By Scott Smith, Invisible Fist

Before diving too deeply into this discussion about the need for an accessible content strategy, I have a confession to make. I have never worked on a project in which content accessibility was included in the requirements. You may think that makes me a little bit like those characters played by Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara in the movie “Waiting for Guffman”; that owned a travel agency, but had never left the town in which they were born.

I like to think my case is a little different. I have a background in content management, and my minor in my graduate program is in special education. Thus, I tend to look at everything through a content-accessibility prism. In my studies, I became acquainted with an educational framework known and as the Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which provides guidelines for delivering learning content to the greatest possible number of users. UDL guidelines are based on the principles of universal design, which has its roots in the field of architecture. Sometime ago, I began to think of applications of universal design principles in the management and delivery of content for all organizational contexts.

Despite my best accessibility lobbying efforts, my project teams historically have deferred decisions about accessibility to future phases. There is a cost to delaying the accessibility discussion. As is the case with physical buildings, it is expensive to create content, then “retrofit” it for accessibility later. It makes more sense to design it (the building, or the content) from the beginning such that it benefits all users. This is the key premise behind Universal Design movement in the field of architecture (and later product design).

Due to my lack of success in “making the sale” for accessibility in my previous projects, it’s obvious that I need to begin making a better business case. Equally important: I need to ensure discussions about the accessibility are far-removed from the elevated tensions that are associated with a content management project.

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Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals.

I am not going to lecture you on “how” to develop an ‘accessible content strategy’. My only advice on this front is that you not get too tangled up in specific guidelines (Section 508, or the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)) in the early conversations. This will likely confuse, or agitate, many of your stakeholders. Start with discussions about your organization’s goals; your tactical decisions can come later.

The balance of this article is focused on the “why” of accessibility. That is, why you, or your clients, should bother with an accessible-content strategy. We’ll begin with the sticks (Laws and Lawsuits) followed by some carrots (Money on the Table).

Laws and Lawsuits

If you already have an accessibility plan in place, then it’s possible that there is some level of legal compulsion behind it. For example, you may be required to be 508-compliant because you are doing work for a US government agency. There are some organizations that have developed a content-accessibility framework even though they are not bound by any legal guidelines. However, these instances seem to be few and far between.

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Target lost a civil suit against the National Federation for the Blind and was forced to pay $6 million in fines

I think a key driver toward accessible content will be legal decisions like this. In summary: Target lost a civil suit against the National Federation for the Blind and was forced to pay $6 million in fines and was ordered to adhere to federal accessibility guidelines. Other lawsuits (with other disability organizations as plaintiffs, other corporations as defendants) seem likely. It’s a safe bet that organizations will suddenly find time and money to make content accessible rather than be compelled to write a check for $6 million (plus legal costs and diminished reputation….).

While government mandates, and avoidance of a legal settlement will certainly lead many organizations on the path toward accessibility, there are many carrots to go along with these sticks:

  • Accessibility makes business sense
  • With your current practices accessibility might be closer than you realize
  • Digital technologies facilitate the delivery of accessible content

Are you Leaving Money on the Table?

An accessible content strategy is commercially prudent. The purchasing power of users with disabilities, a vastly under-served market, is described on the Americans with Disabilities site. Here are some key figures (remember, this is the US alone):

  • 51.2 million consumers….packing $175 billion in their wallets
  • An additional $13.6 billion spent by consumers with disabilities, who are visiting the US from another country


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The number of consumers with visual, auditory, mobility and cognitive impairments will continue to grow as the population ages

These figures don’t even begin to address what’s ahead with the aging of the US population: think Baby Boomers. The number of consumers with visual, auditory, mobility and cognitive impairments will continue to grow as the population ages; businesses would do well to have a strategy to better serve this market:

  • In the US alone, there are 78 million of these ‘Boomers’; over 1/4 of the US population
  • In 2010, their ages ranges are from 46 to 64 (that is a lot of progressive lenses)
  • Over $2 Trillion in buying power
  • Many of this group’s members have been consuming digital content for well over 10 years and frequently make purchases through e-commerce sites


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a few billion dollars here, a few trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money

And these numbers above don’t even include some other key markets: consumers over 65 and consumers whose native language is something other than English.

As the saying goes: a few billion dollars here, a few trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money. The winners will be the commercial organizations that can best provide accessibility support to these consumers.

You Know More Than You Think You Do

You may recognize the section heading as a line from the famous pediatrician (and Olympic Gold Medalist) Benjamin Spock. “You know more than think you do” was Dr. Spock’s message to first-time mothers to trust their own commonsense in raising their children. Likewise, you (as writers, content managers, translators, site builders…) know more than you think you do about accessible content, so trust yourselves.

Many of your current strategies for: search engine optimization, interoperability, language translations, browser compatibility, etc. will also help facilitate content accessibility. The Web Accessibility Initiative site provides an excellent discussion primer on some of these factors in its Web accessibility business case.

Keeping It Real

With the burgeoning number of computing devices and software solutions, it is easier than ever before to deliver single-sourced content such that it is accessible, consumable and actionable by as many users as possible.

Note, that I used the word “easier” in the preceding paragraph. Let me be abundantly clear: implementation of your accessible content strategy where none has existed before will not be easy. And yes, there is a cost to organizational training, or hiring consultants. However, you should recall, and constantly remind your project stakeholders/sponsors, that the total buying power of these under-served markets is in the trillions of dollars (your starting to talk about real money).

Or let’s put it this way: if they can’t read your site, are you confident that they will buy your stuff?

Learn more: Web Accessibility Initiative Business Case

About the Author

Scott Smith offers 20 years of experience in the creation and delivery of content. His professional service includes production-team leadership, web consulting and management of digital assets of all forms. He has experience in publishing, advertising, information technology, web consulting, K-16 education and biotechnology.

Scott is currently working on his capstone project in fulfillment of his master’s degree in educational technology at Western Michigan University. The project will involve the design of a learning-management solution to facilitate the creation and delivery of accessible content for educational and commercial contexts.

You can learn more about Scott, here.