January 27, 2021

Why Accessibility?

Talking about web accessibility can be a bit of a thorny subject when you are starting up a business, developing a brand and building a website. In my time working with developers, entrepreneurs and established businesses, I have come across many responses to the considerations about accessibility, ranging from “Accessibility? What is that?” to “We would love to do it, but we are an early stage startup and don’t really have the budget for accessibility” to “It’s not a problem, our target audience is [insert group of people they assume has no accessibility needs here] so we don’t really need to do that”.

As someone living with a disability, I can’t help but take this matter personally. However, while I truly believe that accessibility and Universal Design should be a priority and not an afterthought, and that the best and main reason for creating accessible platforms is because it’s the right thing to do, I’m also a pragmatist and I know many decision-makers will not see the world from my perspective, so I’m going to see it from theirs.

Many accessibility professionals, university professors and designers/developers have explained and arguing in favor of accessibility development for clients in terms that “make sense to businesses” so my goal here is to give you as a designer, developer, project manager or business owner a few clear and pragmatic arguments to include accessibility in your platforms, which address the common objections that come up when contemplating accessibility. Here is the business case for accessibility.

Accessibility is a legal requirement

A common argument used to convince decision-makers about the importance of accessibility is by citing legal requirements and threats of fines and lawsuits. This is the low hanging fruit of pitching accessibility. I’m usually disinclined to use regulation as an argument when pitching the importance of making platforms and communications accessible, the main reason being that legislation varies from country to county and even from region to region and some businesses might not be legally obligated to comply with any particular requirements for accessible platforms.

It is important to note that even in jurisdictions where there is no particular legislation referring to website accessibility requirements, people have taken legal action on the grounds of discrimination against companies like Netflix, McDonald’s and Carnival cruise lines.

The W3C, also known as the World Wide Web Consortium are the organization in charge of developing the international standards for the Web, they compile what best practices are for mark-up, languages etc., and their main accessibility initiative is the WAI or Web Accessibility Initiative.

They develop the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG, a document that determines the standards for accessibility and it’s a fantastic (albeit cumbersome) place to establish best practices for web accessibility. They have a resource where they compile accessibility laws and regulations for different jurisdictions, and which version of their guidelines the regulation derivates form.

Disability is more prevalent than you think

Many business owners believe disabled people are a small subset of the population with low purchase power and little effect on their bottom line. The correlation between disability and social and economical vulnerability is something worthy of its own lengthy post (I’m trying hard to stay off the soapbox in this one). But the fact is that disabled people are a significant part of the population with varying income levels and purchasing all kinds of products.

Over 1 billion people are estimated to live with some form of disability. This corresponds to about 15% of the world’s population.

World Health Organization Factsheets

Inaccessible websites, content and social media posts effectively tell a 15% of your potential customer base that your company doesn’t care about us. It says that we are not invited to your conversation, that your brand is not for us and we should spend our time and money elsewhere. Would you really want to, or better yet, can you afford to alienate 15% of your customer base?

Accessibility is not just for people with disabilities

Here comes another incorrect belief about accessibility. Not only are disabilities more prevalent and diverse than we might think, accessibility translates into usability gains for everyone.

The potential audience of a website or app is anyone human. Inclusivity of ability, preference, and circumstance is paramount. Where people differ — and they always do — inclusive interfaces are robust interfaces.

Heydon Pickering (2016) Accessible Design Patterns.

This is the key to why accessibility should be the default in design. Making your platforms accessible will help you provide a great user experience for everyone and be helpful to people with disabilities. Accessibility standards will help your site work for people who prefer to use their keyboard to navigate rather than a mouse. It will help people who are in areas with a poor internet connection, who block images for privacy or who don’t have English as their first language. That’s many people who you’d be leaving out or giving a poor experience otherwise.

Accessibility doesn’t have to take up more resources

Time and money are the primary concerns of decision makers and business owners when considering accessibility on their platforms. And this often comes from thinking of accessibility as an add-on, something you throw on top of your design or your development project but if you consider it a prime directive, or something that informs your design from the very start, it doesn’t have to.

The best part is that designing inclusive interfaces, like designing robust data schemas, doesn’t have to be any harder or more complex than making exclusive or otherwise obsolete ones. It’s just different.

Heydon Pickering (2016) Accessible Design Patterns.

It is as difficult to build an inclusive website as it is to build an exclusive, for a designer or developer who works with accessibility in mind, instead of feeling daunted or frustrated by the standards, they will know how to use them to create an amazing experience for all users of your platform.

And while getting involved in the process with someone who knows how to design and build for accessibility and usability might appear more expensive up front, and considering all stakeholders in your design and development process and doing accessibility testing might seem like it will lengthen the process significant, the time and financial cost of evaluation and remediation down the line would far exceed the initial investment.

Hopefully, these four points have given you a few ideas about why accessibility is important for your business website, app or other platforms, why it makes “business sense” besides being the right thing to do, and a few ideas about how to communicate this importance to other stakeholders in your organization.