How to Implement Accessibility in Agency Projects: Part 1

If you're interested in making the sites you build more accessible to visitors with disabilities, or if you want your colleagues to be more aware of accessibility issues, it can be hard to know where to start. Historically, accessibility is often overlooked in the content and campaign-style sites built by digital agencies.

The exciting work we see on award sites is largely inaccessible, and the system perpetuates itself: if cutting edge sites aren't accessible, then it must not be possible to make accessible sites that are cutting edge. But it doesn't have to be that way. We have all the technology we need to make any site accessible and the result is a better experience for all users, not just those who are disabled. We've been making accessibility a bigger part of our work at Viget and wanted to share some of our progress.

What Makes Accessibility in Client Services Different

Working in an agency presents challenges that have traditionally left accessibility out of the conversation. Our job is to maximize the value that we provide to our clients given a fixed amount of time and (usually) a fixed budget. Anything that's perceived as adding cost or taking away from necessary functionality is suspect. In fact, we talked about it on this blog post a little while ago and got a huge response. Many of the comments, some from luminaries in the accessibility community, provided valuable insight. However, an overall issue in the comments was the assumption that accessibility is only an issue if it’s a client requirement or request. The challenge we've been wrestling with at Viget is how to incorporate accessibility into our work, regardless of whether it's been requested or not.

So why are we doing this? Why are we pushing forward an issue that few in our industry (specifically agencies) are talking about and fewer are taking action on?

  • It’s part of good UX: Good accessibility can also benefit non-disabled users.
  • It creates broader audience reach: People with disabilities make up about 15% of the global population.
  • It improves brand goodwill: Accessibility doesn't have to be a hidden feature. Some companies have promoted the accessibility of their products to raise awareness and garner improved brand perception.
  • It Improves SEO: Search engine bots can only consume text content, so they "see" web pages the same way a blind user would.
  • It provides legal protection or compliance: Sites for clients in some sectors like the government, government-funded organizations, and e-commerce can fall under current accessibility legal requirements. Upcoming refreshes of Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act could cast a wider or stricter net for compliance.

Where Are All the Cutting-Edge Accessible Sites?

Take a look at the winning entries on some of the popular award sites, like Awwwards and FWA, and you'll see example after example of beautiful, cutting-edge experiences that talented designers created and developers went into contortions to produce. These sites are amazing, but where's the accessibility? There's no technical reason why they couldn't be accessible. The reality is that the designers and developers are consumed with the visual impact and experience, but accessibility is rarely considered. This is a problem that's endemic in our corner of the industry.

Part of the blame can be shared by the accessibility community. Building for accessibility can get bogged down in the technical implementation. That makes sense; making an accessible site is largely about ensuring that assistive technologies, like screen readers, can access a site’s content.

We need to bridge the gap between technique and aesthetics if we’re going to broaden the reach of accessibility on the web. Accessibility Wins, started and curated by Marcy Sutton, stands alone in recognizing (not awarding) good accessibility in both visual and technical implementation. If you know of a site or feature that deserves to be highlighted, send in a submission.

Lack of Awareness

In my experience working at a variety of agencies, both large and small, before landing at Viget, I found a mostly innocent lack of awareness around accessibility, both internally and with clients. Even with some knowledge, agencies generally don't bring up accessibility with clients in the sales or kickoff process unless it's part of the RFP or spec.

Some agencies have individual accessibility champions who can make a small impact, but to really make a difference that permeates beyond the work of a few individuals, accessibility needs to become part of an agency's culture.

On the client side, unless there's been an issue, there's usually not a lot of education around how an accessible site can be a benefit. We occasionally see clients who are on the hook to have an accessible site, either legally or by a parent organization policy, who aren't aware of existing requirements.

How Viget is Moving Forward

Over the past 18 months we've been working to make accessibility a company-wide value, with the goal of ensuring that it's considered throughout our process and in all of our work, from wireframe to design, buildout and QA. It hasn't been easy, but not because of resistance — we have a bright, inquisitive and compassionate group working at Viget. The difficulty comes from disrupting an existing well-planned process to add something new or shift course.

The first challenge is getting past the idea of fitting accessibility in. At Viget, we're striving to think of accessibility as an integral part of quality work — not something you can check for during the QA process right before launch or choose leave off altogether.

When we started building responsive sites we quickly realized how inefficient it would be to build a desktop-only site and "add responsiveness" later. Accessibility is the same: When you plan for accessibility and build it in from the beginning, the resulting product is better and the effort is much lower. Sure, there's some up front cost when adding accessibility to your workflow, but we also went through this with responsive design. When ramping up on a new way of thinking it's an investment in learning. Once gained, the knowledge and techniques have significantly lower cost to use in in the future.

That's why we've started talking about accessibility at the beginning of our projects, not just internally, but with the client during the sales process. For most clients, accessibility isn't on the radar. We explain the benefits (and sometimes legal requirements) and why we approach every project with the goal of at least conforming to WCAG Level A. In addition, we:

  • Wrote accessibility parameters into our boilerplate internal kickoff documents, including client contracts.
  • Maintain an active #a11y Slack channel.
  • Build and share helpful tools, like the Interactive WCAG.
  • Trained our project management staff on how to do QA testing for accessibility.
  • Put on micro-classes to maintain awareness and education.

Wrap Up

Lack of accessibility in agency work is a problem that we can solve with a little awareness and education. Beautiful and interactive sites can be accessible. In part 2 of this post I'll share some ideas that we've developed at Viget for making accessible sites without the extra work that will make your project manager break into a cold sweat.

What has your experience been? Do you agree or disagree? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Jeremy leads Viget's front-end development team, and has helped make accessibility part of every site we build. Based in our Boulder, CO, office, Jeremy has worked with clients like Time Life, PUMA, and Dick's Sporting Goods.

More posts by Jeremy