All I Want for GAAD

May 12, 2024

GAAD. What is it good for?

The annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) has modest goals. In its own words, “the purpose of GAAD is to get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion, and the more than One Billion people with disabilities/impairments.” And by that measure, it’s a success.

Every year we get educational events and initiatives tailored both to existing members of the accessibility community and to more general audiences. That’s the good part.

We get some marketing for accessibility products and services. That makes sense.

We get some self-congratulatory blog and social media posts from companies touting their own commitment to accessibility. When that marketing is backed up by substance, it’s great for them to get some credit for their accessibility accomplishments.

Then we also get the companies patting themselves on the back where there’s more signal than virtue. It’s not a coincidence that these campaigns are often tied to overlays.  At this point, it’s almost become a cliche in the accessibility world to complain about GAAD social media posts that lack alt text. This part of GAAD is less good.

Wishing for more

For us, GAAD is an opportunity to take a step back from our work in the accessibility trenches and reflect. We’re all doing our small parts to make the digital world a more accessible place but sometimes it feels like it doesn’t move the needle much. The GAAD homepage cites the WebAIM Million Report’s assessment of the state of accessibility from 2020; the most recent version that came out this year is not dramatically better.

So this year we decided to dream a bit bigger about what we’d like to see in accessibility.

Some ground rules first.

We want to see ambitious changes but remain tethered to reality. We want to stay within the realm of what we feel is realistic about what can actually be accomplished knowing what we know about technology gets built, content gets created, and projects get budgeted. While it would be amazing if every single digital property shifted left and began (re)building with accessibility in mind tomorrow, we know that’s not likely to happen.

We’re not inventing anything new here and we’re not subtweeting anyone. Everything in this post has already been done somewhere by someone in some way. Our wishlist is a matter of emphasis; these are things we would love to see much more of. And if you’re already doing any of these things, we’d love to hear about it!

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What is the value of awareness?

To be clear, GAAD accomplishes more than just awareness. We’ve already touched on some of the educational events and projects tethered to GAAD that help to concretely move the ball forward on accessibility. But the larger implication is that greater awareness leads to activation and action. This is true on some margin; you need to know about accessibility to be able to implement it. But I don’t know how true it is on a global scale.

But we also know from experience that knowing you have an (accessibility) issue does not mean you have the knowledge or capabilities to successfully resolve it. And of course accessibility competes with many other real priorities for companies’ attention and budgets. Overlay companies are aware of this dynamic and consequently pitch simple low cost and (more importantly) low effort solutions. We all know there are major issues with the implementation but the intuition is spot on. Manual intervention does not scale at the global level.

What does scale?

Move up the tech stack

Most of the internet is not coded from scratch. That means that there’s a lot riding on how accessible the frameworks, platforms, libraries and themes that we use are. Some of the highest accessibility ROI will come from targeting the most foundational elements of the web like content management systems, popular themes and plugins, libraries and frameworks, and SaaS web platforms like Squarespace and Wix.

This all already happens quite a bit and we’d love to see more. Accessibility improvements to these internet building blocks help at every level of the abilities stack.

  • Authors in no-code platforms and those that use themes and plugins off-the-shelf will get a lot more accessibility by default
  • Low-code developers or themers who primarily tinker with WordPress themes and the like (and many more advanced developers get their start this way) may not be aware of accessibility or knowledgeable about where to implement it. Providing the basics by default can set some initial guardrails for more accessible outcomes.
  • Expert or advanced developers leverage CMSs, libraries and frameworks so they can focus their efforts on work that is more interesting and valuable. It would be great if accessibility were something we could reliably put in the out-of-the-box column rather than the “customization required” column.

Reduce friction

Accessible building blocks are a start but anything configurable or editable has the potential to introduce technical and content accessibility bugs. But at the code level, there is still more that can be done to create a world where accessibility by default is a reasonable assumption. Shifting left is not only about process design. We need to continue to create better tools and systems that integrate accessibility directly into the creation process.

At the code level, there are some great tools already that fit this model like aXe’s accessibility linter tools. But the great majority of accessibility testing tools out there scan sites externally and track issues there. Even when perfectly used, there is necessarily some distance between creators and accessibility management. We would love to see more testing and assistance tools built directly into the CMS. For example, we love what Equalize Digital is doing with the Accessibility Checker plugin and it would be great to see more tools along those lines for WordPress and other CMS platforms (or even better incorporated directly into the platforms).

Reduce costs

Overlay vendors’ major value proposition is price. In fact, they claim that accessibility consultants oppose overlays out of self interest to protect their gravy train. But the truth is that most companies that are hiring accessibility help are not seriously considering overlays. And most overlay customers can’t afford much professional accessibility help. 

Of course, we’d love it if they were able to invest more in accessibility, but we should be sure that they can get real bang for their buck. It would be even better if accessible options were competitive on price from the outset. Moving accessibility activity up the stack and into foundational tools helps here, but the community should also continue to build out open source, free and low cost tools whenever possible. We’re closely following Equalify, an open source accessibility scan and dashboard tool under development.

Now increase friction (strategically)

Making it easier to create accessible experiences at little extra effort (or cost) is important. But the other side of the coin is that we should make it harder to accidentally introduce accessibility bugs or issues. Some of the solutions above would help; having scanning tools built directly into content management systems enables scans and warnings as part of the publishing workflow. But let’s be more ambitious. There are entities out there that already exercise significant control over app release workflows.

I’m talking about Apple and Google. They have approval processes that all app developers must pass in order for the apps to be included in the app store. And they are not shy about using this power to exercise control over app design, policies and most prominently payment processing systems. Now imagine what app accessibility would be like if they incorporated even minimal accessibility standards into their approval process?

Create better markets

There are both potential benefits to pursuing accessibility and costs to neglecting it. But both can feel speculative to businesses that lack hard data on the potential ROI and that haven’t encountered ADA lawsuits in their market. It’s understandable that some business are hesitant to invest in a more accessible experience.

What if we could create better markets for accessibility that shift those calculations. We’ve already talked about reducing the cost of building accessibly. But there are also steps that we can take to create better testing incentives and support companies that try to monetize the accessibility of their websites and platforms.

Invest in open source

This is one place where a big chunk of our wishlist becomes actionable. We touched on new open source above as a driver of cost reductions. And of course many widely used and influential building blocks like WordPress, Drupal, React and other plugins are themselves open source. There is already a great accessibility community with tons of skills but most have day jobs. Hobby projects are a piece of the puzzle but ambitious open source projects need sponsors. Let’s make sure accessibility pays for creators (even while it becomes more affordable for users).

Incentivize testing with bounties

The most recent WebAIM survey found that most users do not bother to contact companies when they encounter accessibility barriers on their sites. It’s understandable why. In most cases, it’s unlikely anything will change as a result and users with disabilities rightly feel it’s unfair to place the burden on them to do unpaid testing. But what if companies offered a small bounty for accessibility bugs (the way that many already do for security issues). 

Actually, we already effectively have a bug bounty solution in place with ADA lawsuits. Rather than have bounties that take significant time and resources to litigate or settle, offering to pay users directly for identifying accessibility bugs would be more efficient and less exploitative. We saw a small scale version of this with the Covid-19 accessibility bug bounty for GAAD in 2021. It would be exciting to see what impact a larger scale program could have.

Certifications of accessibility

There is a significant market for web accessibility. But connecting customers who would appreciate an accessible and usable digital experience to companies that can provide that is not a trivial problem. Clients frequently ask us if we can provide a certification of their accessible status. The question of how to measure accessibility and what a certification would say are not small problems. (WCAG 3.0 should go a long way towards helping to answer some of these questions when it is released at some point later this decade.) And there would need to be systems in place for ongoing testing and measurement to prevent accessibility decay. But the main problem is that this isn’t something that can credibly be self-certified (or certified by an individual vendor).

This problem has been solved in other areas like PCI compliance with the creation of programs to train and qualify assessors that can issue certifications. If a credible organization that could create comparable infrastructure for accessibility, there would be a market of companies willing to pay to demonstrate their accessibility (and of users and customers that would preferentially patronize those businesses). 

Not just a wishlist

This essay is framed as a wishlist of what we think can really move the needle on accessibility. These are all concrete changes that require accessibility champions to take real concrete actions. But even at a smaller level, it reflects an ethos of what we think is most important to the cause of global digital accessibility. Even as we do our parts to increase accessibility awareness, we should also keep in mind that the true mark of success is when we can get accessible outcomes even when creators are unaware that is what they are creating. We hope that at GAAD 2025, the tools, frameworks and markets have made even more progress into making accessibility an easier and cost-effective option at the mass market level.

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