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Accessibility is a shared responsibility

A-T founder Suzanne Boyd teaches a class about accessibility.

If you read our previous accessibility blog post, you know how important it is to give people with disabilities equal access to information, products, and services: Inaccessible products are increasingly viewed as a violation of civil rights, and accessibility measures often provide a better experience for all users. But instituting a mindset that prioritizes inclusive design can be a difficult task for organizations of all sizes and resources.

Accessibility initiatives benefit from a shared, organization-wide understanding about the importance of providing equal access to information through products and services. But if everyone thinks someone else is handling accessibility responsibilities, that institutional change will never truly happen.

Organizations often appoint an accessibility leader when encouraging accessibility initiatives, such as an ADA coordinator to champion the effort. This is a step in the right direction, but the ADA coordinator can’t touch every process in the organization, can’t be on the front lines interacting with every customer, and can’t ensure every deliverable and file created is accessible, useful, and usable.

That doesn’t mean your organization can’t have an accessibility champion. You’ll definitely need these champions to lead initiatives. It’s essential these leaders are accountable for reaching specific accessibility goals and accomplishing activities such as auditing a website, remediating PDF files, and arranging accommodations.

However, there can be a misconception that this leader can fix all the organization’s accessibility problems, or that this is the person to point to when an issue arises, rather than sharing the responsibility across the organization. For example, a dated website being redesigned may have thousands of PDFs that need to be made accessible, and then dozens more that need to be created every year. An ADA coordinator may have the tools and knowledge to audit for accessibility and remediate PDFs, but it will realistically take more than one person to audit and monitor the website and mobile apps, create accessible PDFs, and ensure the organization’s internal files and systems are all accessible.

The role of accessibility leaders

So then, what should accessibility leaders focus on? To be successful, they need to:

  • raise awareness of accessibility, America Disability Act (ADA) civil rights, and the importance of providing equal access for everyone;
  • educate on how accessible products and services benefit the entire population, increase market share for products and services, and increase employment for those living with disabilities; and
  • encourage people to reflect on the different roles and responsibilities that individuals in the organization have and inspire them to think about how they can make information, technology, and processes more accessible and useful to people, including those with disabilities.

When an organization embraces an inclusive mindset, accessibility will permeate processes and culture. Inclusive design is a way of designing experiences to support the full range of human diversity. This means going beyond accessibility to create products and services that are not only accessible, but useful, usable, and valuable to all.

We need more people within organizations: subject matter experts, content creators, communication professionals, customer service representatives, designers, developers, IT staff, business professionals, and yes, executive team members thinking about how to create inclusive experiences to maximize effectiveness for everyone. When an inclusive mindset isn’t prioritized and shared, accessibility can become an afterthought. For example, when a staff person fails to add captions to social media photos and videos; or when “accessibility” is a technical requirement but no resources are set aside to implement measures, the product can be wrought with issues downstream.

Every product and service should be designed and developed with accessibility in mind and then iteratively tested by people with disabilities. Instead of being an afterthought or consideration right before product launch, make accessibility an integral part of discovery, planning, research, design, and development. Ensure during the research and design process that accessibility isn’t just about anticipating and discovering problems, it’s about creating inclusive experiences that work for people of all abilities from the start. Build executive-level buy-in for making accessibility a part of planning and resourcing.

One common mistake organizations make is bringing in accessibility experts during the latter stages of development to save the day and make a system or product accessible. When you consider accessibility concerns only near a product or service’s launch, you often don’t allow enough time or budget to fix issues or design a comprehensively inclusive product. Organizations taking this tack often add accessibility issues to a pile of other features and priorities that are fighting for resources.

Instead, plan accessibility into the development cycle, do quality assurance testing with assistive technology and usability test with people with disabilities. You’ll understand if your product or service is truly accessible, you’ll be able to confirm your organization is following accessibility standards and best practices, and you’ll know whether or not your systems are useful and valued.

By catching accessibility issues early-on, you reduce the amount of changes that need to be made to designs before technical implementation. This reduces the risk of uncovering glaring accessibility issues near end of development when the cost of fixing them is high and when resources are almost spent. It’s always easier to plan and build to support accessibility than to try to fix a flood of accessibility issues in the throes of a product launch.

The role of everyone working on products and services

Non-experts can institute change at all levels. Let’s envision a time when no one forgets to add an alternative ‘ALT’ text description to a PowerPoint visual. A time when a PDF is always saved with tags to make it compatible with assistive technology. A time when every website can be interacted with by voice, by touch, by mouse, by keyboard, or by eye gaze depending on how the user chooses to interact.

Let’s become accessibility learners and teachers. Let’s create a culture where every person in an organization is responsible for making accessibility a part of their job and for sharing with those around them how accessibility affects customers, processes, and deliverables.

This is possible only if individuals examine their processes, understand what barriers exist, and embrace new tools and processes to ensure we include users of all abilities. Providing an inclusive, accessible experience needs to be a central goal in how teams approach building systems and experiences for people. Everyone from the content manager to the design or technical leads should be familiar with the standards and plans to test with people in disability communities throughout development.

If everyone makes it their job to improve accessibility, inclusivity will no longer be a goal we’re trying to reach – it will be a reality.

The role of organizations

Organizations are responsible for creating a culture where accessibility is embraced. This starts with raising awareness. Organizations can do a number of things to raise awareness. They can show videos of accessible features and experiences (Apple shares a number of accessibility videos on their website). They can bring in accessibility experts to speak with staff about common challenges and barriers people with disabilities encounter.

It can be highly effective if the expert can speak to inaccessible experiences. For example, if an image has no alternate ‘ALT’ text description, then people with low vision or blindness cannot get the same information as those who perceive the image. They can demonstrate how easy it is to provide a text description. These discussions help speed organizational understanding, help people reflect on possible barriers, and highlight the steps individuals can take to provide usable experiences for all.

Organizations can provide staff with basic accessibility training to showcase why inclusive design is important, what it means for the organization, and to learn what individuals can do to identify and resolve problems and issues. It’s important that every person in the organization reflects on what they can do to make things more accessible.

Lastly, when accessibility issues are found, approach them with urgency. Do not park them in a long list of issues mixed in with other priorities. Elevate them for resolution to acknowledge the risk involved with not taking action. Fixing accessibility issues often makes systems more usable for everyone.

So take action on fixing accessibility issues. Don’t just capture an issue or complaint — resolve it! Convey to staff and those around you the urgency of fixing accessibility issues. Ensure accessibility issues are tracked in a separate list, assigned to a pro-active staff member to resolve, and given a deadline for resolution. Make reporting and resolving accessibility issues a part of the roles and responsibilities inside your organization.


4 ways organizations can become more inclusive

  1. Prioritize accessibility in every digital project
  2. Put together an accessibility panel of speakers or organize an accessibility talk at your organization.
  3. Include people with disabilities early in the design process. Develop inclusive customer personas so that people with disabilities are represented.
  4. Usability test with people in disability communities. Recruit those with disabilities to participate in product and technology evaluations. Go to where they live and work to understand their context of use and the pain points they have accessing information. Design solutions to eliminate accessibility problems and create more useful, usable experiences.
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