Selling Accessibility – Negative Factors

This is the second post in a series of posts on Selling Accessibility. If you haven’t already, head on over to Selling Accessibility – An Introduction to get caught up.

Negative Factors are those which stand in our way from effectively gaining buy-in for accessibility across the organization. These are things which must be addressed before real headway can be had and real budget applied in an effective manner toward mitigating risk and creating accessible experiences for users.

Existing misconceptions


Among the most frequent reasons I’ve noticed for a lack of accessibility buy-in is that people generally misunderstand the 5-Ws of accessibility. While the rest of the negative factors listed below are internal, this one is the only external negative factor. In short, it is the ignorance of others that so often stands in our way:

  • They don’t understand what “accessible” really means
  • They don’t understand who the users are who are impacted by inaccessible systems (and how)
  • They don’t understand who is responsible for making things accessible
  • They don’t understand why accessibility is important

For those of us in the trenches of accessibility every day, these things seem almost too obvious. Most of us work daily with persons with disabilities. Some of us are persons with disabilities. But for the rest of the world, it is likely that they’ve never seen a person with a disability interact with a computer. They are wholly clueless about the challenges people with disabilities face and, frankly, how easy it sometimes is to improve people’s experience very significantly with relatively little work.

In place of real understanding often comes misconception. People think accessibility is ugly, hard, time consuming, and costly and provides little-to-no direct benefit to the organization. Some of these misconceptions are our  own fault. The fact that people think accessibility is ugly is due in large part to the fact that so many accessibility-related sites are so dog ugly that people think, “well if that’s what an accessible website looks like, I don’t want any part of it”. The fact that accessibility is so hard and time consuming is partly because accessibility folks spend a lot of time chasing unicorns – seeking to pile on new requirements, check-points, and validation plans in hopes to make everything perfect. They separate instead of integrate and only show up when it is time to tell people they’ve messed everything up.

Addressing these fundamental misconceptions must happen before real headway on accessibility can happen, and it must happen across the entire organization. This education of others will probably be a constant effort. Both John Foliot and Glenda Sims have a lot of stories to tell about outreach efforts at their respective educational institutions, meant specifically to address misconceptions. Much of their successes in getting more attention to accessibility was due to educating others and addressing misconceptions to help people understand accessibility and its importance.

Hostility & FUD


Often when attempting to address misconceptions, I see people resort to hostility and FUD to try to influence people’s opinion on the importance of accessibility. They will become argumentative and threatening about accessibility and often raise the specter of lawsuit as evidence of its importance. Although hostility and FUD are two very different things, the outcome is the same: Once the conversation is based on hostility & FUD, all subsequent conversations will be based on hostility and FUD. Once you begin using the threat of lawsuit as the primary reason to be accessible, the context for the conversation changes from “how do we help people” to “how do we avoid getting sued”. Instead of concerning themselves about potential users, people become concerned about potential plaintiffs. A short-term win in an argument is less valuable than long-term success at the organization level. While part of me does tend to agree that the end can sometimes justify the means, in this case you’re unlikely to truly get real, organization-wide buy in and can often run the risk of creating resentment – especially among developers.

Several years ago, I did a week-long training for a large company that had been sued and settled out of court. The terms of their settlement included a very aggressive schedule for getting their web properties more accessible. As part of this, I spent a week doing on-site training with their staff. While I truly enjoyed my week with their staff – many of whom were eager to learn – I also took the brunt of resentment from some developers who regarded this whole accessibility thing as a huge hassle and something they were being “forced” to do. Naturally this would have never been needed had they made their sites accessible in the first place, but I’ve definitely seen just the threat of legal action have the same result. We should instead emphasize the positive over the negative. Some organizations do have real legal risk and it is important to be aware of this. That being said, I’d argue that the discussion of Reduction of Legal Risk as Web Accessibility Business Case can be a positive discussion and can be framed as a discussion of pro-action as opposed to reaction.

Looking like a hurdle


Somewhat related to the above is the idea that Accessibility is viewed as nebulous, expensive, and difficult. Because people have a strong preference for things that are easy, quick, and cheap, everything we do that is not (or appears not to be) easy, quick, and cheap is going to hinder our progress. This includes positioning yourself as a barrier to progress by saddling projects with massive requirements lists, milestone sign-offs, massive internal standards and anything else that adds to the impression that we stand in the way of projects being completed and the organization fulfilling its many other goals. This was a theme that found its way into the narratives of John Foliot, Monica Ackerman, and Glenda Sims, the latter of whom said “You must work to prevent the impression that accessibility is big and complicated. You will fail if you end up looking like a roadblock. Instead, provide solutions, not more problems”. One part of this is to position yourself in the organization as people’s ally, not their adversary. John Foliot was quick to say “Do not make people look bad. You’re not their adversary, you’re trying to help them, you’re on their team (this is hard esp. when you’re not part of the team). Understand their needs.” One of the best ways to show you’re a team player is by learning the art of effective prioritization. While accessibility may be your #1 priority, at the organization level it may exist among a list of other very other important priorities. Integrating your goals so they take their rightful place within the organization’s broader goals will help avoid looking like a hurdle. Looking like a hurdle is a great way to become – quite literally – uninvited to meetings where these types of decisions get made. As John Foliot and Glenda Sims were so quick to repeatedly point out, when you’re the solver of problems, people want you around. When you’re the origin of problems, people avoid you. Instead, seek to integrate accessibility into the overall narrative of what the organization seeks to accomplish and position yourself as the person who can help make that happen

Overstated importance


For most of us, it is critical that we provide equivalent access to all people. The Web, and ICT in general, is so central to life in today’s modern society it is essential that we ensure inclusion for all. It isn’t hard to see that sometimes something we feel so strongly about can quickly become, in our minds, the most important thing. As I’ve said above, though, there are other things that also have a high level of importance.  One of the biggest mistakes people make is when they overstate the importance of accessibility. For example, accessibility advocates will often equivocate accessibility with things like privacy & security. Vocalizing this myopic view of accessibility tends to erode the advocate’s credibility.

Even if we do want to point out legal risk as an argument for accessibility, our argument may not hold much water.  When Sony was hacked, they lost personal information on more than 100 million customers. A Russian hacker broke into RBS Worldpay grabbing $9 million in just a few hours. International gangs spread malicious code that conscripts unwitting computers into zombie armies of hundreds of thousands of similarly enslaved machines. For people administering large corporate networks, they understand this fact clearly: we are waging World War III right now, all day, every day. Privacy and security impacts every single person in the world – including people with disabilities.

Equivocating security and accessibility – in terms of importance – will do more to work against you than help you.  The NFB v. Target settlement took 4 years to reach a $10 million settlement. The security breach of RBS Worldpay that cost them $9 million took only a few hours. Furthermore, litigation risk is really only high if you’re in a Fortune 100 company, or Fortune 500 if you’re in certain industries or the very largest educational institutions and government agencies. Beyond that, litigation risk is actually rather low. Like conversations about security, overstating your organization’s level of risk is disingenuous and harmful to credibility.

Overstating business value

Many people have come up with arguments about the business case for accessibility in which they proclaim that an accessible website will be more usable and will be easier to build and maintain. They claim you’ll get some SEO benefits from accessibility and more. All arguments for the Accessibility Business Case make sense in theory but have very little evidence behind them, as far as I’ve seen.  Business case arguments really need to be based on the organization’s goals. For instance, the buying power of persons with disabilities and support for aging populations may help make a compelling business case argument only if you want/ need more business from these buyers and effectively market to them. Before making any business case argument to gain support for accessibility, I recommend having a clear understanding of how the organization conducts business over the web and its current shortcomings with respect to accessibility. By doing so, you will be able to make a more compelling argument – especially if you can tie it to future goals and project plans. Remember that generalized statements are particularly false. Just because the global number of people with some form of disability is around 20%, making an accessible website won’t automatically lead to a 20% increase in web-related income. Claims of that kind are likely to erode your credibility and decrease the potential value of any future claims. It is best, therefore, to ensure that your arguments are well considered, realistic, and backed up by real data.

Chasing perfection

Because accessibility is so important and because the very essence of accessibility is ensuring inclusion for all, it is easy to get caught up in making sure everything is right, fair, and equal for everyone. This is, I’d argue, an excellent end goal. That being said, such a thing probably can’t be handled in the short term. Because accessibility efforts so often happen after-the-fact, desired improvements must be prioritized. I feel strongly that accessibility problems are bugs. Newly desired features and other bugs in ICT systems and websites never get handled wholesale, why should all accessibility issues get adopted wholesale? Trying to fix everything all at once can actually backfire. On this topic, Robert Yonaitis was quick to say that trying to get people to comply with an entire standard all at once can be counterproductive because it can result in instant shutdown. The mere thought of tackling the task of bringing an entire system into compliance can be immobilizing and it reminded me of something I was experiencing right at that moment: household renovation. At the time of my interviews, I was working on:

  • Painting 4 rooms in my house
  • Installing new wood trim in every room in my house
  • Sanding and refinishing wood floors in 3 rooms
  • Replacing wood floor in my hallway
  • Replacing wood stairs
  • Replacing wood floor in the largest room in the house
  • Creating a custom built-in shelving unit for a closet
  • and more

Unfortunately, none of it was getting done. I would look at the mountain of tasks before me and become completely immobilized by the thought of the work necessary in getting all of that stuff done. It wasn’t until I focused on one task at a time that I was able to make any progress.

During my interview with him, Denis Boudreau was quick to advocate that instead of trying to do everything, we should focus on small, high-impact/ cross-impact subset of a11y requirements, such as forms, images, contrast, etc. This has a huge positive impacts for you as an accessibility advocate. By focusing on high-impact or cross-impact items, the organization sees immediate benefit and quick wins from their accessibility efforts. Second, because implementing many of these requirements is typically easy, it helps you make the argument that accessibility isn’t as difficult or time consuming as they thought.

Confront Your Negative Factors and Embrace the Positive Factors

Hopefully in the post above, I’ve helped to shed some light on the things that may work against you in trying to sell accessibility. You may have found, as I have, that a lot of this maps to confronting the five barriers from The Art of Woo, which I heartily recommend. So many of my blog posts have focused on things accessibility advocates do wrong, I’m going to turn that around. Up next, I’ll talk about some external Positive Factors that you can hopefully use to your advantage.

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If you or your organization need help with accessibility consulting, strategy, or accessible web development, email me directly at karl@karlgroves.com or call me at +1 443-875-7343. Download Resume [MS Word]

5 Comments

  • mraccess
    Posted July 30, 2012 at 7:05 pm   Permalink

    > One of the biggest mistakes people make is when they overstate the importance of accessibility. For example, accessibility advocates will often equivocate accessibility with things like privacy & security. Vocalizing this myopic view of accessibility tends to erode the advocate’s credibility.

    Karl, I do hope what you meant to say is that accessibility issues that do not pose barriers to access must be taken into consideration with other priority items. One would hope that basic access to a site is certainly no less important than security and privacy.

    • karlgroves
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm   Permalink

      Jon Avila, it is really great to hear from you. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. My views haven’t changed on this since the two of us worked together at SSB BART Group. I clearly believe in accessibility and that removing barriers to access is critical. Creating a system which is wholly unusable for persons with disabilities is unacceptable. My point – and please let me know if this was lost in the post – is that we must understand where accessibility lies in the overall view of organizational priorities. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Posted July 31, 2012 at 12:59 pm   Permalink

    I think you need to better explain the real costs of accessibility, such as testing, tools, training, consulting help, etc. Although I would not necessarily consider them “negative factors”, they are “real factors” to consider in selling the case for accessibility. The main point being that if the enterprise had a dollar to spend – why spend it on accessibility verses spending it on something else that they perceive would bring a greater return?

    • karlgroves
      Posted July 31, 2012 at 1:30 pm   Permalink

      Great point, Phil. When I first read your comment I had a hard time seeing how that’s any different than justifying any other expenditure. Thinking a little more about it though, I think you have a point though it probably isn’t one I think plays a role in these “Negative Factors”. I have discussed this a bit in my post How Expensive is Web Accessibility but in general this would fall under a discussion of overcoming objections. Thanks for the idea for another blog post! ;-)

  • jimtobias
    Posted August 2, 2012 at 10:58 am   Permalink

    Another great post — thanks so much for doing these subtle, crucial pieces.

    One of accessibility’s complicating factors is that it’s both a movement and a profession. It’s good that it’s that way, and unavoidable, but it does lead to confusing communications at times. We want our audiences to have conversion experiences, but we also know that for most situations, implementing accessibility means making a small set of small bureaucratic changes. We could look to the experience of more successful, or at least more widely known movement-professions; environmentalism is one. On the ideological side, they’ve done a great job helping everyone on the planet realize the fact that they actually are on the planet. On the legal/regulatory side, they’ve put laws and programs in place that have had huge positive effects on air, water, oceans, land use, resource protection, etc. My point is that these social policy and organizational response issues are not only the subject of opinions; scholars study them, and their results are useful, so let’s go there.

    The other point I’d like to make is audience sensitivity. I recently watched a very talented web accessibility expert waste an hour delivering a coherent webinar on evaluation and repair tools to an audience of social service agency executive directors. The goal with this audience should have been to help them develop an accessibility strategy or policy for their organizations, or give them a short list of resources their tech people should use, but not a how-to that went way over their heads and probably pressed all their “technology is complicated and I’m an idiot so why bother” buttons. A missed opportunity, and one they may not ever repeat.

    When we’re talking to regulatory attorneys or other government affairs people, why not emphasize the legal jeopardies that inaccessibility brings? That’s what they know, and they’re paid to care about it on behalf of their enterprise. They’re usually very responsive, in their own way. Definitely not a “I have seen the light” way, but very effective nonetheless. I’ve found them impressed by the legal history. If you run a timeline from say 1968 (Architectural Barriers Act) to now, there’s a clear pattern of increasing accessibility mandates and oversight, and they get it.

    The same is true of marketers, developers, customer support people, etc. — there’s a different accessibility message for each of them, and our trick is to know who we’re talking to so we give the right speech.

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