The Business Case for Web Accessibility | January 19, 2004

This article was originally written for Message

Until recently, few people had heard of web site accessibility. However due in a large part to the work of the RNIB, the subject of web accessibility has hit mainstream. From industry magazines to the BBC, the topic of website accessibility is starting to enter the collective consciousness.

However there is still a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding the issue of web accessibility. In this article I hope to give a brief outline about exactly what web accessibility is, and then explain how building an accessible website can have a positive impact on your business, both in terms of PR and ROI.

What exactly is Web Accessibility?

Simply put, web site accessibility is about making a site accessible to the largest range of people possible. For the majority of website owners, this is simply good business sense. After all, the more people you have using your site the better.

At It's core, making a website accessible involves removing potential barriers to access. Luckily the people in charge of setting standards on the web have provided designers with the basic tools to remove these barriers. However old habits are hard to break, and many designers are still building sites that can cause problems for a variety of individuals.

So who does this affect?

When most people talk about web accessibility, they usually start talking about people with physical disabilities. However web accessibility is a much wider issue and at a fundamental level affects all of us.

I've covered the issue of web standards and browser compatibility in more depth elsewhere. However to quickly recap, different web browsers were developed to understand different sets of rules. This meant a site would work on one browser and not another, causing huge accessibility issues. These days, browser manufactures have started settling on a standard set of rules (called web standards). One of the most basic steps of making a site accessible is to create a site using these rules. By using these web standards you can help ensure your site is accessible by the widest range of browsers available.

Here are some more groups of people that have problems accessing content on the web.

So you can see, web accessibility is a wide-ranging issue that can affect a large proportion of web users. Each individual group may only account for a small percentage of your traffic, however all these percentages start to add up to meaningful numbers. On even a moderately busy site you could literally be turning busloads of people away every day.

So how does this affect me?

When trying to convince people of the importance of accessibility, most people (in the UK) focus on the Disability Discrimination Act . Under UK law it's illegal for a business to discriminate against people with disabilities. This relates to online and well as offline businesses. So if your site is inaccessible, you are potentially breaking the law.

However most people prefer carrots to sticks, so selling web accessibility on legal grounds tends to antagonise people. It makes much more sense to focus on the positive benefits web accessibility can bring.

The fact of the matter is, making your website accessible to as many people as possible is just sound business sense. Building in accessibility on a new site costs around 2% of the overall budget, but the rewards both in terms of PR and ROI can be great.

The positive aspects of having an accessible website are:

The negative aspects of an inaccessible website are:

So you can see, web accessibility is a wide ranging issue and one that effects a large number of people, both web users and website owners. Many people misunderstand web accessibility and see it as another resource drain. However making your website accessible should be a matter of common sense. Combined with the benefits of having an accessible website, there is a very strong case for web accessibility.

For more info on the subject of Accessibility, please feel free to download the accessibility presentation(128KB pdf) I gave at the first SkillSwap event.

Posted at January 19, 2004 10:15 AM

Comments

Jon Hicks said on January 22, 2004 10:34 AM

Thanks Andy - this is one of the those articles (like Jeffrey Veens’ - ‘The Business Value of webstandards’) that you send naysayers and enquirers to: “Look, just go and read Andy’s article, that says what you need to know…”

I like the anecdote in Zeldmans DWWS about the CEO of a TV manfacturer answering critics of its inaccessible website - “Well I don’t think many blind people will be buying TV’S!”. Doh!!

clint said on January 22, 2004 2:40 PM

I don’t usually post “good job” or “I agree” comments, but your last two entries have just been too excellent. Thanks a lot!

Thijs van der Vossen said on January 22, 2004 7:28 PM

Excellent summary of all the important arguments. Thanks!

pb said on January 22, 2004 11:37 PM

This article and others typically gloss over the costs of delivering an “accessible” site. In fact, from an ROI perspective, which is how business should be run, “accessibility” doesn’t always make sense.

Andy Budd said on January 23, 2004 9:13 AM

I’d be interested to know your perception of the cost of delivering an accessible site? From the tone of your post I assume your belief is that it can be quite expensive. While that can be true of retrofitting an existing site, studies have shown that the cost of building in accessibility from the start costs around 2% of the average budget.

As for ROI, this is a common question thrown into the accessibility debate. With this article I’ve tried to demonstrate some of the business reasons for making a site accessible. However putting a monetary value on these reasons is much more difficult.

I guess the first stop would be to calculate the amount of business you could potentially be loosing from people though accessibility issues over the life of the site. Calculating a monetary value for the negative PR you could generate may be more difficult, while putting a cash figure on your legal requirements would be almost impossible. What’s the ROI on a having a privacy statement or terms and conditions?

I usually find the ROI argument is generally used by people who have already made up their mind about website accessibility. This argument sees accessibility as a “take it or leave it” feature, rather than a core part of a site. However I believe that site accessibility is a core element and should be treated as such.

Isofarro said on January 23, 2004 10:21 AM

Andy, good presentation and explanation of the WCAG guidelines. Its great to see someone with a flair for design also have a decent grasp of accessibility issues.

Jon Hicks said earlier: “this is one of the those articles (like Jeffrey Veens’ - ‘The Business Value of webstandards’) that you send naysayers and enquirers to: “Look, just go and read Andy’s article, that says what you need to know…”“

Agreed, but there is one problem that will overshadow Andy’s arguments, and it will be used by people as an excuse to ignore accessibility. The problem is Andy’s own site - there’s three major accessibility problems that people will point out:

1.) The image at the top of this page contains a mini-biography which is not reflected in the alt or longdesc, and it is tiny text.
2.) The primary navigation is tiny and fixed, and consequently IE can’t resize it.
3.) The main text size is too small. Even in IE’s Largest setting it is still smaller than a typical IE installation’s default text size.

These flaws will be pointed at, with the argument that Andy doesn’t follow his own advice - “so why should we?”

Your advice will always be measured alongside the websites you create. So it is necessary to make sure that your own websites meet your own standards before expecting anyone else to follow them.

This isn’t meant as a dig - I’ve been on the receiving end of the same counter-argument a few times. And they are essentially correct. “Do as I do,” goes a lot further than “do as I say”.

Isofarro said on January 23, 2004 10:39 AM

Andy: “I guess the first stop would be to calculate the amount of business you could potentially be loosing from people though accessibility issues over the life of the site.”

http://www.abilitynet.org.uk/content/oneoffs/e-nation2.htm : “In the UK there are estimated to be 1.6 million registered blind people and a further 3.4 million people who are IT disabled. The total spending power of this group is now estimated at 50 - 60 billion a year.”

http://society.guardian.co.uk/societyguardian/story/0,7843,1047986,00.html : “36% of 9 million UK disabled are online”

Thirty six percent of 50 billion pound a year is eighteen billion pound a year disposable income by disabled people already online. How many business can afford to ignore such a large source of revenue?

Colin Barnes said on January 23, 2004 12:53 PM

Andy, thanks for such a well thought and persuasive argument in the favor of accessable design. This is always a stumbling block for me when I try and persuade clients. They fail to see the benefits and usually only think internally. But with your qualified arguments I now feel I can put across a more substantianted argument to my clients and start to produce more accessable websites.

I always enjoy your articles, keep up the good work.

Logo dzwonki polifoniczne said on January 23, 2004 1:01 PM

Most users dont know how to prepare a SE friendly website - and it is better for those who knows…

Frank O'Connor said on January 23, 2004 3:02 PM

A nice concise argument for accessible sites - thanks for that.

I guess maintenance costs could be worth a mention with regards to the ROI thing - if you believe, as I do, that separation of content from presentation ought to be fundamental to making any broadly accessible site.

Gordon Mackay said on January 23, 2004 9:58 PM

Hi, my name is Gordon Mackay. I am a web developer in my spare time and work for social services in the more sociable hours of daylight.

In ALL our dealings with clients we are expected to work within the infrastructure of non discriminatory practice.

One of the ways that we promote persons rights is by NOT highlighting a deficit in ability. By that I mean we would never place a person in a situation where their disability would become obvious. If web developers took onboard this very simple way of thinking, combined with a little empathy, we would all be doing a great job of the thing we are supposed to be specialist consultants in.

Standards said on January 24, 2004 2:37 PM

Hey Andy
You have two links thatare supposed to validate your Xhtml Transitional and your CSS file..but once i click on them they both come up with errors?

Are you aware of this?
If you are, why do have the validator buttons on your site if your page isnt valid?

Gordon said on January 24, 2004 7:04 PM

Well perhaps if your technical genious could point out exactly what the problem is (to be helpful to Andy in fixing the validation problem)and not just going around amusing yourself making sniping comments we would all be a lot happier.

Rob Winters said on January 24, 2004 11:01 PM

Another great article Andy.

Asheesh Laroia said on January 25, 2004 4:23 AM

Great article; I plan to show it to friends and peers to encourage them to move toward the future.

One small nit I will pick, however, is that you wrote “using you’re site” when you meant “using your site”.

Cheers!

— Asheesh.

Bryan said on January 25, 2004 6:41 AM

Great article. These are the types of writeups I always love coming across, so I can show them to my employers and teach them more about web standards. Just having a knowledge of “web standards” always makes me feel like I am in the minority of web developers (though that might be true in today’s age), and I am always seeing my peers code the “old” way. This is definitly one I will be showing my employer :)

Thanks Andy

Bryan

Matt Williams said on January 25, 2004 10:39 AM

Nice article.

I find it helpful to think of accessibility as the process of making websites available to disabled people, because it helps me to remember the special needs that disabled people have, and therefore gives me a starting point to think about how to accomodate those needs.

Andy Clarke said on January 25, 2004 12:32 PM

Comrade,

Andy, another nice and succinct piece :)

Isofarro quotes, “In the UK there are estimated to be 1.6 million registered blind people and a further 3.4 million people who are IT disabled. The total spending power of this group is now estimated at 50 - 60 billion a year.”

Of the 1.6 million registered blind people
…if we assume 50% are women
… who might buy one pair of tights per year from an accessible underwear online store
… with a store owner profit of 1.00 per pair…

There is your business case for accessibility, 800,000.00 profit just from one customer base.

Maybe I should quit design (howls of approval) and go into hosiery?

David said on January 25, 2004 7:42 PM

I have a tender in progress at the moment and I’ve already put forward an accessible design as requirement… this article will reinforce my case very nicely. Thanks.

Brian Carnell said on January 25, 2004 11:16 PM

One, providing accessiblity can be very expensive. You leave out people with hearing impairment, for example, who would need transcripts of audio material, which is very expensive to produce accurately.

Your assertion that modern web browsers adhere to standards if simply wrong. They claim to adhere to standards, but tend to have very divergent implementations.

Also, while some accessibility stuff is common sense — proper markup to make a JPEG accessible to vision-impared — a lot of the things you need to do are not common sense and obvious, and in fact there is a lot of debate over best practices in implementation.

Yes there are a lot of obvious things people can do to make their web sites more accessible, but that is very different from the sort of testing, etc. needed to ensure/guarantee accessibility and that can quickly get expensive.

Andy Budd said on January 26, 2004 12:22 AM

I agree that providing transcripts for audio/video can bump up the cost. However that’s a pretty specific case and one most web developers are unlikely to face very often.

I also agree that not all modern browsers are consistent with their standards implementation. However standards support, and in particular CSS support is getting much better. Coding to current web standards isn’t going to ensure that all accessibility bases are covered, but it gives you a pretty solid foundation.

I’m not saying all accessibility issues are common sense, but most of the big ones are . I’m also not suggesting that you can make a site 100% accessible. However the basic hooks are there and it’s possible to create sites that have a good degree of accessibility for a fairly small outlay.

Obviously the actual amount of work you put into the accessibility of your site needs to be be balanced against the scope of your site and the makeup of your users. A site that caters to a group of people with specific needs may require more work than a more general website.

Studies have been done that say the cost of building accessibility into an average website is around 2% of the overall cost. As such, the undue hardship argument is a pretty difficult one to justify. I personally can’t see many situations where a site would require such heavy accessibility testing as to make the cost a significant factor.

Organisation like the RNIB offer accessibility auditing for a pretty reasonable price and you can download trial versions of the most popular screen readers and run informal tests in house. In most cases, understanding the WAI guidelines, building your site to web standards and using a bit of common sense is all that’s required.

Bill Creswell said on January 27, 2004 12:38 PM

I still don’t feel that “web accessibility” has been very well defined. I did some research before I reworked my site, and I did some 508 testing, and checked all the tests with the http://www.nils.org.au/ais/web/resources/toolbar/update.html#download, but still find the idea to be “nebulous”. How do I know if I have achieved “accessibility

Jules said on January 27, 2004 2:04 PM

Bill Creswell wrote: ” How do I know if I have achieved “accessibility”[?]”

An excellent question - most people who ask that question are newbies to accessibility and (I appologise if I have made the wrong assumption) I am going to assume that you are one too.

Coding to standards is the first step. The next step is to go to http://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG10/full-checklist.html and scroll down to the check lists and review them - start with Priority 1. The descriptions may not always be clear, follow the links such as 1.1, read the additional information and read the HTML techniques which will show you how to apply the standards to HTML. If you use Dreamweaver or FrontPage or other WYSIWYG application, you may have to go into the code to apply some of the techniques.

Test your pages against a validator such as the one at W3C or Bobby or Wave. Some responses may not be clear: Bobby and Usablenet will often point out items that may or may not apply and it is sometimes disappointing to see the “errors” mount up when in fact they are just warnings or things that the validators cannot check.

Finally, join with a group of people to have them help you work through the issues. Accessifyforum.com is a great site - there is a forum strictly for site critiques whereby you may have someone look at your site and help you work through any issues you may have.

HTH,

Jules

Kevin O'Malley said on March 15, 2004 3:05 PM

I really liked the article and agree with you that there is a strong business case for building accessibility into websites but we shouldnt forget what it is really about- to deny people access to our resorces on the basis of a disability is discrimination. If we focus too much on business benefits we miss the point and arent engaging with the spirit of this worthwhile enterprise.