by Peter Czech April 29, 2022
You don’t write a manifesto to share consensus beliefs or conventional wisdom. The number of sites that use automated accessibility helpers (through Accessiblu or other companies) is objectively quite small relative to the total size of the web. And as strong advocates of automated accessibility, we are in the minority. Why is that?
As web accessibility has become more of a concern for companies of all sizes, this imposes significant costs (and potential liabilities) for all digital efforts. Some companies can afford to pay these costs and some with deep pockets and willingness to litigate have attempted to fight these requirements in court. Yet it is surprising that the use of automated tools to bring their websites into compliance are not more common. I suspect a large part of the explanation is lack of awareness that turnkey accessibility tools even exist, but there are reasons why this solution is not (yet) more widespread.
While we at Accessiblu strongly believe that automated accessibility remains the only path to achieve a fully accessible web, I’d like to attempt to explain the other side and address potential objections that people might have against our approach.
Within the professional web accessibility community, most people are against using automated accessibility helpers (sometimes referred to as overlays) to make websites more accessible. Some of this can be attributed to professional gatekeeping and the fact that automation would reduce the available (well-paying) manual accessibility work. But I don’t think that is the main reason.
The truth is: automation is not 100%. There are issues that cannot be automatically detected by software (at least not without manual verification), which makes it difficult (but not impossible) for them to be automatically fixed. I’ve seen claims from accessibility experts that automation can only address as little as 25% of the web consortium’s accessibility guidelines (WCAG).
These claims should be taken with a grain of salt for a few reasons. The first is that if you look more closely, many of the items that cannot be automatically detected and fixed are classified as Level AAA in the WCAG which everyone agrees are not legally required. Within the more foundational Level A and AA items, many requirements that others would argue cannot be automatically detected and fixed (such as the requirement to have closed captioning on your videos) are not necessarily technical accessibility problems within your website. (And for that matter, there are decent automation options for captioning these days.)
But even if we take these arguments against automation at face value, it is also important to consider who is the typical paying customer of these accessibility experts. Most are larger companies or organizations that have the budget to do things “by the book”. (More on that below.) But if you don’t have the budget to pay thousands of dollars for an audit or the expertise to handle it yourself, these experts are essentially arguing that it is worthless to address 25% of the accessibility issues on your site just because you can’t yet tackle the other 75%!
There are always edge cases and exceptions, but in our experience the types of accessibility issues that most small to midsize company websites tend to cluster. There are a small number of issues that are very common. And these issues are all remediated by automated accessibility tools.
If you want that 100% certainty, ask yourself this. There are 50 items in Level A and AA of the WCAG. If you felt you needed to hire someone to manually check your site to validate whether there are any issues, wouldn’t it still be cost effective to be able to limit the scope of that audit by addressing 25% of your issues upfront automatically? (And we would venture to say it is almost certainly much closer to 100% than 25% in most cases.)
It Can’t Be Too Easy
While making your digital presence accessible may be the law, it is also undeniably the right thing to do. In a society that values a strong work ethic and assigns negative moral value to working less hard, I think there is a tendency to believe that morally good things can’t be too easy. We feel that in order to do the right thing, we have to work hard (or spend a lot of money for someone else to work hard).
I mentioned above that most of the customers for accessibility services are larger companies and this explains a lot about why the recognized accessibility experts have such sway. As the saying goes, “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM.” Ultimately, while the costs of manual audits and remediation are significant, in a Fortune 500 company these costs are a rounding error in both the digital and compliance budgets.
High price is often conflated with high quality and especially when it comes to legal liability, it is understandable that managers are reluctant to try a drastically more cost-effective solution.
In our opinion, working hard and spending more money are not valuable in and of themselves. While there are situations where we would agree that full manual audits are appropriate (very large companies and small companies with very simple websites), for most small to medium size organizations that have a difficult time budgeting for expensive experts, we believe that automation offers a strong path to accessibility at a reasonable price.
Low Tolerance for Risk
We noted above that going with the expensive “standard” option lowers the decision maker’s risk insofar as s/he can cover themselves. Even at a company-wide level, the risk calculations are often quite different especially for large, well-known companies. Famous brands are more conspicuous and are, as a result, probably targeted more frequently for lawsuits. Furthermore, they are more likely to be able to afford to pay large settlements to avoid lawsuits and any reputational risk that they might suffer as a result.
To my knowledge, no company using automated accessibility tools has ever been successfully sued; for that matter, I’m not aware of any attempted lawsuits that ended in a settlement before going to court. While in my opinion, this is a point in favor of automation, it does mean that automated accessibility helpers have not been tested in court and for a certain type of legal compliance department, that adds some level of risk.
If you take this all into account, while automation can save a lot of time, money, and effort, there are countervailing concerns for larger companies. It makes a lot of sense that companies that have the budget to pay for the “standard” accessibility audits and remediation would do so to avoid the far larger potential costs. If this doesn’t describe you, automation might be the right choice.
(And even if this does describe your company, you should consider the extent to which manual audits address your risk. We would argue that our Accessiblu is offering is superior to the typical manual audit and remediation cycle and also warranties the automated fixes up to $1 million, thereby reducing your risk of an adverse legal ruling accordingly.)
Means to Address
Finally, the larger companies that have until now, been the primary customers for accessibility audits and consulting, are also the same organizations that overwhelmingly have the means to address the results of these audits. This includes the financial means that we have addressed above, but also technical and organizational means that are lacking in smaller organizations.
Larger companies are more likely to build their websites and other digital output in-house. Unlike organizations that typically outsource or contract out digital work, companies that maintain their own digital footprint are more likely to have a culture that prioritizes testing and processes that accessibility testing can be slotted into. However, if your company hires an agency to build your website and is dependent on others for maintaining your own website, it is worth considering whether automation can put you in a stronger position.
One point that we keep coming back to is that the existing accessibility market has been shaped by large companies and organizations. They have a very low tolerance for risk, relatively high budgets, and their managers are incentivized to make the safe choice that matches what their peer companies are doing. If you understand this, the dismissive attitude from the established accessibility experts that they hire makes a lot of sense.
But this accessibility market has not developed with your needs in mind. These large corporate sites account for a lot of web traffic, but the “long tail” of the web consists of sites belonging to small businesses, churches, nonprofits, one-man e-commerce operations, and mid-size companies. We know that these smaller organizations are increasingly the target of surf-by lawsuits. If we are ever going to have a truly accessible web, a new approach is necessary that can deliver accessibility without requiring large outlays of time and money that these organizations just don’t have.
If you’d like to explore making your organization’s website automatically accessible, please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!