How to approach web accessibility when you are too late
Imagine spending thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars to design and build a website only to find out that it doesn't meet accessibility standards (and in fact is a major liability that can get you sued). The first reaction is probably shock and frustration followed by a Google search for a solution.
You see the large number of “automated accessibility” vendors like Accessibe that offer to fix all of your issues with a single line of code, but as a savvy site owner you recognize that it’s probably a scam. (More on that in a future post…)
As you find sites belonging to more reliable and responsible accessibility experts, you find that most recommend that you start by commissioning an accessibility audit of your site. While there are situations where audits are the appropriate tool, site owners should think twice and consider higher impact and more cost effective solutions.
The audit’s value proposition
Audits do not come cheap. Most audit vendors insist on a fairly comprehensive testing regimen that includes a manual review of all relevant templates in almost all possible configurations. For a website, this means that they will run through their testing plan on all of the most common browsers in combination with the major screen reader platforms (JAWS, NVDA, and Voiceover).
From the perspective of the auditors, this is understandable. They are hired to find every possible accessibility issue you might have on your site. Being comprehensive is the whole point. But what do you gain as a site owner? At the end of the process, you have bought a nice report that (hopefully) describes all of the web accessibility problems on your site. And now you have to go back to the guys who built it wrong in the first place and pay them to fix these issues. Can you be sure they’ll get it right the second time?
Even if everything goes as exactly as intended, audits are a very costly means of educating your site developers about accessibility. And if the goal of an audit is to give you peace of mind that you are fully compliant, you may even need a follow-up audit to validate that the fixes were comprehensive and correct.
Who do audits serve?
Before the explosion of private accessibility lawsuits in the past several years, web accessibility complaints under the ADA overwhelmingly targeted large corporations. These companies tend to have large web budgets with lots of ongoing work on their websites. In this context, the costs of an audit are relatively small in comparison especially when taking into account the potential reputational harm they could suffer if hit with an ADA lawsuit. The accessibility industry’s audit model formed around these companies' needs.
As companies at all sizes have become more aware of their legal obligations to make their websites accessible, the model hasn’t evolved to accommodate their circumstances. This is understandable. Most accessibility auditors are not web development agencies and are simply not equipped to help their clients remediate the websites. Furthermore, they don’t necessarily want to assume the responsibility to fix these issues (especially when they didn’t write the code themselves and don’t necessarily know what they are getting into).
Who audits exclude
As we’ve seen, audits represent a high-end solution that offers limited value for most companies. But it’s even worse. The focus on ADA web compliance audits leaves out a lot of organizations for whom the costs of an audit-remediation cycle are prohibitive. The assumption that this is the only option means that some companies forgo becoming more accessible. (Or alternatively they choose to use automated accessibility overlays like Accessibe which is effectively the same thing.)
It's very clear that most companies are sensitive to budgetary concerns; finding ways to deliver quality accessibility help that is also cost effective is key to bringing accessibility within reach for much of the market. Perhaps this is obvious, but I would much rather have more organizations' websites reach 80% compliance even if the availability of this option discouraged a small minority of companies from targeting 100% total compliance.
Perfect is the enemy of better
In my opinion, the prominence of ADA website compliance audits reflects an unhealthy focus on perfection in the accessibility world. The current version (2.1) of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) specifies that in order to be in compliance, a page must conform to all success criteria. While the next major version of WCAG (3.0) is likely to take a more charitable and realistic point of view, the federal courts currently understand WCAG 2.0 or 2.1 as the authoritative standards.
I think the relevant question is whether we should let perfect get in the way of improved accessibility. For most organizations, there are a number of high-impact interventions that can help them achieve drastic accessibility improvements much more quickly than they could using an audit. These remediations can reduce the risk of being targeted with an ADA lawsuit to near zero. For those organizations that want to continue to iteratively improve their accessibility posture, they can buy themselves time to come up with a deliberate plan without having to address any severe, immediate risks.
What should you do instead of an audit?
The answer to that question depends on your site and your accessibility goals. For example, for an older site, it may make the most sense to hire designers and developers with accessibility experience and expertise to rebuild the site. If your website is maintained by an in-house team, you may want to hire outside accessibility experts to assist with the immediate remediation and provide training for your team to be able to maintain the site’s accessibility.
For organizations that rely on an outside agency to build and maintain their site, the best move might be to hire accessibility experts to triage the necessary fixes to improve your site’s accessibility and budget with them over the medium term to iterate further. (In some cases, it might even make sense to build out an alternative accessible version of some your pages, although you should be aware that this can be a controversial solution.)
Does this mean that audits are always useless? Not at all! There are some scenarios where an audit makes the most sense for your organization, but that is the subject for another post. But in most cases, you should consider whether an audit will be able to get your website more accessible within your budget and timeline.