Accessibility and Client Expectations: Selling Accessibility

July 20, 2007

Topics: Accessibility, Web Development.

One routine challenge in being an accessible web developer is convincing clients of the necessity of certain features you’ve implemented. I don’t sell my services specifically on the grounds of accessibility; accessibility is simply a feature of my web sites. As a result, not every client is even aware when the project starts that they’re going to end up with an accessible web site.

I don’t make an issue of it. I just make it happen.

However, this does frequently result in conversations during the project concerning the way things have been done. The fact that I’ve added skiplinks to the top of the page is one of the most frequently challenged decisions — largely, because it’s the most visible feature.

It’s rarely a problem once I’ve explained the reasoning behind it; only very rarely do I hear any complaints echoing the myth that “their site isn’t visited by the disabled.” Nevertheless, it continuously reinforces my impression that accessibility simply isn’t part of the planning for most web site owners.

It’s possibly true that I’m not really helping matters by failing to raise the subject early on. But I really don’t feel that site owners should have to take responsibility for worrying about the accessibility of their sites — the best situation I can imagine is that the average web designer would put together a reasonably accessible design by routine, rather than having that kind of extra care be primarily the purview of specialized “expert” developers.

The world of best-practice, standards-based web design is pretty small. Although there are many highly vocal advocates for web standards and accessibility, the majority of firms and independent designers seem to still be locked pretty firmly in a more primitive world of web development.

Clients drive the market. If the vast majority of companies looking for web development explicitly required standards compliance and accessibility, I’d like to believe that this would become a standard practice. I’m not certain that this is true, however. There’s a fallacious understanding of accessibility that perceives it as an “add-on” to a website. It’s very easy to imagine a contract with a simple check box specifying “Accessibility: +20% of total cost.” That’s a great way to discourage accessible web design: charge extra.

Accessibility doesn’t really require much extra work. In fact, the smart design and layout principles which are involved in much accessible web design actually makes it easier to implement than some design techniques (tables, for example). Selling accessibility as an add-on feature is simply a matter of taking advantage of the ignorance of the customer.

I’m not saying that there actually is a rash of companies handling accessibility this way; but they certainly exist. Some of them implement accessibility features in an manner which is actually very poor practice, by taking their existing design and throwing in accesskeys, tabindex, and/or a Javascript-based text resizing widget. This is less an issue of taking advantage of the consumer as it is one of developer ignorance.

The reason for advocacy of best practice accessibility techniques is to educate: educate developers so that they know how they can implement accessibility in the most consistent and efficient manner, and educate consumers so they know that accessibility is something they should be able to expect in their new website.

When an accessibility feature is challenged on a site I’m building, I’ll go to whatever lengths are necessary to educate the client about what value this feature provides and what barriers are created in it’s absence. If I can’t sufficiently justify it; it’ll go. Maybe I need to reconsider it’s value myself. But I’m not going to sell accessibility. I’m perfectly happy building an accessible web site without the client ever even being aware of the issue.

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8 Comments to “Accessibility and Client Expectations: Selling Accessibility”

  1. That’s a very good point, Stevie — it’s definitely important to mention that there are certain accessibility issues that will absolutely cost extra. Transcribing audio or captioning video are “above and beyond” tasks; they don’t apply to most websites, and the work involved should definitely be considered extra.

    Audio stylesheets, I’m afraid, I’d put more in the “pointless” category, since they aren’t really supported by anything…

  2. Just to add my thanks to the others for this great article.

    My take on the charging thing is not to charge for standard accessibility, because it should be taken as read. By that, I mean that you automatically and instinctively use semantic code, properly alt-ed images, skip links, etc. And you probably charge slightly more for your services than a shoddy cowboy would – you have every right to.

    Yes, a Mercedes costs more than a Kia, but it isn’t as though MB dealers say “the basic car costs 20k, and then another 20k for Mercedes-quality” – you just buy a car for 40k, which you know is going to be a really good one. That should be the same with a website. You can go to a cowboy and get a shoddy job, or you can go to a quality designer and get a good job.

    Standard accessibility is not, and should not be, a bolt-on extra. Don’t separate it from all the other elements of good practice you use. Yes, there may be accessibility features that are “extras”, that would be listed as options with higher charges. I’m thinking here of things like multimedia subtitles/captioning, alternative or audio stylesheets etc, the kind of things that are not usually necessary but a keen accessibility proponent might want.

  3. I agree, too, accessibility isn’t a widget one turns on like a light bulb then charges extra for it. If they do, I suspect the extra charge doesn’t offer a lot in terms of value.

  4. They may tend to continue in their usual tracks, producing lower-quality code for most sites; and, when the request comes, introducing features they think will add accessibility to the site at an extra cost.

    It’s just a backwards way to think…

    Exactly. We are all in agreement on this, to be sure.

  5. I think it’s not a problem which devotees of standards tend to run into. Since they (our) default mode of development is based on thinking about standards and accessibility, that’s what we tend to do as a lowest common denominator site.

    Those who haven’t yet embraced standards, however, may have seen the economic benefits to offering accessibility; but not have fully understood the principles. They may tend to continue in their usual tracks, producing lower-quality code for most sites; and, when the request comes, introducing features they think will add accessibility to the site at an extra cost.

    It’s just a backwards way to think…

  6. I am quite new to the web design business, and am forcing myself to learn to write valid, accessible and standard compliant code. This learning curve has been self taught and largely with the help of sites like yours, Joe, along with the great help from over at the “Beast”.

    That being said, I never really thought specifically about the relationship between accessible/standards compliant and the price I charge. Indirectly, however, I believe that my sites are better than many and have always charged a premium for the product that I produce. But I certainly never think about coding a site full of garbage code and charging less for it. To me, the two issues just meld into one and the price of my sites follows suite.

    On the other hand, I still have much to learn and don’t do things flawlessly, but at least I am on the right learning track and understand the issues, for the most part.

    Great article.

  7. I know you’re saying that it should just be built in and not an add-on, and I agree with that, but I feel the price should be more.

    And I don’t disagree with that, either. I guess the distinction is subtle, but I’m entirely willing to have people pay more for my skill and experience; and not at all willing for people to pay more for their site to be accessible.

    I’m simply opposed to the concept of pricing which is based on accessibility as a feature. Skill and experience? Absolutely!

  8. Really great article Joe. I agree with almost all of it except I think the part about added price I disagree with slightly. I know you’re saying that it should just be built in and not an add-on, and I agree with that, but I feel the price should be more. Here’s my thinking:

    A professional level of understanding of how to maintain the inherent accessibility of a well-built web site and enhance and empower it from there — and all that goes with that, you know, all that good stuff that is the by-product of making a quality site — commands a better price. I’m not saying a good developer would offer an off-the shelf site with an accessible “option,” as you were saying, but that all the good developer’s sites would be accessible. No options. No compromise. And no discounted version, either.

    Doing what you do, Joe, is a skill and you should expect to be paid what your paid, and it the point is that should be more than the guy churning out crap. I do! It’s not a huge amount of work maintaining accessibility as you indicated, but it takes hard-earned sought-after knowledge to really be good at it and to turn out a mighty fine product. Moreover it does take more time to test, and dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s, and struggle over taking commercial scripts and applications — that web 2.0 stuff people want — and fixing them because they’re not built right to begin with.

    It is some work. It takes more skill. And the product is of better quality on many levels. For this I want to be paid more than the guy who slices comps and throws the slices into tables. Don’t you? And if it has to be explain (why you command more money than OneMinuteSites-R-us.com).

    To further exemplify what I mean take the car industry, Mercedes and Kia, specifically. A Mercedes is of higher quality than a Kia. It costs more than Kia. It should costs more than Kia. I can’t imagine Mercedes saying they shouldn’t charge more because the consumer doesn’t get it or can’t feel and see the quality difference. Granted it’s a harder showing for web sites, but it’s there. But even when it is obvious, like it is in my car comparison, Mercedes purposely exudes quality in their merchandising and advertising to convince and educate the consumer. This, I feel, correlates to what we should strive for in the industry. We should advertise, promote, show, and teach the difference. Doing this, over time, should generate a true demand for accessible web sites. One that can be taken to the bank.