How to Convince Company Leadership to Care About Accessibility
At a previous company I worked at, users sent in complaints about how inaccessible our product was. A few of us tried to convince leadership to prioritize #a11y but they wouldn't. Here are my learnings and persuasion tactics if you're in the same boat!
You’re working at a startup, flying at what feels like a thousand commits a second. You simultaneously are operating in a lean mean efficiency machine as well as an ever-growing snowball of tech debt. You’re working 50, 60, 70 hours a week, aiming for that new feature launch. The day is finally upon you, and shockingly, nothing goes horribly wrong at launch. You cry a single tear of pride at all you have accomplished.
A week later, your company is hit with an ADA lawsuit.
This has been a familiar fate for thousands of companies in the US every year. In fact, over 11,000 ADA lawsuits were filed in the United States in 2019. So if you have not experienced this reality, and you haven’t been focusing on making your web application accessible via the WCAG standards, I would highly advise you to stop what you’re doing and to start caring.
That being said, I’m going to bet that most people reading this may not be the ones commanding the purse strings nor are they the ones commanding the troops. Even if the individuals care, accessibility work will never be prioritized if the management doesn’t see it as a priority. As much as we’d all hope that management would care about accessibility because they’re good people that just want a better, more accessible world, we know that oftentimes the only way to move a needle is with a business argument.
After years of working with colleagues fighting this very battle, I’d like to share some arguments and strategies that have worked in convincing high-powered people who ask “Why should I care about accessibility?”
Reason #1: It’s the Law
Being accessible is not a choice, it’s the law. Let’s go over some basics.
What is the American with Disabilities Act?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title III prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. More specifically:
[it] prohibits discrimination on the basis of disabilities in places of public accommodations, commercial facilities, and private entities that offer certain examination and courses related to educational and occupational certification
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a certain size or of a certain industry to be considered a public amenity. If a bank building is subject to accessibility requirements, so is an online bank’s website. If a grocery store is subject to accessibility requirements, so is a grocery or meal delivery service’s website. You get the idea. Websites are more and more understood by the public to be considered public amenities, so any company with a web presence is fair game.
It being a law means that you can be punished for breaking the law
As mentioned earlier, ADA Lawsuits have been generally on the rise in the past few years (with the exception of 2020).
In fact, it’s also been shown that ADA lawsuits can be profitable for both the plaintiffs and the lawyers. Profitability is a great incentive, and it’s proven to be a driver in why more lawyers are now investing their time and expertise in ADA lawsuits, some even producing strings of frivolous lawsuits. Regardless of how frivolous some claims can be, it’s never good press to be called out as being inaccessible.
Reason #2: It expands your potential user base
If you don’t invest in improving the accessibility of your product, you are losing out on a large segment of your potential user base.
Companies and brands often wrongly assume that either people with disabilities are not in their target audience or that the ones that are aren’t a large enough population to justify the cost to make changes for.
Yet the data shows that the global market of people with disabilities is over 1 billion people with a spending power of more than $6 trillion.
Many businesses today are realizing how many potential customers they’re losing by not investing in web accessibility.
In 2019, Beyoncé found out the hard way that 2 million fans with vision impairments were unable to use her website. That’s right, not even Queen Bey is doing it right! Queen Bey’s website was found to not be WCAG compliant and the ensuing ADA lawsuit estimated that over 2 million people were unable to access the news feature on her website. Her website was largely visual, with grids of beautiful, bold square photos acting as links to her social media and news posts. None of these photos were able to be read by a screen reader, and those using a keyboard were unable to click any of them to read further.
I’ll bet you anything that the original designers and developers for her website didn’t imagine that 2 million of her fans had such impairments. Had they known, they probably would have prioritized accessibility sooner!
Reason #3: It improves your SEO and UX
The work it takes to improve the accessibility of your product and marketing pages is actually the same kind of work that is required to increase your SEO scores and improve your product’s usability.
One of the things that executives, shareholders, and board members all understand is the importance of a company’s web presence. And, what’s the point of having a good web presence if no one can find it? Since the mid 90s, people and companies have been trying to optimize their websites to be more easily found on search engines, employing techniques such as using meta tags, carefully crafting page titles, dynamically generating pages (like how Yelp always magically has a “TOP 10 [SERVICE|BUSINESS TYPE] IN [YOUR AREA]” page no matter what you search), and so on.
The funny thing is, a lot of that work is also a byproduct of making your product more accessible for the web. For example, people with impaired vision may not be able to recognize your company’s logo in the tab of their browser, so they rely on screen readers to read the title of your web page to them. If you don’t have a great page title, neither a person using a screen reader nor a web crawler will be able to recognize what your page is all about.
Similarly, creating sitemaps is an important step in both SEO and web accessibility work. A website’s sitemap is a file that provides information and access to a website’s pages, videos, and other files. Bots crawl through your sitemap, indexing all your website’s pages and implicitly creating the relationships within search results. For accessibility, this is an important feature because people with either vision or motor impairments can use your sitemap as an easy way to find the page they need. Giving users an ability to use Cmd/Ctrl+F for a term they’re seeking and pressing enter on the right link provides them a much better experience than aimlessly tabbing through modals and drop-down menus looking for the right link.
Of course, each product also has its own unique opportunities for increased SEO, better user experiences, and improved accessibility that aren’t in the usual “how-to” guides.
For example, in 2011, This American Life decided to transcribe all their podcasts and create individual pages for each transcription. Transcribing podcasts not only made their content more accessible to the 15% of Americans that suffer from hearing loss, it also increased their SEO significantly. Web crawlers aren’t able to crawl audio files, so providing them with textual transcriptions gave the podcast website a higher chance of keyword matching for search results.
Upon examining the composition of their newfound site visitors, they noticed an increase in non-English speaking and ESL users. While before, a podcast might be hard for these users to understand, they now had access to the content in a form that they could easily translate.
This American Life found out that transcribing their podcasts was a low hanging fruit which resulted in many wins for SEO, usability, and accessibility. Imagine what opportunities your company could find that could do the same?
Reason #4: It’s good for optics
Being seen as an accessibility forward company is good for optics.
These days, more and more of the general public are becoming aware of company brand personas, and are more willing than ever to point out corporations’ flaws and declare them as evil. You, as a corporate brand, can no longer be the industry equivalent of Switzerland and maintain a neutral position: companies are being called out for not supporting BLM, chastised for misconduct, and boycotted because of their leadership’s political leanings.
Now more than ever, your company would benefit from putting itself forward as a company with a conscience. Not only that, but asserting yourself as a leader in a space increases your brand’s clout and exposure. If you can invest to gain expertise in accessibility, your potential customers will rejoice, and other companies will look up to you.
Telling your accessibility journey of evolving from zero to hero would be a great conference topic and press article, don’t you think?
Reason #5: “It’s the right thing to do”
It’s the argument that often works the least, but it’s the one that should work over all others. Just knowing that you’re creating a product for all people regardless of ability is truly the bare minimum needed to be a good company and a good product.
If you’re in the advocate’s chair now, I hope these arguments have given you ammo to try and convince others to prioritize this very important work. If you’re a commander of purse strings and are now convinced you should invest more, I’ve done my job. We need more allies and more people who care to make a more inclusive world for everyone, and I hope you’ll join me in getting us there.
Freelancer and Maker
Screw the rules, I have green hair. Self-employed technologist with a decade long career in frontend engineering, graphic and brand design, and user experience research. Enjoys the intersection between the arts, psychology, and technology.