What Does a Venture Capitalist Know about Web Accessibility Anyway?

Earlier today I responded to a private Linked-In discussion thread posted by Eric Velleman. The context of the discussion involved the need of legal mandates to enforce web accessibility. In turn, this led to a discussion involving the ROI of web accessibility. Following were (and still are!) my brief thoughts on this topic:

A venture capital friend of mind once said, “To build a successful business you need one of two things: 1) A brilliant, paradigm shifting, mind blowing product (i.e., iPad/iPhone, Google, Facebook) or 2) A law that makes your business mandatory.”

To a limited degree the accessibility business has achieved #2 — we have laws, mostly procurement laws — that require accessibility. Unfortunately, enforcement is only taken seriously by the minority. Law suits by various disability constituency organizations are an extension of the law — but they also create a fear-based model of compliance. And, as Jonathan Hassell notes in his blogs, neither generates a business value proposition for most (if not all) commercial and government entities.

Jonathan also makes a great point about the lack of data and statistics that drill into disability usage. We also lack the architecture at the API and DOM levels that could feed the SEO data to the source such that AT usage is perceived. The moment a web property — site, service, or application — attempts to elicit personal data, even something as simple as the AT-type, concerns involving privacy and self-identification are raised.

Please be sure to read Jonathan’s blogs on web accessibility:

Recent vendor information I’ve read indicates that less than 3% of all people with visual disabilities have screen magnifiers and/or screen reader technology at all. Without AT that connects to an internet user agent, how will these folks interact with a web site? If they don’t interact with a web site to buy products, make travel/hotel reservations, perform bank transactions, and/or access government services, why would a business or government accommodate them? Businesses cater to sales, revenues, and profits.

Accessibility — optimized at any level — provides no solution involving these concerns. That is, we can make a site accessible and usable but that doesn’t guarantee that users (consumers) will come. It means that some users will come (i.e., those that have AT that is compatible with the web). But those users are so few in comparison to other internet demographics that they are hardly compelling enough to move a business to accommodate the consumer with a disability. It’s certainly not compelling enough to suggest that a business will change priorities.

Make no mistake about it colleagues — if we don’t make changes — of the paradigm shifting magnitude — I predict that 80% or better of individuals with ALL disabilities will be locked out of what is today an internet/digital driven society. And if that happens, you and I are to blame. Especially me — us — TPG.

Am I off base? Let me know.

– Mike

Categories: Development


Rob Yonaitis says:


I think you are on target here, as related to the product side of the house. It is not that we have to have a great product but that we have a product that is built to solve the problem. Personally, I am usually cautious at what VC’s say. Many people said open source was not possible as a business model and I think many people would agree that it is – hindsight and all. I think Facebook is a good example of having an Idea and then be willing to listen and be responsive to users versus listening solely to VC’s or Developers. If you do not have a good VC they will steer you in the direction that makes the most sense for them versus the product or company. A11y is a great space for a white knight to invest in versus traditional VC.

As for the A11y community, it can benefit from “telling” their solution providers what they need and then these solution providers need to have the Paradigm shift. It is important to allow for the idea that technology can be a “major part” of any solution and a part of the “way forward.”

If people were convinced that communication via a Facebook page was not “good enough or complete enough” then Facebook would not be a win for the users and “soon” shareholders. The fact is that it is incomplete but adds so much. We need to look at a11y technology in the same light.

Now if we consider the iPad or iPhone as appliances we should also be looking for an a11y appliance, virtualized desktop applications and/or SaaS solutions that everyone from consultants to organizations can use as “part” of their overall solution. I believe the way forward can be helped if every a11y expert starts thinking the following daily: “I need to make myself unnecessary, how can I accomplish this?: We can get there if everyone works together.


Kelly Ford says:

I’d love to hear more about the 3% stat you reference. Is that 3% of the people with a visual disability on the planet, independent of whether they have access to the underlying technology that would allow for internet connectivity and potential to use assistive technology? I ask because part of the stat that is interesting is what percent of the population you reference, even if you take out the visual disability factor, lacks access to the internet. Conversely, assuming nothing, aside from the lack of the assistive technology, is blocking access to the web for the population with visual disabilities, what percent falls into the no assistive technology category.

These questions are not meant to take away from your basic point? But it is an interesting question to ask about when internet connectivity becomes available, does the related assistive technology support come along or is there a long gap before such support becomes available. My own opinion is that things are more in the second category but I have no data to support this.

Hi Kelly –

Thanks for asking. The statistic I reference above was described to me as being ‘based on the installed-base AT sales vs the commonly known population demographics for blind and low vision users.’ These sales were primarily USA based statistics.

cjagers says:

The best way to prepare for the unknown future is to do the right thing. Making your stuff accessible is the right thing to do. And why not do it? It is a little extra work, but the potential payoff (social and financial) is huge.

In principal you’re right; practically speaking however, “doing the right thing” isn’t enough to move businesses to prioritize accessibility. Certainly not in ways that generate revenue, profits and significant growth. In contrast, accessibility is often viewed as a cost of doing business. It’s driven by compliance mandates, standards and guidelines. All of these are good, necessary things. But in uncertain economic times, accessibility is not viewed as a revenue/profit market driver.

It’s important that my comments not be misinterpreted. TPG’s entire business is driven by ‘doing the right thing”! But that’s because accessibility, specifically web and software accessibility, is our business. It’s our only business; it’s the only thing we care about – no doubt, the same way you and many of our colleagues feel.

However, something more than our passion and conviction are needed….

Stomme poes says:

The 3% gave me a little start. Jonathan is totally right:

As developers, we are HUNGRY for statistics. We need them. Businesses demand them, and it seems they can get them *for practically any other metric*. The web today knows the colour of your underwear, your age, occupation, race, where you shop, what you buy, what you like, who your friends are… (hell Target knows when you’re pregnant), and of course it knows your IP, browser, OS, language, even what plugins are on your browser sometimes.

Seriously, we can find out if someone’s pregnant, looking for a house, getting divorced, has kids and what school district they’re in… but no freaking clue if they have a disability and encounter trouble visiting our web sites??? No idea whether they ARE, in fact, real customers? Potential customers turned away by simple bad code? (You also get this a lot: “people using IE don’t visit our site according to our statistics”… when you look, it’s obvious: the site doesn’t work in IE at all, so why would you get many hits there??)

Without statistics and information, we just make few claims, poor decisions, and bad laws. I’ve even heard the topic of accessibility referred to as “oh yeah, we need some alt stuff for that hypothetical blind man.” Well, we (developers trying to convince clients of a11y benefits) are tired of Hypothetical Blind Man. For many clients, they never knew product or service X was patronised by (set disability here) and it’s easy to find a kind of disbelief (“wait, what do you mean they use YouTube? But those are movies, not text”). We need numbers, absolutely.

I’m normally very privacy-centric, but since that seems a lost cause anyway… let’s at least get something good out of it.

Thomas says:

I try to push “doing things right” more than “doing the right thing”.

The latter is moral and true but the former comes closer to a business need. Proper web development follows web standards and is more future-proof for the fact that it does not rely on browser hacks and, in modern browsers anyhow, is far more consistently displayed. It also anticipates the unknown.

Mobile is the big buzz right now and semantic code is going to get one a lot closer to a responsive design than tag soup will. It’s also going to provide more information to any new technology that comes along, such as Siri.

Imagine Siri trying to make sense of a page consisting of mostly tables (for layout) and divs. Gibberish. A semantically coded page is ready to be parsed by computers with meaning around more of the content. ARIA attributes could supply significantly more information to a computer without cluttering the code or display.

Siri is today, though. What will it be tomorrow? Nobody knows so you better be ready for it.

I know semantic code alone doesn’t equal 100% accessible but it gets us a longer way there. I think once that beast is tackled getting the rest of the way there will be a lot easier.

Ade says:

It would help enormously if clients and stakeholders didn’t need statistical proof. It shouldn’t be a prerequisite for designing websites that work for as many people as possible. Maybe I still have this rose-tinted idea that the web was meant to be for everyone.
Unfortunately, I know that it’s not easy if people still hold the wrong attitudes and preconceptions, and that isn’t going to change overnight or in response to pushing accessibility. No-one ever ate broccoli because their mother told them to.
I don’t think that there is any quick or easy answer to persuading people round to our way of thinking, although it doesn’t help that so many people to whom I talk say that they don’t know anyone with a disability. So to them, the issue is more theoretical than perceivable.
It’s not unique to non-web people, though: if more developers worked with accessibility in mind, and promoted it, that may help to improve the perceptions of people outside of this industry.

If that 3% is the installed AT base for the selected population, I wonder if it needs to be adjusted to account for those who use the accessibility features that are already built into their selected operating systems and applications? It would also be interesting to learn if the 3% considered NVDA and other General Public License and Open Source assistive technologies.

Sorry for being a tad slow in my reply. Wow is it busy since CSUN! You said,

It would help enormously if clients and stakeholders didn’t need statistical proof. It shouldn’t be a prerequisite for designing websites that work for as many people as possible.”

Unfortunately, businesses don’t work that way. Revenue and profit are driven by marketing and sales statistics. Usability, user experience, and accessibility designers within these organizations are ‘fighting the good fight’ so to speak, but in the eyes of C-level folks, they are voices in the wind.

My comments may come across cynical, but they are based on years of experience. Business is in the business of making money. This is why for the past 10 years I’ve continued to harp on the central theme. “Create a real business value proposition”.

That means we have to show how the accessibility market translates into new, unperceived revenue directly to those businesses. That revenue needs to create a strong market indicator — one that moves a business to replace one market driver in it’s current list with accessibility because the argument not to is unassailable.

I am grateful for the incredible effort and work performed by so many of our colleagues, worldwide. I’d like to see a real story that demonstrates how X company enhanced it’s web property and, as a result, they turned in 100 million+ in new revenue. Not anecdotal revenue….cold, hard cash revenue! Then let’s see how many businesses and organizations make accessibility a priority….

Good point Chuck. While I believe there is some notion of legitimacy to that figure, I believe it’s closer to 10% or slightly more. This particularly statistic represents the installed base of propriety applications that are primarily Windows based. So it does not include the Mac or Linux platforms.

Ade says:

Oh, I know that businesses do not work that way. Though that does not stop me from wishing that they would learn to accommodate people, and believing that they can. Some enlightened companies realise this. But that would matter less if many more developers took some responsibility by routinely using good practices.

I would not say that your view is cynical, Mike. We all encounter scepticism sometimes. But from my own viewpoint, if someone wants to hire an accessibility-orientated developer, they are already some way towards being convinced. That is why I argue that a wider change in perception would be so much more effective, if it can be achieved, than individual businesses convincing other individual businesses one at a time.

Agreed! A bottom’s up, inside-out approach is always the best approach. What we need is entire system of change, starting with education institutions teaching accessible design, human centered design that includes user experience and usability involving people with disabilities, assistive technology and interoperability with other software architectures and….well you get the point!