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closeup of calculator and pen over a budget report - considering ADA compliance costs

Budgeting for Web Accessibility: The Process and Costs of ADA Compliance

David Gibson

As we head into budget season for 2024, I want to share thoughts on the value of web accessibility and then provide pragmatic guidance on best practices and associated costs with getting your website, mobile app, or SaaS compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a growing number of state and even municipal laws that require organizations to ensure their digital properties are accessible to seniors and people with disabilities. 

And in case you may be assuming your website is already compliant, a whopping 96.8% of the top million websites recently failed an accessibility audit by Utah State University’s Web AIM Million project. So, don’t assume you're in the clear.

Note, that everything I share is applicable to not just websites, but also mobile apps, website widgets, and SaaS applications. But for ease of writing, I’ll refer to all as web accessibility. 


Why Web Accessibility and ADA Compliance Are Important


Morality & DEI : Walking the Walk

The number one reason to invest in web accessibility is because it's the right thing to do. Making your website accessible respects the dignity, equality, and inclusion of everyone, including people with disabilities and seniors. This aligns with broader goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), which can be a significant draw for modern customers and employees.. or potential employees alike.

Enhancing User Experience

When your site is accessible, it's usable by everyone. Better readability, easier navigation, and a more intuitive interface create a better user experience for all.

The SEO Boost

Web accessibility also improves your SEO. Simple changes, like adding alt text to images and clear headers, can make your content more understandable for both search engines and users. This is crucial for increasing your website's visibility and attracting a wider audience.

The Boomer Factor: Our First Digital Seniors (with deep rockets)

As you consider web accessibility, remember that the senior market is growing and increasingly digitally savvy. Not too many realize this point. The 71 million Baby Boomers in the U.S. hold a whopping $548 billion in discretionary spending. As the first generation of 'digital seniors,' they're more than willing to spend online, provided the experience is user-friendly.

Legal Safeguards

In the U.S., web accessibility is not just governed by the ADA. Various states have also passed laws, making it even more essential to ensure your website is accessible. For instance, New York and California have stringent regulations, and not complying could lead to state-level penalties. In New York this year, as federal judges clamp down on serial filers, such filers are shifting toward state courts.

ADA compliance isn't just good practice; it's the law. The U.S. Department of Justice interprets websites as places of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA. This makes web accessibility a legal obligation, not an option. Failing to meet these standards could expose your business to lawsuits, fines, and reputational damage.

New: AIO - Artificial Intelligence Optimization (updated Oct 2023)

This is a new concept that finds that there are types of barriers that are common between AI bots that scan websites, and assistive technologies such as screen readers used by people with disabilities. And the common solution to both is WCAG compliance. Learn more about AIO and how to optimize your website for AI bots, and also how AIO can now add additional value to WCAG conformity.


The Process of Achieving WCAC & ADA Website Compliance


What is WCAG?

When we talk about web accessibility, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the gold standard. Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), these guidelines offer multiple levels of accessibility standards: A, AA, and AAA. This is the international standard. And here in the US, it is the definitive standard for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (.gov) and through court precedent, it has become the de facto standard for the ADA as well as other state and even municipal laws governing digital accessibility.

AI and Automated Software Testing is VERY Limited Still

What’s important is to be very clear that AI is not effective yet. Those touting AI tend to be public companies that are not yet using generative AI, and are only interested in scale - for which human testing does not work. So in today’s world, even the best automated testing tools can only detect roughly 30% of WCAG issues, and that’s not enough.

The WCAG is also fairly nuanced and interpretive. This is an additional reason why only experienced qualified human testers can accurately test a website for WCAG compliance.

Redesign vs. Remediation : Picking Your Path

First things first, how old is your website? If it's been around for more than four years, it's probably time for a refresh. This is the perfect opportunity to overhaul the site for ADA compliance, SEO optimization, and to leverage new techniques for mobile responsiveness. Expect an additional 10%-20% on top of typical web design costs for an accessible site.

Remediation: Our Process for Achieving ADA Website Compliance

Every team will have their own process. At Accessibility.Works, we leverage the experience of a team of accessibility consultants made up of only senior members. No interns. No juniors. No outsourcing abroad. Everyone is credentialed with over 19 years in digital accessibility. Our team lead is even on the WCAG 2.2 and 3.0 teams developing the next sets of standards.

So we follow best practices that recognize the limitations of automated WCAG testing tools and augment those gaps with qualified human testing.

Phase 1: Comprehensive Audit

Our initial phase involves a thorough manual audit conducted by expert auditors with a minimum of 19 years of experience in the field of digital accessibility. This human-centric approach is paramount because automated tools can typically identify only about 30% of potential accessibility issues. The manual audit allows for nuanced detection of issues that machines simply can't capture.

The process begins with assessing the site and identifying the “unique pages” of the site. Here, we’re looking for unique page templates and components/widgets found within such templated pages. This provides a representative sample of the entire site, on which we apply human testing.

Automated testing of the entire site
Great for catching the low-hanging fruit, these tools can spot around 30% of issues. But they're just the first step.

Manual testing of unique pages
Seasoned human testers can catch the nuanced issues an automated tool would overlook. But expertise doesn't come cheap. You're looking at several hours of work per unique page.

Assistive technology testing of unique pages
This is really essential. Most lawsuits will cite a blind user using a screen reader. And ultimately this is the key test of any website.

For cost conscious clients, we reduce the scope and cost by reducing the number of unique pages that we conduct human testing on.

Phase 2: Detailed Findings and Remediation Guidance Report

Following the audit, we compile an exhaustive report outlining the identified issues in detail. This report functions as more than just a list; it serves as a training document that provides technical guidance for how to solve for each and every issue found. 

Phase 3: Collaborative Remediation

We understand that ADA compliance is a collaborative endeavor, which is why we don't merely hand off the findings report and end our involvement. Our team remains engaged, serving as technical consultants to your developers throughout the remediation process. Should questions or complications arise, our auditors are readily available for clarification.

Phase 4: Quality Assurance Verification Audit

Once the remedial measures have been implemented, we conduct a second round of manual audits to validate the effectiveness of the changes. This step ensures the highest level of compliance and minimizes the likelihood of human error during the remediation process.

Once complete, we can author a VPAT is required

Phase 5: Ongoing Maintenance and Consultation Services

Compliance with ADA standards is not a static achievement but an ongoing responsibility. As your website evolves, new content is added and updates occur that can affect compliance. We can provide continuous monitoring services, periodic re-audits, and staff training to ensure that your website remains compliant over time.


The Cost of Website Accessibility and WCAG Compliance


The Hefty Price of Ignoring Web Accessibility

If you haven't received a demand letter or been slapped with a lawsuit yet, count yourself lucky. But how lucky are you feeling? Legal costs are just the tip of the iceberg. Your brand could take a substantial hit, and PR clean-up isn't cheap.

Navigating an ADA lawsuit for a non-compliant website can be a financially draining and reputation-damaging experience for any business. While the exact costs can vary widely based on various factors, here's a breakdown of some of the most common expenses you might face:

Legal Fees
Legal fees are often the first and most obvious cost. These can start accumulating right from the moment you seek legal counsel. The complexities of ADA law mean that specialized expertise is usually required, which doesn't come cheap.

Settlement Costs
Almost all companies opt to settle out of court to save on legal costs and mitigate reputational damage. Settlement amounts vary widely. Small businesses may be able to negotiate down to as low as $5K. Many small to mid sized companies end up landing in the $10-$20K zone. Larger companies and known brands can hit 6 figures. And remember, a settlement doesn't absolve you from making your website compliant. You'll still need to invest in that.

Remediation Costs
Win or lose, you'll have to invest in making your website ADA compliant post-litigation. Here, the plaintiff’s attorney will determine how your site is to be audited, remediated and then verified. Here, they have the control and you’ll have to pay. 

Reputational Damage
In a time when DEI is important to both employees and customers, being labeled as discriminating against seniors and people with disabilities can leave a tough stain to remove. ADA lawsuits are often publicized, and the negative publicity could lead to loss of customer trust and potential business opportunities. 

Operational Disruptions
Litigation is time-consuming and can divert critical resources from your business operations. The man-hours spent in legal consultations, court appearances, and internal meetings can add up quickly.

Ongoing Compliance
Once your website is compliant, maintaining this status is an ongoing process. Expect to budget for regular audits, updates, and possibly additional staff training to keep your website ADA compliant. Again, the plaintiff’s attorneys will determine this. Not you.

Indirect Costs
There are also a variety of indirect costs, such as higher insurance premiums and possibly even loss of business partnerships or contracts, especially if ADA compliance is a stipulation.

Given the steep costs associated with ADA lawsuits, both tangible and intangible, investing in proactive compliance is not just a legal and ethical imperative but also a sound business strategy.


The Cost of WCAG Compliance Auditing an Existing Web Site

Compared to reactive costs of a lawsuit, being proactive will reduce your cost and allow you to maintain control of the process. There are different approaches to take and I find that it eventually comes down to finding the right balance between the value the organization places on inclusion, the level of legal risk tolerance, and the practical resources available. 

For a larger organization with a firm commitment to digital inclusion and resources to back it up, the path would be a full comprehensive audit. This would include automate testing of the entire site, plus manual and assistive tech testing by a qualified human auditor. The cost is based largely on the number and complexity of the “unique pages” of the site. 

  • Small Wordpress marketing or info site : $8-15K
  • Standard Shopify ecommerce website : $18-30K
  • Complex or custom ecommerce site : $35+
  • Enterprise ecommerce $$$

How to Reduce The Cost of Human WCAG Testing

Be selective about which pages to audit. Many pages will share the same elements, and you can cut down costs by focusing on the “key pages”. A bit of homework can slash your budget in half and get down into the $5-10K zone. In a proactive situation, this is a very pragmatic approach. You will get the value of having the entire scanned by software, and still get the most valuable input on your core pages. And in most cases, the results found can be extrapolated and applied throughout the rest of the site. 

We simply recommend spending what you can in the first year, and then budget accordingly in the next. But at least do a keypage audit to vastly reduce any risk of a lawsuit.

The Cost of Remediation

This cost cannot be known until the audit is conducted. That said, it will be important to line up significant team resources to engage in this project as soon as the audit is complete. You do not want to let that report collect dust because the longer it takes, the more the website will change.


Beware of Snake Oil: AI Overlay Widgets

Naturally, there is great demand for a quick and inexpensive solution. And even if one doesn't exist, that won't stop some from claiming such. Avoid what are known as "overlay solutions, toolbars, or widgets". These providers claim to make your website 100% ADA compliant overnight using their favorite buzzword: artificial intelligence. They use javascript to inject corrective code over the existing code - hence "overlay". However, since even the best automated tools can only detect 30% of WCAG issues, their claims are flatly false. Often the overlay itself introduces new barriers as well. Probably most frustrating for actual users, is that they typically hinder the user’s native screen reader, and force the adoption of theirs, which in and of itself is a barrier and less capable of their own native tools.

Not only do they fail to provide adequate accessibility access or tools for people with disabilities, they also fail to provide legal protection - regardless of their claims of guarantees.

In practice websites that use overlays are getting specifically targeted. Since overlays cannot correct the underlying code, and provide only a leaky bandaid, trolling lawyers know they are not compliant and are now targeting these sites. More details on why overlay solutions fail and increase legal risk with links to supporting articles.


Wrapping It Up

As you plan out your budget for 2024, ensuring your website is ADA compliant and meets WCAG guidelines should be a top priority. The benefits stretch from ethical considerations to business advantages like increased audience reach, SEO ranking, and legal protection.

By focusing on web accessibility now, you're not just avoiding future headaches; you're proactively setting your business up for broader success. Remember, it's not just about dodging legal bullets; it's about inclusivity, which is a win-win for everyone involved.