Most organizations struggle to achieve and sustain digital accessibility. In fact, 97% of the top million home pages contain accessibility issues that can be easily found using free tools. Even teams that invest in and prioritize digital accessibility often have a difficult time making real progress. What’s happening?

Many of them are caught in a frustrating “break/fix” cycle: a never-ending battle that continues to produce accessibility barriers, no matter how much time and money teams sink into remediation. In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into the problematic break/fix approach to accessibility, its causes and costs, and the potential solutions.

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What is the break/fix cycle?

The break/fix cycle is what happens when organizations audit digital experiences for errors after they’ve been developed, then work backwards to implement fixes to code-related bugs. Accessibility is treated as an afterthought—rather than embedded into the digital experience creation life cycle. Because of this, new accessibility issues emerge as code is deployed, or content is released. Let’s explore exactly how this faulty, but all-too-common, process unfolds over time. In general, the break/fix cycle for accessibility goes something like this:

  1. An organization decides to prioritize digital accessibility. Generally, this happens in reaction to an external event—either a lawsuit or a threat to sales.
  2. A team requests an accessibility audit of an entire digital property, obtaining a report that details hundreds—if not thousands —of issues across that digital property.
  3. Developers are tasked with fixing all critical bugs.
  4. Development teams work overtime to try to address the audit’s findings. As a result, the product roadmap gets derailed and new features slip.
  5. A year passes. Numerous changes that don’t account for accessibility are made to the digital property. These updates effectively “break” the experience again, erasing developers’ progress and causing it to fall out of accessibility compliance.
  6. …Yet another laundry list of accessibility bugs is identified using this approach for the next audit.

Organizations that take this approach wind up in a seemingly endless cycle of “breaking,” and then “fixing,” their digital experiences (hence the term “break/fix”). It’s a losing game—both for the teams that build and maintain digital properties and for the users of those properties. But unfortunately, it’s the status quo.

“Often, we see a situation where a digital property is brought into compliance—and then, over time, it drops out of compliance because the code changes, and things break. Then, a year later, someone comes in and performs an audit or assessment of the property. They provide a list issues, those issues get fixed…and then the property drops out of compliance again.”

—Tim Springer, Founder and CEO, Level Access

How did we get here?

Of course, organizations don’t consciously decide to adopt a broken process. In fact, the break/fix cycle is often the result of teams making an honest effort to solve their accessibility problems as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. Many organizations believe that if they address every bug in one fell swoop, accessibility will require fewer resources in the future. The irony is, in the long run, approaching accessibility as a “one-and-done” project ends up costing teams more time and money than implementing ongoing, sustainable systems and processes (which we’ll detail later in this blog). It also doesn’t solve the problem. Few, if any, organizations manage to address every issue surfaced in an audit, especially not at the pace of enterprise development. Moreover, unexpectedly addressing accessibility causes significant disruption to organizations’ development roadmaps, damaging their reputations.

Why it’s time to quit the status quo

It’s clear that the way most organizations currently tackle digital accessibility puts a disproportionate burden on developers. But technical teams aren’t the only ones impacted by the break/fix cycle. This outdated approach creates barriers to progress for entire organizations. Here are a few of the reasons that the status-quo model for addressing accessibility should become a thing of the past.

It’s reactive

In the break/fix cycle, organizations only “fix” accessibility issues once a massive backlog of “broken” items is identified. Retroactively unwinding accessibility bugs in live properties can be extremely time-consuming, especially across hundreds of website pages. This leaves fewer development resources for building new features and capabilities.

“Big, monolithic audits that happen once a year are a thing of the past, hopefully. We need accessibility testing to become part of our standard operating procedures, part of our everyday work, if we’re going to achieve sustainable transformation and ultimately push for a freer, more accessible internet.”

—Noah Mashni, Head of Solutions Engineering, Level Access

It’s expensive

Your team’s time is valuable. The break/fix cycle drives up costs by burning development hours on repeatedly fixing already-live digital experiences, at the expense of building new features. Disrupted roadmaps and missed opportunities for innovation make it tough for organizations to stay competitive, creating financial and reputational risks. And, worst of all, organizations still fall short of their accessibility goals.

It’s frustrating

No one likes redoing work. Unfortunately, organizations caught in a break/fix cycle are consistently backtracking to fix avoidable errors, over and over again. This can take a toll on morale and motivation, and call into question the capabilities and decision-making of team leaders.

It doesn’t work

Given the time and money that organizations sink into the break/fix cycle, along with its negative impact on business and morale, many organizations in this position end up de-prioritizing digital accessibility altogether. As a result, they exclude current and potential customers and make themselves vulnerable to legal risk. They may also fall short of internal diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) commitments, fail to meet accessibility requirements from buyers, and lose business to more accessible competitors.

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Your path forward

For more than 20 years, we’ve worked with organizations aiming to escape the break/fix cycle and build sustainable, effective digital accessibility programs. We’ve witnessed countless success stories and failures. Here’s what we’ve learned: organizations that have treated accessibility as an afterthought (and suffered the consequences) have three options for moving forward.

Option 1: Stay in the break/fix cycle

Your organization might have reasons for staying in the break/fix cycle. Maybe a digital experience is in maintenance mode, and you don’t anticipate major updates. Maybe there isn’t enough buy-in across your leadership team to start tackling accessibility more proactively. Maybe digital accessibility work is operationally separate from digital experience creation within your organization, so a business case will need to be made for amending existing structures. Whatever your reason, staying in break/fix has consequences. A third-party expert can help you manage change and provide the training and guidance necessary to implement a more effective program.

Option 2: Address accessibility exclusively in development

Moving digital accessibility work earlier in the development life cycle is a critical first step toward a sustainable approach. For many organizations, that means starting to test for and fix accessibility issues in a pre-production environment. This is a major improvement from releasing inaccessible experiences to the public and identifying them once live. But organizations that stop here ultimately find themselves in a scaled-down version of the break/fix cycle: digital properties are still being built in inaccessible ways, to be tested and fixed afterwards. It’s only a partial solution.

Option 3: Prioritize accessibility throughout the entire digital experience life cycle

In our experience, the only organizations that successfully leave break/fix behind shift to an agile approach. This means embedding digital accessibility into every stage of the digital experience life cycle, and continually iterating to create stronger, more inclusive digital properties. In this framework, online inclusion isn’t just the responsibility of developers; it’s consistently built into the day-to-day work of designers, product managers, marketers, and every other team involved in the process of creating and maintaining a digital experience. By distributing ownership in this way, and committing to ongoing learning and improvement, you can keep workflows streamlined, workloads manageable, and digital experiences accessible for all users.

Break out of break/fix for good

The Level Access Platform is built to support an agile approach to accessibility, empowering organizations to escape the break/fix cycle for sustainable success. We offer both automated and manual testing (including the evaluation of key user flows and UX components), along with monitoring and governance. Our suite of developer tools integrates with test automation solutions like Cucumber and Mocha, embedding accessibility into your existing QA practice. Additionally, our expert managed services include detailed design evaluations and role-specific training, making it easy to prioritize accessibility in every stage of the digital experience life cycle. Ready to work less and accomplish more? Engage with our team today.

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