How are agencies doing on accessibility?
The short answer is not great.
For digital agency owners, executives, and practitioners, there has been increased attention on digital accessibility (sometimes shortened to a11y) over the past few years. But out in the wild, it’s hard to see the impact.
Looking at some real accessibility data
The WebAIM Million Report scans homepages of the top million sites (by traffic) for accessibility issues that can be easily detected via automated scripts. In 2022, almost 97% of homepages had detected accessibility violations with an average of 50 errors per page. This isn’t an anomaly. It’s actually a slight improvement from previous years where closer to 98% of sites had these errors.
Obviously, this is just a small sample of the internet as a whole, but it does include the most prominent sites, domains, and brands. These sites largely work with top agencies. And the types of accessibility issues WebAIM scans for are low hanging fruit. I can’t say to what extent this is due to agencies’ lack of knowledge, clients’ indifference to accessibility, or something else entirely. But I’d be willing to bet that the results are similar across most sites produced by digital agencies.
Clients’ legal obligations under the ADA
For most businesses, the law is straightforward. The ADA requires websites and mobile apps to be accessible to those with disabilities. This has been confirmed by the federal Department of Justice and repeatedly upheld in court rulings. Of course, there are some cases that are still unclear, but every year thousands of businesses are sued for inaccessible websites or apps. And that doesn't even take into account the tens of thousands that settle before anything is filed in court.
Clients can expect an accessibility ROI
The business case for digital accessibility is also clear. As much as 25% of the US population has a disability and that translates to significant spending power and market share. Web accessibility improvements can lead to higher engagement, conversions and sales on your existing web traffic. Conversely, accessibility barriers can cause users and customers to bounce in favor of easier to use competitor sites.
And it’s not just users and customers with disabilities. Paying close attention to accessibility guidelines and best practices can make websites better for everyone by making sure that designs are crisp, interfaces are highly usable, and page organization is well organized. There is also significant overlap between building sites for screen reader use and optimizing pages to be easily digested by search engine bots for an SEO boost.
How are agencies responsible?
For those businesses who are aware of the legal and business incentives for accessibility, the decision should be easy. But web accessibility is simply not on the radar for many site owners and decision makers. For the agencies, designers, and developers that build these websites, what are their obligations and responsibilities when it comes to accessibility?
Agencies are supposed to be the experts
The businesses that understand why accessibility is important for their bottom line might seek out agencies with a demonstrated focus and expertise in digital accessibility. But even businesses that care about accessibility don't necessarily choose an agency or developer on that basis. And most wouldn't know how even if they wanted to.
That said, agencies have a professional responsibility to their clients to serve their best interests. As agency practitioners, we’ve all had clients that need to be saved from themselves. We need to advocate and explain to clients how accessibility can pay off and reduce their legal liability.
Doing the right thing
It’s also a matter of culture and doing the right thing. Even if we set aside the legal requirements and business case, it’s fair to say that most practitioners aren’t intentionally creating inaccessible experiences. Agencies are full of creative and conscientious people that rightly take pride in building inclusive cultures and doing their part to leave the internet slightly better than they found it.
The good news is that this is an area where agencies can move the needle. Even if their clients could care less about accessibility! As the people responsible for designing and building out so much of the web, agencies can collectively do more than anyone (except possibly the companies that build and maintain the third party services that power the internet).
Agencies have legal liability too
If your client is sued under the ADA for an inaccessible website, they are likely to be a very dissatisfied customer to say the least. And there is a good chance that your (now former) client could turn around and try to sue you to recoup some of their losses. Of course, you can (and should) build in some protections in your contracts. But if you know enough to limit your liability, you should probably also be actively working on building ADA-compliant web experiences.
Proposed legislation to include agencies
Right now, business and other organizations providing “public accommodations” are covered under the ADA. But a new web and software accessibility bill introduced this month in Congress would extend that obligation to “commercial providers that design, develop and modify websites or applications”. In other words, it includes agencies. This isn’t the law yet, but as more companies are sued under the ADA, it’s natural that there is some political pressure to place more legal responsibilities on the experts that are hired to build sites.
How to become a more accessible agency
Learn digital accessibility
Many designers and developers don’t know how to make accessible digital experiences yet. But they should learn. It’s a quality issue. As a matter of professional pride, you should not want to have a site full of bugs. The good news is that there are a ton of resources out there. The A11y Project is a great place to start!
There are services out there that claim they can automatically make a website 100% ADA compliant with just a single line of code. They are addressing a real need, but unfortunately it’s too good to be true. There are simply too many things that automated accessibility tools cannot fix.
These tools don’t protect clients legally. In fact, overlays have been cited specifically as accessibility barriers in a number of federal lawsuits. And by and large, users with disabilities have spoken out to say that these tools make it harder for them to browse sites. Some have gone so far as to build browser plugins to block the most popular automated accessibility overlays.
Partner with accessibility experts
The same way you might bring in a marketing or SEO partner to handle particular areas, consider partnering with a white label accessibility agency. In some cases it might make sense to audit a live site to reduce your clients (and your) legal risks, the best solution is to build accessibility in from the start. An accessibility partner can come in as early as the UX or design phase to review comps, flag any issues, and advise your team on the correct WCAG compliant implementation to save you time and money in getting it right the first time.