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Last week was Julie Howell’s leaving party; Julie has spent the
last twelve years at the RNIB championing accessibility.
Firstly I would like to add my thanks to the great work that
Julie has done to raise awareness of accessibility in the UK
culminating with the publishing of PAS
78. Julie is now going to join Fortune Cookie, a web
development company that concentrates on accessibility, so we can
look forward to her pushing the agenda forward in the future.
Julie invited the movers and shakers of the accessibility
community, so it was a wonderful opportunity to discuss the big
issues in a relaxed atmosphere over a glass, or four, of wine.
One big issue being discussed was how do you cost-justify
building accessibility into internal systems. No one seems to have
a case study that proves the benefits. Legal and General has
produced one for external web sites and some of the lessons learnt
from that are relevant to internal systems.
Usability and accessibility are two intertwined subjects. I do
not think that it is useful or desirable to try and separate out
the benefits of each. Many, but not all, accessibility features
will improve the usability of a system; and on the other hand if a
system is not very usable it will not be accessible.
Usability applies to the whole community of users so the
productivity benefits have a larger multiplier and therefore are
larger and more apparent than that for accessibility. However
accessibility will help drive out the usability requirements and
also has additional unique cost benefits that will add to the total
return on investment.
Over the evening I gathered together a set of parameters that
should be included when building up such a case; I think are worth
listing here. They divide into productivity savings and risk
- Well-designed accessible solutions are more usable by the total
user population. This improves the productivity of all users. The
kinds of improvements include: easier navigation, better facilities
for power users, and clearer help where and when needed. Taking
accessibility seriously is the easiest way of ensuring this level
- Reduce change requests during development. User Centric Design
is a method that considers usability and accessibility from the
outset and this focus ensures that requirements are better
understood. This will reduce costly changes during development. I
think that accessibility is a particularly good litmus test in User
Centric Design because it quickly highlights shortcomings in a user
- Building accessibility into solutions has been shown to reduce
the post implementation maintenance requirements. There are two
reasons for this, firstly developing accessible solutions requires
tight standards and processes and these help to produce a cleaner
solution; secondly the testing required for accessible solutions
will also force out lower level errors that might not be detected
at first but would cause maintenance problems down the line.
- Accessible solutions will enable a company to benefit from the
full potential of any disabled employees so increasing company
productivity. This is obviously over and above the productivity
improvements that usability brings to the whole community.
- It is a sad fact that the level of unemployment is high amongst
the disabled community. Accessible systems will help make this pool
of talent available; this should reduce the cost of hiring and
quite possibly reduce the level of employee churn.
- Having a positive attitude to disabled employees will improve
the reputation of the company. The company can include it in a
Corporate Social Responsibility Report (CSR) and this will have a
positive impact on the views of potential clients and investors. A
variety of studies have shown that companies with a clearly defined
and proactive Corporate Responsibility policy (which encompasses
equality and diversity) financially out perform those that do
- The law allows an employee or potential employee to sue for
loss of earnings if they cannot fill a role because the systems are
inaccessible. So far there has not been a court case in the UK but
there have been several out of court settlements. The settlements
have been six figures and I am confident that such settlements will
become more common.
- If an employee does sue, the cost is not just the settlement
but the company will also be required to fix the accessibility
issues. The cost of retrofitting the solution is inevitably much
higher than building it in early.
- Finally there is a reputational risk for a company that has
blatantly failed to implement accessible systems.
Given the above I feel that the case for building accessibility
into new systems is overwhelming.
The case for retrofitting accessibility into existing systems is
much harder because the cost is high. Companies should reduce their
risk by understanding the state of existing systems and have a plan
for improving them over time. It sends out an important message to
staff that accessibility and their wellbeing are treated seriously.
It also acts as an ‘insurance policy’—you will be
looked on more favourably because you have been proactive.