Second Best Accessibility: What to Do When Best Is Impossible

May 17, 2023

In the digital accessibility world, there is a standard line of advice that goes something like this:

You need to design and build with accessibility in mind. If you do things right the first time, you shouldn’t need to invest in remediation or rebuilding later. And by the way, it doesn’t have to be that hard. If you use semantic HTML properly, the web is inherently accessible.

Every sentence above is 100% true. And I frequently give a version of this advice.

If you are able to do things right the first time, that is ultimately the best and most cost effective path to accessibility. But for various reasons, this isn’t what happens in most cases. And most organizations have obstacles in place that mean this can’t easily happen.

We all operate under constraints. As digital professionals, we are aware that there is a best or ideal way to do most things. But we often run into resistance whether it’s lack of knowledge, budget limitations, lack of stakeholder buy-in, or other competing priorities, 

The audience for “first best”

There are organizations that need to hear that ideal advice. They know enough (or have the ability to learn) about accessibility best practices. All they need to do is prioritize correctly and create the right processes.

And then there is everyone else.

Of course, they could train their teams and build out new systems to develop accessibly from the start. Some organizations do pull that off. But in most cases, right or wrong, if accessibility is even on the requirements list, it may not be the highest priority for project stakeholders.

In a situation where the accessibility advocate needs to make compromises, what should they do?

Fear of offering an exit ramp

Those of us who work on accessibility are passionate about the issue. Inaccessible experiences are exclusionary to real people. And we are attuned to the risk that offering a “second best” option will demotivate our audience from building in the “first best” way. And none of us wants to give our “permission” to sacrifice inclusion and accessibility in favor of other business objectives.

But perhaps we give ourselves too much credit. Our audiences are listening, but they don’t always fully control their constraints. And while it’s true that some people may set less ambitious goals if you share “second best” options, it’s more likely that offering a binary choice gets us less accessibility in practice.

This essay was loosely inspired by a post from Emily Oster of ParentData, who says it better than I can (with regard to parenting advice):

What I think is important conceptually is that the second best is still a type of “best.” It’s a solution that is optimal given the constraints the decision maker faces. You do not have all the policy choices you want; you can’t get people to tell you the truth about their preferences. The second best is the best you can do with this limited capacity. And in economic welfare terms, it’s better than any of the other feasible options…

That is to say: there is a top-line, first-best, optimal behavior. If, for some reason, you cannot do that, then any other choice is equally bad: the outer darkness. The problem is that this fails to recognize that there is a ranking in the outer darkness. Not all outer darkness is the same; the second best is out there. But if we do not surface it, how do people know?

A matter of emphasis

There are a ton of great digital accessibility resources out there that offer ways to make big and small progress. But I have noticed that a lot of public engagement around accessibility focuses far more on critiques (and not always kind ones) than praise and constructive criticism. Accessibility experts don’t need to offer consulting for free, but they should be conscious of the message they may be giving. If anything short of perfection is bad, then why bother?

Choosing “between”

Another way of putting this is that perfection is not the only option. Depending on the organization, there are different ways to make progress on accessibility, any of which is better than the status quo. And the elephant in the room is that there are also ways to make things worse.

Overlays or automated accessibility widgets are one of them.

Overlays are not second best

The marketing behind automated accessibility tools makes bold promises that one line of code can make a website fully accessible. It’s not surprising that many well meaning organizations are keen to install them. But the problem is not only that overlays don’t work.

Overlays can interfere with screen readers’ expected behaviors and often introduce other net-new accessibility issues to a site. They actually represent a step backwards for a site’s digital accessibility.

But the flip side of that point is that removing an overlay is a great (initial) step towards greater accessibility. And at that moment, it is a tractable second best option.

Some practical advice

Bringing an organization to digital accessibility maturity requires a combination of testing, remediation, training, and process improvements. But rather than taking one large leap (or even a few), there are any number of smaller steps that are valuable in and of themselves (and that will slowly move the needle to that optimal point). The specifics will vary by organization, but we did want to close this post by offering some usable and high impact advice for content and technical teams that aren’t sure where to start:

  1. Review site images for alternative text and add it in your CMS
  2. Check your videos for captioning
  3. Find and update generic link labels such as “Learn more”
  4. Add a skip navigation link at the top of the page
  5. Add semantic page regions in code

We will be elaborating on these steps in a future post.

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