Just another Checkbox
Did you know that if a company built accessibility into its foundational methods of developing products and services, it would only be 2% of the total cost? Bolting on accessibility after the fact can easily cost 100%, because often the way a website, application, or device was built requires an overhaul of the system to make accessibility a seamless addition. Why then do companies refuse to embrace resource and monetary efficiency?
Last Thursday, we had the privilege of visiting with the folks at the Yahoo! Accessibility Lab. They were genuinely excited about accessibility to the point that accessibility is now a part of the company’s core product development process. Visitors to their family of services will find that the experience has been made more pleasant for persons with print disabilities. They admitted that part of their rationale is that making the adjustments to a project from Day 1 will result in a more efficient use of time, money, and resources. Thankfully, Yahoo is joining a slow but growing list of companies recognizing the value of universal access in a way that is mutually beneficial for the company and the buyer.
The change in attitude is owed to at least two factors:
First, companies like Yahoo and Microsoft each feature a team that is not ashamed to evangelize the virtues of accessibility. These are people like Alan Brightman, Victor Tsaran and others who coax, cajole and generally encourage the inclusion of accessibility in their companies’ line of products and services. They are people who recognize the inclusion of accessibility as a concrete benefit to specific people and not just another step in someone’s product roadmap. They are people who have, in some cases, moved to different companies and carried with them the same fervor for equal access to their new employers.
Second, companies that have made accessibility part of their core functionality are companies that have made the endeavor more than just a corporate promise. These are companies that have allowed their marketing rhetoric to trickle down to the developer base, or the brains behind the code that make the bells ring and the whistles blow. After all, developers are the ones on top of the evolution of the computer languages they rely on to make our favorite applications so compelling.
Until recently, assistive technology companies were the only ones fully invested in making accessibility a top priority. Now, however, developers working on the ground level are working under an obligatory environment to make accessibility gain equal attention. If companies could begin implementing force checks on accessibility at the development phase rather than struggling to apply a bandage later, accessibility would become commonplace both for the conscious developer and the company for which she works. The obligatory environment is one that would send developers to seminars and take advantage of other training opportunities. The word needs to get to developers that accessibility inclusion is more than just another feel-good ploy.
Often, the executives and product managers steering the boat have little to zero knowledge about product development. They are in charge because they have the business sense to turn the finished products into profitable results. They do not need to stay on top of .NET Framework and other environments to do what they do best, but a language they ought to be able to relate to is budgeting. If left unchecked, the lack of accessibility, also known as universal design, could easily convert to a financial burden.
Companies refusing to incorporate accessibility into their foundational processes are overlooking the potential for litigation in the not-so-distant future. Legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act have created a stricter framework by which manufacturers must build to make their products usable by persons with disabilities. These policies are calling attention to equal access so that if a law does not exist today, it might very well exist tomorrow. Companies should not develop products with a fearful eye to public policy. They should develop as a matter of course to serve a growing base of consumers, but if there are evolving rules about the accessibility of products and services, doesn’t it make sense for companies to build things right at the outset rather than risk unnecessary litigation later? The financial burden of defending against lack of accessibility claims detracts from the company’s capacity to create even better products for the consumer base as a whole.
With corporate transparency, we would be able to count on accessible products from conception. Making accessibility a part of the corporate culture will not occur overnight. It’s going to require a lot of noise from dedicated staff inside the companies and even more of a racket from the consumers outside of them. The transition may result in some occasional product delays as gaps are filled to ensure solid performance, but success will result in products like Windows 8 whose core functionality will hopefully be as accessible on the desktop as it is on the mobile platform. It will hopefully result in devices like the Kindle Fire whose second generation will hopefully bring much-needed accessibility to consumers. But to move from hope to fulfillment, companies need to do more than broadcast equality platitudes. They need to do more than just test and roll exercises to gauge the efficacy of the first version before making the second one better. They actually need to make accessibility part of their strategic planning.
If looked at strictly from a business efficiency model, universal design does much more than just make a product work for persons with disabilities. It also allows for better integration with products in the same class. If a company can minimize the amount of time it spends reinventing the wheel, it will be able to focus more on upward mobility and less on status quo improvement. Universal design translates to heightened market competition, because the field becomes level for both the innovative seller and the well-informed buyer. The perceived advantages of companies like Apple can be minimized when faced with platform standards that render accessibility as just another tool in the company’s typical arsenal. Such an outlook is completely independent of technical specifications. A higher level manager ought to be able to see this approach for the long-term vitality strategy that it is.
Persons with disabilities are looking for accessibility to become just another checkbox. The desire is not so removed from the current practice. The difference is that accessibility needs to be given a greater value. It needs to cease being a side project and needs to become an item on the core checklist. Microsoft is doing a great job of tapping into its support base of assistive technology experts to make this come about. Apple has long since understood this concept and has enjoyed a reputation of just getting it. Other equally intelligent companies would benefit from just doing it.