The Cost of Accessibility

Recently, my friend Mike Gifford wrote a great article about Accessibility Tips for Management.  In it, he writes:

Without having specialized technical knowledge tied to accessibility, do managers have the skills required to assess if their sites are accessible?  In my experience most managers lack the resources to do any accessibility reviews of their sites and so fall back at best reviewing a vendor’s accessibility statement.

Mike makes a very important point here, that we in the Accessibility community need to do a better job of providing information in a broader way and for a more inclusive audience. So in the spirit of moving away from technical information about accessibility, I’d like to provide something of a response or a compliment to Mike’s article, looking at the answer to the question “What is the cost of accessibility?”

Accessibility Is Cheap

CMS'esThe good news about web accessibility is that there are a number of things that limit its cost. Mike’s article lists a number of free, automated tools to provide accessibility testing of websites – auditing your website and comparing it to an accessibility checklist. In addition to these tools, web development best practices can deliver accessibility wins and they don’t cost anything to use, and there are entire organizations dedicated to helping your project identify and implement these types of practices, such as the Web Standards Group.  Examples of these practices, to share with your developers, include separating content from display, using semantic code – such as avoiding the use of tables for layout, and using options such as “alt” tags .  No only will these practices improve your accessibility, but it will also improve your website’s code quality and Search Engine Optimization. Don’t forget, Google is basically a screen reader; what is good for web accessibility is usually good for search engines as well.

Using Content Management System tools such as WordPress or Drupal can provide significant support for web accessibility. By automating code generation and providing workflow elements such as asking for an alt tag each time an image is uploaded to the website, CMS tools can take on much of the heavy lifting for content developers, allowing them to focus on great content and not getting bogged down in the minutia of accessibility coding. Using a CMS provides many other benefits, making websites less expensive to maintain and easier to manage. Keeping in mind the opportunities to support accessibility when selecting a CMS tool is an important accessibility strategy for management.

The most significant way these practices make accessibility cheap is because they “bake in” accessibility into the foundation of all your web projects. Ensuring accessibility is a core value of your organization and your developers, which means planning for accessibility and measuring for accessibility, is essential to manage the cost of accessibility.

Accessibility is Expensive

Woodworking ToolsUltimately web accessibility is not about validation checklists. Checklists don’t have experiences; People have experiences. This doesn’t mean that checklist tools aren’t useful – they are; I use them in every web development project I work on. However, checklists can provide a false positive – that is to say, just because a website passes a checklist, it doesn’t mean the site is accessible. In fact, even if a website can demonstrate that it meets every requirement set out by every accessibility standard, it might still not be accessible, because if someone can’t access the content…then the site isn’t accessible. This makes accessibility a very demanding element of web development and design.

Building accessibility expertise in your team is not simple, fast or cheap. Web develop and design have matured from a task to give as a side-task to a sysadmin or programmer into full, professional disciplines. Building professional websites is now a craft and one of the skills of crafting a website is accessibility, something which wasn’t even a consideration in the early days of the web. Indeed, accessibility itself is discipline rich enough to fill entire books, conferences and careers. This doesn’t mean everyone who builds your website needs to be an accessibility expert. However, proven accessibility expertise is a valuable skill and takes time and energy to cultivate. And, as recommended by Mike, it may make sense for you to engage an external accessibility consultant, such as Ottawa based Further Ahead.

The most common way accessibility is expensive is when it is a project afterthought. Much like security or information architecture, accessibility is a fundamental part of a high-quality, successful website. As work on the website progresses, it will become progressively more and more expensive to include effective and thorough accessibility. Building the value of and expertise in accessibility in your team, through training, hiring and engaging consultants when necessary, all work to help manage the cost of accessibility.


Planning for the Cost of Accessibility

Bill Graham of Wind River, a subsidiary of Intel, writes this about the cost of fixing bugs:

We intuitively know that defects in the field are much more expensive than those found in development. In fact, the difference is bigger than you think. If you find a bug in-house you save orders of magnitude in time and money…Take a look at this diagram (from Cost to fix bugs rises exponentially as you move down the development timeline. After you’re shipping your product, the cost per defect has increased 640 times!

What if we consider accessibility problems in our websites the same as bugs in our software? If we take this perspective, then we see accessibility problems as something that is a requirement to fix. Data on the cost of fixing bugs shows us the key variable in managing these costs is doing this work as early in the project as possible. The later in the project a bug is identified, that is to say an accessibility problem is identified, the more expensive it will be to fix it. Now, accessibility fixes may not follow this exact pattern – I’m not saying the cost per defect for accessibility issues is 640 times higher after you ship a website. But I do think the general principle we see here holds true for accessibility issues. It is tempting to thing of functional bugs as something different from accessibility bugs, but keep in mind that if someone on your website can’t access a function, it’s no different than that function being broken.

To plan for the cost of accessibility in web project, it is critical to include accessibility in the project plan from the very beginning.

To plan for the cost of accessibility as a competency on your team, it is critical to include it in your talent development and retention strategies. With legislation such as ADA in the US, AODA in Ontario and other laws in other jurisdictions, it is clear that the legal requirements for accessibility are not going anywhere and will become more strict over time. Adding the accessibility dimension of expertise to your organization will take investment, commitment and time.

I hope this article provides a useful and accessible summary of some of the key issues about the cost web accessibility for managers. What insights do you have? What are the most important things managers need to consider when costing web accessibility?


2 thoughts on “The Cost of Accessibility”

  1. Thanks so much for spinning off from the initial contradictions of Accessibility is Simple & Accessibility is Complicated. You brought up lots of good points about how organizations should plan to include accessibility talent on web teams.

    I’d also suggest that since the rate of change is so fast in this area, that organizations need to also invest in keeping these staff informed. Going to conferences like will really expand peoples understandings & give them additional resources to work from.

    I also think that the price of accessibility can be brought down by participating in open source projects like Drupal & WordPress and being vocal about accessibility issues. Simply raising awareness to developers about best practices – like those identified in – can go a long way to seeing that they are adopted.

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