changed and the parts I do need to read are the first 10 pages plus the very last two which contain the terms and payment information. Since I can’t even open the document to try to read it, I ask the leasing office to print me a hard copy for review.
Yes, it got down to old fashion paper to get the job done since no one was able to just email me an attached PDF copy of the document. Seeing AI from Microsoft to the rescue and I am reading the first ten pages and the most important last two just enough to get what was going on. While Optical Character Recognition (OCR) has vastly improved over the years, it is not 100%. When dealing with dates and dollars, I like accuracy so I hate signing documents and contracts just based on an OCR-based read. Well-formed, accessible PDF documents that meet accessibility standards and are coupled with accessible e-signing software allow someone like me, who is a screen reader user, equal access to read, understand and execute my signature on a contract.
How do I independently sign the document to signify my agreement with the contract?
Well after being given the email address for tenants to directly communicate with corporate, I sent them a message explaining the situation and proposing my only solution which was signing hard copy since independently e-signing wasn’t going to work. One hour after emailing corporate, I received a call from the leasing office asking if I would like to come down to sign a hard copy.
Amazing what one email can do when asking for an accommodation. I set up an appointment and went down with my original 70-page hard copy and made the leasing agent read me the two most critical pages that cover lease length and payments. Once everything appeared to be right, I signed and that was the end of that part of the story. What I signed I can only hope matched what was described to me by the agent. Trust on several levels is a big piece of the solution for this interaction.
How do I get the right people aware of the problem that has now been introduced eliminating my access to independently read and sign the contract?
After having good luck getting corporate to listen to my needs for an accommodation, I was still not done. In order to tell this last part of the story I am going to quickly outline the players for better readability.
- Corporate: The company that owns and manages the property
- Primary Software Vendor: The company that produces, sells and manages the property management software that Corporate uses to manage their properties and that tenants use to manage their account and report maintenance requests.
- Secondary Software Vendor: Company that produces the current document signing solution that is not accessible.
I was lucky enough to find an ADA-oriented email address for the company providing the online software for the property management software (Primary Software Vendor). I forwarded my original email containing my inaccessible contract link to the ADA email address and copied corporate. I informed them I was blind, a screen reader user, and that this year I am no longer able to read and sign my electronic-based lease agreement. I then asked them if they could help me. Note: I think it is worth mentioning that the primary software vendor for the property management software caters to three groups, (1) prospective customers looking for a property, (2) current tenants, and (3) property owners.
The front-facing pages for prospective customers have an experience that uses a plug-in to provide a level of accessibility that is not really acceptable, but that is another story. Once you are a tenant, the link to the same website does not employ the overlay software and is a much worse experience. I am unable to comment on the accessibility of the property owners’ web pages but will assume they are on the same level as the tenants. This is an example, in my opinion, of companies feeling way too comfortable that a magic easy solution for accessibility concerns and ADA compliance can be had with a plug-in solution.
Unfortunately, this is where the story ends. My email went unanswered. I did receive word from my leasing office that Corporate is aware of the problem and is working on a solution, but no details were provided and no status. Over 3 months have gone by and no one has provided an update.
My thoughts on what could have been done differently
Number one, Corporate could have found a way to provide me with some sort of electronic copy to allow me to read the entire document. Asking me to consume a 70-page document in this day and age that is paper-based when they know I am blind is unacceptable. Even a Microsoft Word copy would have been better than having to resort to OCR in order to read the document. While the PDF was stored in a database, most likely the vendor should have been able to extract the PDF and email it to me, but even that level of accessibility was not provided.
Number two, the feedback loop should have been closed. It is clear there is an accessibility problem with the functionality provided to review and sign leasing contracts for the owner of my apartment complex and to all other customers of the property management software. The Primary Software Vendor’s apparent failure to test for accessibility of their newly implemented e-signing solution has a responsibility to ensure that the product they provide is usable to all customers. Testing should have occurred and when the problem was discovered, and therefore the vendor should have been made aware of the issue and asked to correct it. The existing e-signature solution should have stayed in production until the new solution was fixed or a decision to terminate the contract with the new software vendor was made.
Both the Corporate folks for my apartment complex and the Primary Software Vendor failed to reach out to me at any level to better understand or offer options.
What was done right
Accommodation: Once the problem and the need were communicated to the right level of leadership, the request was approved and we found a way to review and sign the lease. It was not ideal because I really didn’t get to read the entire contract and I was signing documents I couldn’t see, but the job was accomplished. Corporate wanted to avoid me at all costs as no email was sent to me in response to my request, just a phone call asking me to show up to sign a hard copy. While appreciated, in my opinion, the accommodation communication needs to be improved.
Key Takeaways from my e-signing experience
While accommodation shouldn’t be your goal for all accessibility issues that come your way, it is an appropriate tool to temporarily solve current problems while permanent solutions can be implemented. Accommodation can only go so far and last so long before it becomes a problem and can be seen as an excuse for not providing equal access to products and services.
Testing is the key to good experiences. Testing requires all use cases to be considered to ensure an inclusive experience for all and that any problems are discovered early and resolved. Digital accessibility must be an element of any quality testing program. Automated testing solutions such as axe DevTools can easily discover problems with digital content.
This story is a perfect example of how important vendor management is when it comes to procuring digital products and services that are inclusive of all users. The Primary Software Vendor for the property management company did not do its due diligence when it came to evaluating the new vendor for their digital signature software. The vendor they were originally using had worked to ensure people of all abilities could use their product and that was proven when I successfully used it to sign my original lease in 2021. When a decision was made to change vendors, the procurement department should have had language in their RFP/RFI and ultimate contract addressing the accessibility of the product.
Software vendors need to be aware of their obligations under the ADA. Vendors can learn about their responsibility under the law through high-quality training such as Deque University, Deque’s online, self-paced training offering that provides technical and non-technical, awareness and general inclusion training to people of all backgrounds.
If procurement departments struggle with vendor management for digital accessibility, they can–and should–reach out for guidance, best practices, and coaching to develop policies and manage their company risk. Deque offers Strategic Consulting services that can help your organization clearly understand and plan its digital accessibility strategy.
If your organization has any kind of digital presence, ensure that your customers have a feedback mechanism on your website, preferably on your accessibility statement page, that is easily discovered. Ensure the timely review of provided feedback and when appropriate, resolve barriers or provide accommodations and keep the customer in the loop as to the plan to address the problem. Failure to respond back is not an acceptable behavior.
People in general want to be independent and do the right thing. Reading, understanding and signing a legal document isn’t a luxury, and, in my opinion, is a human right to be able to comprehend an obligation. Without this, what would your life be like if you couldn’t perform these simplest of tasks?
Digital accessibility is not a one-off project
When looking at how to ensure good experiences for all customers, working on digital accessibility is not a practice that you can try, perfect and then move on. Good digital accessibility and inclusion of all customers is a lifestyle that never ends. Most modern software development lifecycle methodologies incorporate quality assurance processes to test adherence to common standards for software quality. Any respected IT organization tests its software to some degree before release. Not including digital accessibility testing as a piece of that routine is not acceptable. Just like any modern testing methodology wouldn’t skip security testing, accessibility can’t be skipped either.
Digital accessibility is a consistent practice that needs to always be a part of any quality assurance program. Of course, it goes without saying that no one is perfect and problems will still happen. The mark of a good company is how they address those problems.
In my experience with e-signature software, the way the accessibility problem was handled could have been managed better from the initial “no you can’t sign a paper copy” to the discovery of the new e-signing software’s lack of accessibility for screen reader users. Automated testing, manual testing and testing with people with disabilities are the keys to success for organizations desiring to be inclusive of all customers.
As our world continues to get smaller and smaller due to the connectivity provided by ever-improving technology, this International Day of People with Disabilities, ask what your organization is doing to promote the inclusion of all people of all abilities and find ways to work towards continuous improvement.