The eternal question of cost

At European level, there is an ongoing discussion about yet another accessibility legislation, that would include the private sector, called the European Accessibility Act. To spread awareness of accessibility, the European Commission arranged a two-day conference in Brussels, February 2-3.

Susanna Laurin

Title: Chief Research and Innovation Officer

The event was not aimed to discuss the law itself, this was made clear in the introduction. Instead, the goal was to present different perspectives and to learn from each other. But, of course, the proposed legislation was the elephant in the room. Opinions differ, as usual.

The participants were representatives from different Member States, Members of the European Parliament and Commissioners, as well as key policymakers from the United States and Canada. User organizations and commercial stakeholders were also invited.

Funka’s assignment this time was to present the business perspective; how accessibility can be a driving force for innovation and the positive opportunities that common accessibility requirements mean for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Users with different abilities showed how important accessibility is in different situations. Many interested speakers shared their research findings, project results and good practice. Judging from reactions, questions and discussions during the days, many participants actually learned something new, which is of course gratifying. It is not always us accessibility geeks reach a new audience.

But is it expensive?

It does not matter how well we and many others argue that accessibility is the right thing, innovative and sexy. The question about money always returns. A law mandating accessibility requirements in a broad perspective is expected to be costly for many, especially smaller companies.

Funka is not a proponent of legislation at any price, because we see negative results of rigid rules in several markets. But it is not the cost, that makes us skeptical. Rather the implementation, since a combination of wise laws and other tools are required for the measures to be successful. That is, however, another discussion, which we have touched upon many times before.

What is being discussed in Brussels right now is how really small companies, so-called micro-enterprises, were to survive if their websites must be accessible. I do not see how the web presence can be the biggest cost for a bakery or a flower shop, so the whole debate seems bit beside the point.

Arguments of balance

Regulations should of course not risk hitting small businesses that are doing the best they can. And there's bureaucracy enough in this world already. So I can somehow understand the spontaneous aversion against new rules.

But sometimes it sounds like the poor entrepreneur would wake up one day and suddenly be forced to million dollar investments. That seems unlikely, given the long transition periods the introduction of new legislation usually have in this area. Exceptions to avoid unreasonable burden will most certainly be included and a gradual improvement while making other updates and re-design should be neither particularly expensive or impossible, considering how the technology continues to get better and better from an accessibility perspective.

I also believe that technology development when it comes to accessibility will go faster now than before. When the European procurement directive starts having an impact, it will mean that the ICT industry will learn to develop accessible systems. Not because the suppliers have a legal obligation themselves, but because purchasers need to meet the requirements of the procurement law. From the suppliers' perspective, it is therefore demand that drives the improvement. It would be expensive - and stupid - to keep both the accessible version for public sector, and a non-accessible version for other clients. In the long term I am sure it will be more easy to choose an accessible solution.

Most of the really small companies probably don’t have their own ICT department. They might use free tools and / or small suppliers for their website. Here, there is obviously a gap: although the big players selling to the public sector offers accessible solutions, this does not have to be the case with open source solutions or the "Local web shop". But until now, the smaller players have often been in the forefront in terms of simplicity and ease of use. If and when it becomes main stream to provide basic accessibility, it should spread quite easily. Just look at how attitudes have changed regarding environmental or gender issues. Even players who are not covered by legislation will be influenced by the norms of society at large.

The alternative costs more

The exact cost of accessibility is difficult to calculate. Many, including ourselves, have tried, but none have really succeeded in producing compelling numbers. That is partly because it is difficult to distinguish between the work on accessibility and other parts of development.

But the opposite perspective also lacks exact numbers. What does it cost not to do anything? Letting parts of the population remain outside of social life, offering special solutions for each group or relying on relatives to line up to help? It would be interesting to look at the alternative cost, from the economic perspective. Proof of individuals who are paying a high price for inaccessibility is clearly shown to us everyday.

I hope that more people start to consider accessibility as an obvious competitive advantage. Then we can all look forward to good and creative solutions. And there will no longer be a need to focus on the price.

The European Commission’s conference on accessibility, opens in a new window

NGOs warn against diluted disability law, opens in new window

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