Web site accessibility is the right imperative - but why are so many organizations failing to invest?

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed September 9, 2021 Audio mode
Web site accessibility is a rewarding discipline - and a regulatory obligation. But many organizations are not making the investment. Why? In search of answers, I went inside a web accessibility report from Avasant's Computer Economics group.

Confused business team holding a question mark sign

The pursuit of web site accessibility is one of the great no-brainers in modern tech. But the percentage of companies that fail to invest is baffling.

A new web site accessibility report from Avasant's Computer Economics group documents the web accessibility problem - and opportunity.

I went to the report's authors for some context. Why we are at this confusing point, given that the penalties for poor web accessibility are rising, the benefits of investment are established, and, frankly, the discipline of accessibility is rewarding?

The scope of the problem is laid out in Figure 3:

Accessibility stats
(via Avasant's Computer Economics group)

Stats from the report bear this out. You can read a Research Byte of the web site accessibility report on the Avasant web site. The full report is a paid product, Website Accessibility Adoption and Best Practices 2021, published by Avasant's Computer Economics group. The stats? Of almost 200 IT organizations in the US and Canada surveyed for this report, less than half of their organizations are seriously investing in web site accessibility. As Computer Economics puts it:

Fewer than half of organizations (46%) attempt to make their websites accessible at any level of practice maturity.

A survey of 181 IT organizations is not a huge sample size, but other stats support this conclusion. A recently released report from Storyblok analyzed the web sites of Fortune 500 companies. Storyblok found that only 45 percent had good accessibility scores (you can get a copy of this State of the Enterprise Web free, with sign up). The report concludes:

The number of Fortune 500 companies with accessibility scores below 80 is alarming. It shows that more must be done to promote accessibility UI/UX best practices.

Defining web site accessibility - from regulations to business case

The W3C's web site accessibility initiative defines web site accessibility as:

Web accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them. More specifically, people can:

  • perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web
  • contribute to the Web

Web accessibility spans all disabilities that impact access to the web, including auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual. But, as W3C points out, a proper definition of web accessibility should also include those who are accessing the web through small devices, dealing with changing abilities due to aging, dealing with lighting conditions, temporary disabilities, and more.

I call this the 'web accessibility imperative' because you have both regulatory and business incentives in play. A host of regulations address web site accessibility requirements, including the ADA's accessible technology guidance and the Web and Mobile Accessibility Directive in the European Union.

On the business case side, the impact is broad. Start with this: a growing body of work indicates that improvements made for web accessibility benefit all web visitors, period. This is obvious when you consider accessibility features like audio playback. But it doesn't stop there. As per Computer Economics:

People with disabilities are a massive, worldwide market. The global population of these individuals is greater than one billion, the largest minority group. When friends and family are factored in, this group represents more than $8 trillion in discretionary spending.

Then there are the SEO and mobile UX benefits. Via W3C:

Accessibility overlaps with other best practices such as mobile web design, device independence, multi-modal interaction, usability, design for older users, and search engine optimization (SEO)... Accessible websites have better search results, reduced maintenance costs, and increased audience reach, among other benefits.

The web site accessibility report - why now?

With all that in mind, how did we arrive at this point of web accessibility neglect? Or, to put it another way, why isn't web accessibility a sustainable practice for more organizations? I asked the report's authors, Tom Dunlap and Frank Scavo, the following:

What inspired Avasant's Computer Economics group to do this report at this time - given that web site accessibility has been a known problem for quite some time. Are we turning a corner with momentum on this issue for regulatory, inclusiveness or other reasons? Frank Scavo, President of Avasant Research, responded:

Several years ago, we did an ERP selection project for a non-profit that serves to fill jobs for people with disabilities. As you might expect, this organization itself had a number of employees that were blind or seeing-impaired. So, the client asked us to include accessibility requirements in our selection criteria. We were surprised at the time at how poorly software vendors were in satisfying those requirements. 

This wake-up call prompted Scavo's team to include web accessibility in their annual IT best practices report. What they learned was disappointing, but perhaps not surprising. As Scavo puts it:

Some vendors are doing better today, but many vendors are still far behind.  So, we decided to include accessibility in our annual survey of IT best practices to see how much of a priority it is among buyers. We deliberately focused on website accessibility, thinking that if an organization hadn't bothered to make its public-facing websites accessible, it would be unlikely to be making its internal systems accessible.

And what about the organizations on the sidelines? You noted in your annual IT management best practices study that a "surprising 45% of organizations in our survey do not make any attempt at website accessibility, nor are they considering doing so" - why do you think that number is so high? What might change that? Scavo sees two factors in play:

We think it is an under-appreciation of how important accessibility is, and at the same time, an over-estimation of how difficult it is. Several years ago, we incorporated basic accessibility principles into the Computer Economics website and were impressed that, really, it's not that hard to at least remove the major impediments to usability.

What was the biggest surprise from the research?

We were surprised at how much organizations are losing out on the benefits of accessibility, both in terms of reaching larger markets as well as the SEO benefits. Search engines really penalize you if your website is not accessible.

Each web site has different accessibility actions to take, and it's a long-term commitment. But are there any obvious things that emerged from the report, that companies can quickly take action on?  Scavo again:

If you haven't designed for accessibility, your website is most likely not accessible. Run your website against a couple of the free assessment tools that are out there, and see just how inaccessible your website is today. That should embarrass you enough to at least deal immediately with the big problems, like poor color contrast, navigation issues, missing header tags, or lack of alt tags on images.

My take - web accessibility is a discipline, but getting started isn't hard

Per Scavo's point, there are slew of  web site resources for organizations to act on. There are plenty of free tools to evaluate web accessibility, including WAVE's Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool. On  diginomica.com, we've worked hard on Google's Lighthouse tools, an open source framework for web site optimization that includes accessibility considerations.

Web accessibility can appear daunting, generating a huge checklist of to-dos. But: bearing down on some basics isn't hard. When diginomica launched our dyslexia mode, we were surprised by the intensity of the community's response.

I felt like we were late to the game on dyslexia mode, perhaps because it did take a while to finalize it. But based on the feedback we received, it became clear: few sites in our industry have taken this obvious (and very rewarding) move. Avasant's Computer Economics group mentioned us in their study:

A positive example is the media site diginomica, which recently introduced its 'dyslexia mode,' a toggle available on every article. Sliding the toggle shows you the article in a unique, easy-to-read Dyslexie font. The new mode has been a hit.

The report makes an important note: you don't need a sophisticated in-house development team to do this. In our case, our external web development partner, Brainsum, is instrumental to all our web accessibility pursuits. from Lighthouse compliance to audio mode to dyslexia mode - and whatever we do next.

I'm betting a tiny percentage of web sites have done all they can on this topic. At diginomica, our plan is to flesh out our accessibility roadmap, where we treat accessibility not as an obligation (which it clearly is), but as an innovation we should aggressively - and continuously - pursue.

Granted, some of the aspects of this are down in the weeds. Example: diginomica must do a better job with our image tagging. In particular, our older articles often lack robust, descriptive tags. This is a digital asset management (DAM) issue with accessibility implications - and one we must address. So my view is that we should embrace the web accessibility discipline with humility - and keep pressing. As I wrote in Introducing dyslexia mode:

You can expect us to keep pushing for a more accessible diginomica - and to use our platform to make the case for neurodiversity in tech.

The best thing about a report like this one is not the sobering stats, but the dialogue it provokes. Let's continue that.

Updated with the addition of Storyblok's accessibility data from their State of the Enterprise Web report, 2:00pm ET US on September 13, 2021.

Image credit - Confused business team holding a question mark sign in front of his face in office. By @rido, via Shutterstock.com

Disclosure - diginomica has no financial relationship with Avasant. Figure 3 from Avasant Computer Economics group's web site accessibility report used with express permission.