Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Accessibility Costs Too Much

Many site owners complain that accessibility costs too much, and as a result opt against increasing accessibility on their site. Either it costs too much money, or it takes too long (time-related costs). In many respects, they are right. Retrofitting a website for accessibility can be a costly exercise. But if you are developing a new site from "scratch", then the increased costs are minimal.

I like to draw an analogy with physical buildings when I think of accessibility-related costs. Imagine you have built a house, but all your doors are quite narrow, there are three steps to your entrance, and your bathroom is the size of a matchbox. Definitely a scenario where a wheelchair user is unable to come and visit, let alone reside. If you want to make this house usable, you’ll have to widen doorways – which involves breaking down wall, framing a new door, refinishing the plaster, etc, on top of purchasing the new, wider door. Then you’ll have to build a ramp that may be long and steep. Finally, you’ll have to remodel the bathroom, ensuring there’s enough space for a wheelchair to get in and turn around – again tearing walls down, changing plumbing and electricity. All these things are very expensive.

But if you’d planned for accessibility from the beginning, you would not have had to spend (significantly) more on the construction. Everything could have been done right. The only slight cost difference may have been in the cost of the wider doors.

It’s the same thing when you are looking at backward engineering websites. It will cost a lot of money and time to add functionality in some areas. It may require extensive re-writing of the code, and that re-writing might impact further down the chain in a cascade. In fact, some changes might not even be possible at all without a complete re-write. If the site had been planned with accessibility in mind, it would not have cost more!

I remember having a discussion on this topic at a conference in February 2008 with a "big player" in website development in New Zealand. He was arguing that it still costs a lot for design firms to do accessibility. His argument was that paying for training so their staff would learn about accessibility would increase cost, and this cost would have to be passed on to their client. I understood what he was saying. But I couldn’t help thinking that a chef needs to learn about safe food handling practices, it’s a pre-requisite for the job. Shouldn’t developers have at least a basic understanding of accessibility? It seems a basic skill to know about. In more and more countries, accessibility is a legal requirement for websites. Just like the chef food-handling certificate, accessibility skills for the developer will soon be a must.

But setting aside developer skills, and assuming that a website has already been completed, there are often a multitude of things that can be done to increase accessibility without costing very much. Many of the sites nowadays use a CMS. Many of those sites have built-in tools to add things such as alternate text for images. It is technically possible to add the alt text, but it is not done. Yet, ensuring that the images have alternate text (where appropriate) is indeed a simple, no/low cost way to increase accessibility. Or it might be that slightly changing the colour of a background would increase the contrast between the text and the background.

In a perfect world, everything would be fully accessible. But we shouldn’t give up on the small things that make a difference just because we can’t make everything completely accessible.