An Uncomfortable Missing Part of the Accessibility Discussion

We're making an internal push at Viget, led by Jeremy Fields, to better incorporate accessibility into more of our projects. But when we talk about accessibility internally, it often feels like the conversation ends up in an awkward place.

I had the same awkward feeling when reading Anne Gibson's "Reframing Accessibility for the Web" article on A List Apart and other recent articles about accessibility. They feel awkward because they largely avoid an important but obvious piece of the discussion. 

It's an uncomfortable missing piece, to be sure. But unless we address this uncomfortable truth head-on, I don't think the accessibility argument will ultimately succeed.

The Truth

Here is the obvious, but usually glossed over, truth about web accessibility: Accessibility has a cost

Just as there are costs to plan, implement, and test wheelchair accessibility and automatic doors in buildings, there are costs to planning, implementing, and testing website accessibility.

On its own, this truth is neither comfortable nor uncomfortable; it's just a fact. It becomes uncomfortable because most accessibility arguments, including Gibson's, are fundamentally moral arguments. If you tell me I should act morally, and I know that acting morally may be expensive but you don't acknowledge that, I feel shamed and uncomfortable because of course I want to be moral — but I also live in the real world where I have to think about money. (At least until the law forces me to be moral regardless of the cost.)

Let's look at Gibson's argument in more detail to see how this approach falls short, then consider a better way to argue for accessibility.

The Limits of Morality-Based Logic

Gibson's meta-argument is a nice summation of the idea that we should make websites accessible to everyone:

Our customers, our users, are all people. They all have the same customer needs—whatever those customer needs are. They all have money that spends the same way. They are all just like you, except in the ways that they are not. They all deserve equal amounts of our respect. The only difference between these groups of people is the attitude we take when serving them.

Gibson later writes: "As uncomfortable as it makes us feel to admit it, when we make the decision not to support people with disabilities just because it’s expensive or hard, we’re being ableist."

Respect, ableist: this is the language of morals and ethics.

But to invoke expense without talking seriously about it is tantamount to ignoring that the expense exists. It ignores the tough decisions businesses have to make when considering any moral decision that incurs financial costs. 

What if giving all web users "equal amounts of our respect" raises the cost of the average web project by 5%? What if it raises the cost by 20%, or 50%? Does "equal amounts of our respect" mean all sites should achieve Level AAA WCAG conformance? What if Level AAA conformance is three times as costly as Level A conformance? Is Level A conformance morally acceptable?

The moral argument ignores these questions; people who have to make these decisions for their business cannot ignore the questions.

Gibson then argues that the best approach to implementing accessible websites is to stop thinking in terms of "people with disabilities" — because we inevitably think in terms of stereotypes and ableism — and instead "talk about it in terms of feature sets and technology, not the quantity (or value) of one set of users over another." She suggests creating a matrix of input devices and output devices (e.g. microphone/voice and screen reader), then implementing and testing accessibility based on those device combinations rather than based on the people who may use those combinations.

By using this accessibility device matrix, she says:

you’ll no longer need to justify your testing of accessibility issues based on the relative size or merits of the audience any more than you justify testing different screen sizes or different browsers.

But relative size or merits of the audience is precisely how we justify testing different screen sizes and browsers!

We (and many other agencies and first-party companies) no longer support IE8, earlier versions of Firefox, etc. because the size of those audiences does not justify the cost of implementing and testing for those old browsers. 

In other words, basing accessibility decisions on technology rather than on people makes it even easier to justify not supporting accessibility.

A Better Accessibility Argument

It's not immoral or ableist to acknowledge that accessibility is about people. Accessibility is fundamentally about making the web useable by people who fall outside the physiological and neurological mainstream.

How we think about those people is a separate, social concern. I agree with Gibson that from a human and social perspective, we should change how we think about disabled people. Many of us need to expand our notions of what disability means, understand how vast the non-mainstream-physiology-neurology spectrum is, and stop treating people differently when they're outside those mainstreams. But even if those social changes were achieved, accessibility would still be about supporting a potentially smaller group of people, and it would still have a cost. 

So here is the uncomfortable — but I think more honest and holistic — way of framing the accessibility argument:

Making websites accessible is the right thing to do, because as much as possible, all people should be able to access physical and online spaces and technologies regardless of their individual physiologies and neurologies. Equal access is a moral, humane goal that helps individuals and makes society better as a whole, regardless of those individuals' numbers and the direct financial value they may represent.

But making websites accessible also has varying levels of costs. And businesses have a right (to whatever extent the law allows) to decide that business costs should outweigh moral considerations. Businesses even have a right to ignore moral considerations entirely.

Here's why businesses should do the moral thing anyway, and provide equal access as much as they can. [Persuasive case ensues...]

A more persuasive case might include:

  • General costs for common accessibility items.
    • A clearer sense of the costs could reveal there are effectively no barriers besides ignorance to implementing some accessibility items, while allowing for a more realistic discussion about the more expensive items. It would change the discussion from being about accessibility as a sometimes-scary monolithic thing to being about individual changes that might be more achieveable on their own.
    • For example, in reality it might add 30 minutes to implement and test properly-contrasted font colors, so any site can account for that with little extra cost. But adding screen reader support and testing could add 10% to a project's cost (totally made-up number).
  • Acknowledgement that accessibility — like morality itself — is not an all-or-nothing proposition.
    • Some accessibility compliance is better than none. Level AAA compliance may not be a viable goal for many companies, and that's ok.
  • A more nuanced version of the "accessibility is actually good for business" argument.
    • In this UX Matters article, Pabini Gabriel-Petit writes: "Approximately 20% of all people worldwide have some sort of disability. Excluding them from using our services and buying our products does not make business sense." That's misleading: Sure, people with disabilities might represent a large aggregate global audience, but they may represent a tiny audience for any given company. So excluding people with disabilities might make perfect business sense. 
    • A better version of this argument would first acknowledge that the financial cost of accessibility for a given business may never be directly recouped. But in addition to whatever money you could make directly from disabled users' accessibility-enabled use of your site, you may gain more business from non-disabled users by showing that you are moral and inclusive. (Or you could just forget the bloody ROI in the first place.)

Let's Hear It for Morals

To be clear, I think we should strive to make websites accessible. I think we should change how we think about people with disabilities. I try to be a moral person.

But until the law steps in, I think an argument that acknowledges morals aren't the only considerations in business is the best way to ensure those morals prevail.

Josh is a senior project manager who focuses on the non-process tasks that help translate ideas into finished products. He works in our Falls Church, VA, office with clients including the World Wildlife Fund, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Privia Medical Group.

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