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A little bit of background (feel free to skip):

There are a lot of government regulations being put in place to prevent issues with website accessibility under various anti-discrimination acts in the US, Australia, UK and other countries around the world. To put laws in place to prevent discrimination creates a type cost for companies if people sue them for not being able to access the information easily, and that has been the reason why some government agencies in certain countries are making an effort to comply with WCAG. However, this type of incentive leads to websites that aim to comply with the standard, and not delivering the best user experience possible.

Having multiple sensory input available makes it much easier or faster for us to perceive or interact with both the digital and physical world, as there are either redundancies or synergies with being able to perceive more than one sensory cue. Take away the ability to perceive by sight, sound, touch, etc. and you have to develop more acuity in that sensory perception to compensate for the loss of one or more of the others.

Looking at how accessibility is provided in the physical world for a moment, and see how it compares to the digital world. Take a university campus for example, there are access to different buildings in the campus, access into buildings to consider, and access within the confines of the building as well. Access to different parts of the campus and different areas within the same building are different accessibility problems to access into a building, and so different strategies are employed. Creating a disabled parking spot only reduces the distance to the building, not how easy it is to drive around as a disabled person. The point here is that in the physical world the problem has to be about making a car drivable by a disabled person and not creating more disabled parking, but it doesn't impact on the rest of the campus layout so the impact is less significant.

Entrances to buildings are not a hybrid form of a ramp and staircases, because generally to make ramps accessible for wheelchairs they have to have a low degree of inclination whereas stairs are designed to create a quick way to bridge vertical distances. When there isn't enough physical space to build a ramp with the correct slope then it requires a mechanical device to move the wheelchair. The point here is that in the physical world this does have an impact on how the entrance to the building is designed, and the cost of trying to build it into an existing infrastructure is always more costly.

Some of my thoughts (again feel free to skip):

When weighing up the cost (not just the cost to the company, but also the cost to the user) and benefit of designing an inclusive website that caters for all types of users, is it not better to separately design and build a website that will cater for users with normal access issues? Or should the improvement be made in the screen reader or devices to try and support these types of users? I would definitely love to get an opinion from someone who is a vision or motor-skill impaired designer/user (I wonder how accessible the UX SE site is as well), but short of that I like to see if there are those out there that have extensive experiences with screen readers and accessibility requirements.

My personal theory is that most of the modern day websites have been either too complex (e.g. rich, multi-media), the information architecture almost non-existent or not thought out well, the user of flat-design introduces too many subtle interactions and that we haven't spent nearly enough time or effort investing in technology for vision and motor impaired users.

I am interested in any thoughts from people who had to deal with accessibility issues for compliance reasons, and whether they were able to justify the cost of creating a separate website on the basis of taking too much away from the usability and user experience of an existing website by trying to make it accessible to such users. Perhaps this is why only government websites are creating a mandate for accessibility compliance but the commercial organisations have not made this the same priority.

So the questions is:

Would creating an inclusive website actually take away the full experience from 'normal' users while not creating a website specifically based on the needs of 'disabled' users also reduce their experience using the website? If so then does having just the one website outweigh the benefit of creating a better experience for all users?

Is this the same issue with responsive design seen as a solution to creating a consistent experience, although many companies building mobile-specific websites because they have mobile users with a very different need or behaviour to desktop users?

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    This is like asking whether it's ok to have one website full of spelling mistakes as long as you have another one with content written properly. – JonW Jan 4 '15 at 12:58
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    @JonW This does imply the separate web site will be held to different standard of correctness or features. – paparazzo Jan 4 '15 at 14:18
  • This is more a technology question than UX. The same question could be asked of web site for mobile. If the current web site has options for phone specific controls then one. If you have an older technology then it may be cheaper to have a separate site for mobile. If the current site was not designed for vision or motor impaired it might be cheaper (and better) to build a separate. – paparazzo Jan 4 '15 at 14:46
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    This question feels a bit like a rant. Not entirely. Just a bit. :) – DA01 Jan 5 '15 at 4:20
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    But your edits go both ways. The title is cost to create and first paragraph is about compliance with regulations. Then the second to last paragraph is a question about something different. Then you add in mobile. – paparazzo Jan 7 '15 at 15:35
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Definitely don't create a separate site.

There are three points I think are critical to consider when it comes to inclusive design:

  • Compliance with accessibility guidelines actually improves usability for the non-disabled (by 35% based on this source).
  • Quite a few of the important guidelines also make business sense - either better SEO or a site that is easier to maintain.
  • The most important accessibility features do not affect the non-disabled in anyway.

Examples

  • Web pages shall be properly structured and have a meaningful sequence - this is particularly important to the visually impaired, but obviously helps all other users. Consistent and thoughtful use of heading tags, field legends, etc. makes the site easier to maintain (css changes etc.).
  • Videos should either have captions (subtitles) or a transcript - Improves SEO. Also, I can't count the amount of times I've gone to TED.com to a specific talk I've previously watched just to search the transcript for a phrase of interest.
  • All functionality shall be operable using keyboard - really useful for experts/superusers.
  • Focus order shall correspond to a meaningful sequence - same as above.
  • Appropriately sized click targets - think of Fitts's law + mobile platform.
  • ARIA attributes - these really make you think (as a designer) of the purpose of each element on screen. It's hard to explain, but having to specify these really relates to IA and even inform how well user needs where translated to interface elements.

Issues

Despite the examples above, there are places where making a site accessible does present some issues:

  • Colour is not used as the only visual means of conveying information - the underlined links are out of fashion and add visual noise. There are workarounds (contrast, hover pointer, etc.) but none is ideal.
  • Contrast requirements - these are quite extreme. If I'm not mistaken, the next grey you can use after #000 is #666 - this adds quite a bit of visual noise.
  • Heading requirements - I'm pretty sure I'm yet to find the right way to address these, but sometimes say with master/detail view, headings mean redundant information since the master record is clearly selected on the left (although if one thinks mobile-first, the heading is actually important - the master record may not be in view).

The easiest changes make the biggest difference.

I've heard this quite a bit from accessibility experts - it is the changes that are easiest to implement that make most difference. It's a bit of the 20/80 rule - complying with 20% of the (important) requirement will satisfy 80% of those with disabilities.

The full accessibility guidelines are there for a good reason, but you'll find that in practice some are much more important than others.

For instance, browsers allow increasing the font, and most visually-impaired people have means to set the whole computer screen to high-contrast mode. So making your site complying with these guidelines won't help as many, compared to the knowledge that visually impaired people:

  • Search sites for headings and links.
  • Navigate the structure of your DOM.
  • Would benefit from knowing that navigation elements are such, or that a particular list is 'live' - it may change without page refresh.

Summary

The most beneficial accessibility guidelines benefit everyone. You should not restrict these to a separate site only.

  • This is a really good answer. Regarding your issues, studies have shown underlined links are useful for everyone. Yes, we visual designers tend to dislike it visually, but they really are useful for everyone. I do agree with the contrast requirements being an issue. I think the issue can actually be expressed a bit more broadly: "A lot of accessibility guidelines are a) outdated b) based on automated tests and/or c) lack context sensitivity". That, alas, is more an issue with regulation than the concept of accessibility, but it is frustrating indeed. – DA01 Jan 5 '15 at 4:24
  • I can't help to think there would be situations where trying to be inclusive of all would lead to a site unoptimised for everyone. I certainly agree that inclusive is the way to improve the experience for able and disabled alike. Just that edge cases would degrade the experience – Thurstan May 19 '15 at 5:13
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Yes, the cost of building two web sites is typically higher than building one correctly in the first place.

Would creating an inclusive website actually take away the full experience from 'normal' users while not creating a website specifically based on the needs of 'disabled' users?

First of all, accessibility isn't about 'normal' vs. 'disabled' people. Accessibility is about accommodating as many people on as many devices with as many preferences as possible.

To go back to your physical analogy of the ramp vs. stairs. Remember, a ramp isn't just for someone in a wheelchair. It's for a parent with a stroller. A delivery person with a cart. A tourist with rolling luggage. A young child with short legs. A kid on inline skates. And older person with a cane. It helps everyone.

And, when planned for ahead of time doesn't really cost anything more. (There's been quite a few studies on this. Here's one.)

In the physical world, accessible design (often called universal design) is often just plain better design for all.

Same can be said for web sites.

If so then does having just the one website outweigh the benefit of creating a better experience for all users?

Define 'better'. Rarely does accommodating accessibility best practices become a detriment to anyone else. There are exceptions, but I've never run across an exception that warranted the production of two separate web sites.

Is this the same issue with responsive design seen as a solution to creating a consistent experience, although many companies building mobile-specific websites because they have mobile users with a very different need or behaviour to desktop users?

In that it typically just makes plain sense to build one application vs. two, I suppose one could make a parallel to responsive web design. It's about putting all the budget and effort into one project to accommodate a wide range of users rather than having to double budgets and efforts to build two entirely different code bases to accommodate the same range of users.

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    +1 for comment on accessibility - It is a case of considering all users and being inclusive, especially your comment about a parent with a stroller, users circumstances change - buy new computers, decide to use a tablet or even break their arm. – 80gm2 Jan 5 '15 at 14:35
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Separate is not equal

It would be better to build a fully inclusive website, by suggesting a separate site that caters for accessibility issues for compliance makes the people who own the website sound like it is not an important issue and actually marginalising those people.

Some key reasons why you should have only one website:

  • You have a user that visits your site everyday, one morning they break their glasses or even their mouse and realise they cannot use the site as they normally would. They end up on a site especially built for accessibility, it looks and feels different and they cannot make head nor tail of it. How does this user feel?
  • You end up having two websites to maintain, which means you need to ensure that each one has the exact same content.Two years down the line you have increased your regular content ten fold, you now need to do this for two sites, which is going to cost you development resource.

There are so many ways to make a beautiful and usable website for users without accessibility differences to fully enjoy and at the same time cater for those who need information presented a little differently. The time and effort you would put into making a second website, would more than likely equal if not be more work than really thinking about the design of a single site. Below I have provided some links to resources which help with what you are talking about, the key is how can you hide accessibility features to your unrestricted users, yet make the site fluid for a user with restrictions.

As a conclusion, I feel it is important to note that the use of the word compliance in your question is essential to the answer. Compliance does not always mean you want to do something or find it important, however there is a reason that these laws are in place. If I were building a hospital I would not build two of them, one for wheelchair users and one for people able to walk, you would provide another door with a ramp. Finally -

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. - Tim Berners-Lee

Accessibility understanding

Accessibility policies and standards - Myths

Text only websites - Don't provide one

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    I don't agree that separate is not equal. On the wheelchair example. I may build a separate entrance for wheelchair. Does not mean the entrance is not equal. Some times it is easier and better to build separate than adapt existing. Does not mean the entrance is not equal. The main entrance may have a number of stairs. The separate entrance might be selected for less elevation gain and actually be a better. – paparazzo Jan 4 '15 at 14:42
  • In this case the point of separate is not equal is appropriate. The analogy is there as an example not a literal case. Having two separate websites can highlight differences, the ideal position is to be inclusive of everybody, and the point being if you have good developers and designers then making your main site accessible is more cost and time effective than a separate one. – 80gm2 Jan 4 '15 at 14:55
  • It does not matter if you have good developers or bad developers if you have a site with older technology that does not adapt then a separate site might be cheaper. It could be a pure compliance thing and they don't want to spend the money to upgrade to one main site that does both. – paparazzo Jan 4 '15 at 15:32
  • It is less work to change to one site than to produce another. The point is everyone should be able to go to a site and use it regardless. It would use more development resource to create a second site which is more cost. – 80gm2 Jan 4 '15 at 15:39
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    @Blam as an aside, in the US the concept of 'separate but equal' has strong historic and social baggage with it: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separate_but_equal While it doesn't translate exactly, many would argue that separate entrances for different people is not equal. – DA01 Jan 5 '15 at 4:26

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