An Accessibility Strategy to Reimagine Business as Usual

People often perceive accessibility as a burdensome obligation that’s solely the responsibility of developers or an overwhelmed accessibility specialist. I’ve always wanted to change that mindset.

During a recent contract, I introduced a strategy to reframe accessibility as a shared responsibility. The ultimate goal is for accessibility to become part of business as usual by involving everyone, including designers, writers, quality assurance, business partners, and leadership.

The strategy targets cultural obstacles and promotes the discovery of opportunities throughout a project lifecycle when decisions could and should be made about accessibility.

It’s an alternative to the traditional approach of sending developers to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) with instructions to “just make things accessible.”

Allow Everyone to Own Accessibility

This is inspired by the confusion I regularly encounter when I suggest that all team members can play a role in accessibility. Let’s change the way we think about accessibility, starting with the notion that it’s exclusively a code-based exercise for developers.

A lot of the guidance for developers about coding standards also includes recommendations for writing and design, activities in which the user experience team should be involved. This includes decisions about content hierarchy, using the right colors, writing alt text for images, etc.

Allowing everyone to own accessibility also makes it possible to catch errors earlier in a project when it is easier and less expensive to fix them.

Empower Everyone with Education

With education and greater awareness about accessibility, what needs to be done and how it impacts the user experience, all team members gain a greater understanding of the role they can play in creating inclusive websites and applications.

Talk with People to Figure Out Where to Start

We interviewed team members in order to understand their attitudes towards and knowledge about accessibility, how they believed different roles might contribute, as well as specific tasks or techniques they would employ. I also spoke to our accessibility consultant and researched the most common accessibility errors across projects.

We discovered through interviews with the content team, for example, that they were empathetic and appreciated the importance of accessibility. They were, however, unclear about different types of assistive technologies and how to approach writing for users. This helped us figure out a starting point for education.

Ensure Education is Relevant, Engaging and Ongoing

Information must be easy to find and available for everyone. It’s also important to broaden education beyond generic materials or references:

  • Use time during team meetings to discuss real examples, project problems and solutions.
  • Invite an expert to talk with the team at a lunch and learn.
  • Host a panel discussion with assistive technology users.

We developed an online training course that presented fundamental information for designers and the content team. Key is that we created exercises and provided examples relevant to their work. To further support them, we connected them to a curated list of resources and select tools (otherwise it’s just overwhelming).

Educate Leadership and Business Partners Too

I appreciate that leadership and management is often where we face the greatest challenge when it comes to accessibility. Too often, there is a lack of empathy, much less an understanding of the technical details.

But these are often the same people who write the business requirements for projects and manage the budgets. Among the many reasons I could list, mistakes in business documentation about accessibility cost time and money, and impact success.

I’ve heard plenty of stories about project requirements that actually directed people to do the wrong things for accessibility. Team members were frustrated and time was wasted going back and forth to resolve issues that could have been prevented with a shared understanding of accessibility.

I’m going to end this section with that statement as there are a great many articles and books with sound advice on how to build your case for unsympathetic leadership — read the foreword and opening in Luke’s new book to start.

Share a Vocabulary

I’m surprised at the pushback I get for this recommendation. I appreciate that different disciplines traditionally had their own lingo, but as technology allows us and requires us to work more closely together, we should explore opportunities to communicate more efficiently and effectively, and avoid misunderstandings.

One of the most relevant examples for accessibility is the confusion over alt text, what it means, what it should say and how it behaves (some still test its existence by rolling over an image). Across software, Content Management Systems and people’s preferences, I see it referred to as title text, image caption, image descriptions, text equivalent, etc. Can we at least cut it down to two references?

HTML5 is as an example of technology that can support a shared vocabulary and only make it easier for teams to get on the same page. For instance, with the placeholder attribute, it could be possible for writers, designers, and developers to share an understanding of placeholder text, what it is, where it goes and how it works for users.

Integrate Accessibility into the Brand

Along with guidelines on colors and fonts, rules on Oxford commas and bulleted lists, add design and writing guidelines and best practices for accessibility into your branding, design standards, style guides, and other team resources.

Among the topics addressed, our editorial style guide included guidance on writing descriptive links and being mindful of the need for visually hidden labels. The color palette described the WCAG standards for color contrast, linked to select online color contrast checkers, and provided several options for accessible and acceptable color combinations.

Institute Accessibility into the Culture

A critical piece of the strategy, accessibility has to be (or become) a corporate value — just part of what you do.

Leadership must communicate that accessibility is a priority not only in words, but also in action. They help team members find the time to learn, create opportunities for conversation, connect people with great resources and lead by example.

They empower all team members to question things and provide them with recourse to correct problems. I’ve heard too many stories about people who noticed accessibility errors, but could not or did not feel comfortable saying something to their supervisors.

And talk about it. We find time to talk about responsive and mobile; let’s talk about accessibility.

Build Accessibility into the Content Management System

Exactly what this looks like will vary across organizations of course, but the opportunity exists in every Content Management System (CMS) I’ve encountered.

Once designers, writers and publishers understand more about accessibility, they can leverage related features in your CMS beyond just the option to add alt text for images.

A great example, when your content specialists understand things like the fundamental HTML for structuring content, we can prevent some of the messy much less accessible code that’s generated from What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editors. Instead of using a bold font to create headings and dashes to create lists, when writers know how to structure content with clear, ordered headings and bulleted lists (in addition to using plain language), it’s a win for the code and consumers.

Evaluate Your Efforts

Identify criteria to measure the progress, effectiveness and success of your efforts. There are undoubtedly many opportunities to align your accessibility efforts with business goals, such as reducing customer service calls due to usability and accessibility errors with forms. Talk to your teams and speak with your users before, during and after launching elements of the strategy.

Plan for Change

Expect to revisit elements of the strategy as you write, design, develop or lead teams in the creation of a great experience for new technologies.

Iterate.

What’s Next?

To realize the full potential of the web, accessibility must become part of business as usual. We achieve this through greater engagement and collaboration across teams and disciplines, when we all contribute to creating an inclusive experience for everyone.

I recently started a new job, so my next step is to discover opportunities to employ and implement some elements of this strategy. I’ll report on how things go with my new colleagues.

I know what I have presented will not solve all accessibility problems, but I hope these ideas at least inspire discussions that may not have happened otherwise.

Please share your feedback and stories about efforts at your organization to involve everyone in accessibility. Sharing our knowledge and stories is how we make things better… for everyone.

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