In “Ditching Paper Signatures: Are All Electronic Alternatives Equal?” Eliya Fishman listed “6 Questions to Ask Now” about digital signature programs. I propose a seventh question, and it doesn’t just apply to digital signatures, but to all law office technology. My question: Are your technologies—and your content—accessible to everyone?
Handling paper for signature can be challenging for many people with disabilities. Blind people cannot read standard print on paper and many never learned to sign their name with a pen. A client of mine who has a high level non-profit executive job once had to practice her written signature for half an hour before it was accepted as legible by her financial institution.
And it’s not just blind people who find paper a challenge. Many people cannot effectively read print on paper because of physical, perceptual, developmental, cognitive, or learning disabilities. These include people with upper body mobility disabilities, or neurological impairments such as Parkinson’s or cerebral palsy who cannot easily manipulate paper or write a signature. Then there are those who have lost hands or arms, such as combat veterans.
The paperless office holds great promise for these individuals—people who may be our clients, members of the public, other lawyers on our cases, our employees, or ourselves. Blind people have screen reader software on their desktops and mobile devices that can read text aloud and provide navigational cues that allow interaction with features like forms, radio buttons, and drop down menus. Such software can also enlarge text or deliver information in braille. Speech recognition software is essential to many with disabilities, and expensive eye tracking devices allow for computer use by individuals with no motor abilities. Many people with a wide range of disabilities navigate by keyboard only, unable to use a mouse. And people without the hand dexterity (or a hand) that allows for signing on paper can use a keyboard (standard size or larger) with a stick held by mouth or attached to a head-worn device.
These types of technologies, known as assistive technologies, are only half the equation. The digital content and software itself—like the documents we sign and the digital signature technology that enables secure signing—must be designed and built to accessibility standards if they are to work for all users. Accessible content, documents and software coupled with assistive technology means a paperless office that is available to everyone.
But the paperless office can be yet another barrier to independence and participation. Take digital signature programs, for example.
In writing this article, I contacted several digital signature companies asking about accessibility for people with disabilities. I asked a simple question, one at the heart of accessibility for people with visual impairments: “If I send a document to a blind client through your digital signature service will they be able to sign it?”
Only one company had a clue about accessibility, offering accessibility support that could be enabled on request (but who would know and why wasn’t it built in?). The accessibility was designed for the signer; many people with disabilities could not use the program to send documents. And the accessibility features weren’t available on the most recent version of the website, only in an earlier view. While the program would benefit from usability feedback from disabled customers, a tech-savvy blind client was able to sign and date a document I sent through this digital signature service.
At least that one company considered that not everyone signing documents can see the page or use a mouse. Here are two other responses I received, from two different digital signature companies:
“Unfortunately, our software is not compatible with screen reader technology. Apologies for the inconvenience!”
“You need someone to sign in behalf of the blind signer—the sender can guide the blind signer for document signing.”
Really? In my practice as a disability rights lawyer, I have represented blind lawyers, teachers, executive directors, technology trainers, academic administrators, corporate vice presidents, and a whip-smart ten year old. They wouldn’t need help signing if digital signature programs were accessible.
Being locked out of today’s technology is more than an inconvenience. It’s a civil rights issue.
The legal profession must start advocating for technology to work for everyone. We must stop assuming that we all read and write in the same way, with the same technology. And it’s not just our digital signature programs. Our websites, our mobile apps, our legal documents, our office systems and court filing and retrieval systems must work for all of us, including lawyers and clients with disabilities.
We must insist on accessibility from our vendors, include it in contracts and ask with each purchase and upgrade: “What efforts have you put in to making this technology or service accessible to everyone? Does anything more need to be done?”
We must demand accessibility of ourselves; training our staff and ourselves to create accessible documents and digital offerings (including rampantly expanding video offerings). It won’t change the look or feel of our content, but it will make it available to everyone. We’re the legal profession—let’s set an example for full inclusion in the digital age.