The hypocrisy of the accessibility (A11Y) profession.

As an accessibility “newbie”, I have been very fortunate to have met and worked with some incredible accessibility professionals who have helped me learn and grow. I write this with the deepest respect for the profession, the well-intentioned, hardworking professionals, and their contribution to disability advocacy and inclusion. It’s a controversial title but I promise you it’s a sincere and honest attempt to a.) share a POV from my personal experience and b.) spark conversation on what we can all do to contribute to change.

Let me start with a confession. I am guilty of many of the below transgressions and have since course-corrected. Please view this as an opportunity for self-reflection and course correction of your own actions.

Seek to understand before being understood. 

I have met so many accessibility professionals/disability advocates who are most interested in talking at you versus talking to you. I think this is a huge disservice to the community at large. Seeking to understand means that we invest the time in understanding what disability means, understanding what it’s like to live with a disability, understanding what barriers exist for people who don’t have the same access as you do, and most importantly closely examining and checking your privilege. This last one is especially important.

In my initial days, I found that I wanted to approach my work with the intent to ‘fix it’ vs ‘understand whom we are solving for’. When I changed my mindset, it opened the doors for higher levels of contribution to my work.

It’s important to recognize that seeking to understand is a two-way street. Let’s not assume that people who are currently not building accessible experiences don’t care about it and don’t care about people with disabilities. That’s not entirely true. In my work, I have met so many product managers who have told me that they get the importance of accessibility but are often overwhelmed thinking about how and where to get started. Let’s not automatically assume that the motivation doesn’t exist. As an accessibility professional, the most important thing we all can do at the outset is to be the catalyst that creates a 360-degree space of understanding.

Emphasis on expertise vs knowledge

I think that in this profession there is a great deal of arrogance around expertise. I get that this is not unique to this profession. However, I want to call it out here because the overemphasis on expertise sometimes detracts people from gaining knowledge. Have you read the WCAG guidelines? I have. Let’s face it. They are not written in a user-friendly manner. I am calling out the hypocrisy here as well. We want the builders of online experiences to think simplicity and yet we have designed the guidelines that make your head spin.

I want to give credit where it is due. The guidelines are an important aspect of web accessibility compliance but I believe that the community can do more by ‘eating their own dogfood’ and make these guidelines simpler and easier to understand. I often refer to the WebAim guidelines as I find them to be simpler to digest and I love the A11ycasts videos on youtube that break down concepts in an easy-to-understand manner. You can find all the links at the bottom of this article. If you have run into simple and easy-to-understand materials, please share in the comments.

I think the point here is that if we focus on knowledge versus expertise, we will make great strides in getting more and more people to understand and implement accessibility best practices. The path to getting there is to simplify. I often use the Khan Academy example. My kids love Sal Khan and find his voice to be very soothing. He is also very good at simplifying hard concepts. Sal can teach anything to anyone. So we need to take a page off of Sal’s book and make accessibility easy to understand for everyone. Perhaps one day, Sal himself will teach a few courses on accessibility to the world! Before we move on to the next one, one last thing, you don’t need to be an accessibility expert to get started.

A veteran accessibility engineer told me that it’s important to ensure that we don’t create the impression that accessibility is easy. While I agree that it can get hard and complicated, I don’t think we need to create that barrier upfront because it is quite easy to get started with the basics. One of the biggest barriers to getting started is the perception that it is hard. While it may be true to some extent, it’s not entirely the case. You can acquire basic knowledge, commit to learning as you go and you are in good shape.

Quoting lawsuits and disability stats

I wrote in a previous article that we are making a big mistake by leading our accessibility presentations with two slides – one on disability stats referring to the 5-20% of the worlds disabled population and the second is the slide with the massive YoY increase in accessibility lawsuits. I am guilty of doing this too. We need to stop doing this. First off, accessibility is about solving for 100% of the population, not just 20%. Why? Because I think of accessibility as solving for the spectrum of the many stages of human life. Your needs change as you age so the experiences you use should accommodate your changing needs. Simple.

I think it’s important to keep an eye on the legal landscape but it’s irrelevant to product teams. The threat of a lawsuit may work as a stick to get a team going but it NOT the way to create a sustainable, long-term strategy around accessibility. The motivation can ONLY come from one place, the understanding of your customers and their unique needs.

So please lead your presentations with a customer-centric mindset. Do you know what would be cool? Leading with the names, faces, stories of your customers with disabilities. Tell your team who these people are, why they love your products, and what barriers exist that get in the way of them experiencing your amazing products. That will fuel motivation.

The audit – remediation cycle

When a product team starts their journey on accessibility with an audit, they view accessibility as a list of Jira bugs, an endless, unsurmountable, often misunderstood list of issues with the product. Months of remediation follow, then testing, then some more remediation, and another audit. You get the point. Accessibility lives and eventually dies a lonely death in the bowels of a product manager’s bug backlog. This has got to change. I am not suggesting we stop doing audit remediations. They are a valuable aspect of the accessibility work.

I am calling out the hypocrisy of audit remediation vendors who claim to be in service to accessibility and yet do not have ANY motivation to get you out of the audit remediation cycle. Why would they do so when their business and revenue depends on it. What I am suggesting here, is in addition to allocating large disproportionate budgets to audits, I suggest you invest in training your teams to be more self-reliant. Invest in technology, build automation frameworks.

Here is an idea. How about you invest in recognizing and rewarding your employees who are self-starters on accessibility core competencies, who learn and teach others, run accessibility hackathons so that the entire org gets involved in embracing accessibility. Don’t kick accessibility over the fence to a vendor. Collaborate with the right accessibility partner to invest in learning how to do it on your own.

Hire people with disabilities 

*trigger warning* This is a pet peeve for me. Before I start venting let me start with this. With my company, The Accidental Ally, my goal is to ONLY hire with people disabilities. Do you know why? Not because they have a disability. It’s because people with disabilities are one of the most underutilized talent pools out there. They are smart, hard-working, have unique ways of approaching problems, and great fun to work with. Do you know what else I love about them (or should I say ‘us’)? We never give up. No matter how many barriers you put in front of us. We find a way around every obstacle course. So back to venting.

I am calling out every person out there with the title ‘Head of Accessibility’ or any big title in the field of accessibility, if you don’t have a team that has equal representation of people with disabilities then you need to seriously reconsider what you are doing in that role. I am blown away by how many accessibility companies are out there who DO NOT hire people with disabilities, who do not have people with disabilities in key roles beyond testing and remediation work. It’s not that there isn’t a talent pool. It’s that there is no investment in building and growing this talent pool. By the way, this also applies to hiring vendors/partners/ collaborators who are people with disabilities.

This has to change. NOW.

Using, promoting, creating inaccessible products

I have done this unintentionally. My current blog has been rendered inaccessible because I chose the wrong platform (Wix) to create it. It’s in the process of being moved over to an accessible platform but every day of its inaccessible existence bothers me immensely. I am now very aware of my choices of products, tools, platforms I use in my work and in my personal life.

I am guilty of forgetting to add meaningful alt text on social media pictures but have become hyper-sensitive to these small transgressions avoiding them as best as I can. If you can apply the lens of being in tune with the audience then you will likely make better choices. As an accessibility professional, take stock of materials, tools, platforms you are creating and interacting with. Stop using them if they are not accessible.

Mentorship

This one is close to my heart. I have been very fortunate to have had access to some incredible humans in my 20-year career in silicon valley. I will not name drop but some of them are famous people who have been trailblazers in the world of tech. I think one of the most misunderstood aspects of mentoring is that people believe you have to be “somebody famous” to be a mentor. That’s not true at all.

I have learned some of the most valuable lessons from people who are ordinary people like me. I believe there is a tremendous opportunity for mentorship in this profession. I want to call out that we are not doing nearly enough to promote and grow people with disabilities in this profession or any other for that matter.

There are very few women, people of color in key accessibility leadership roles across the Fortune 500 companies. Many Fortune 500 companies don’t even have key accessibility leadership roles. When will this change? It’s when employees, customers demand that companies invest in these roles and hire people who truly represent the disability community. Don’t compete with each other, band together, and let’s lift each other up. You can start by doing small things. Recognize, appreciate, and promote people doing great work.

Bring your unique perspective. 

One of the coolest things about this profession is that it’s a kaleidoscope of people from different backgrounds and disciplines. Everyone’s unique perspective moves the work forward with momentum. So be a part of keeping this momentum going.

Be open to unique perspectives

Early on in my journey, I was advised to just copy what other seasoned accessibility professionals were doing. While I definitely believe in deriving inspiration from others’, I am not one to blindly copy and paste. I am glad I followed my instincts. I brought my unique perspective as a product leader to the table in a way that enabled the organization to embrace accessibility. I can assure you there were many skeptics. I think we can do a better job to welcome new, fresh ideas and bring about change. Just because you know more doesnt mean you are always right.

Become an Ally. 

And finally, I leave you with this. If you are in this profession to satisfy your self-aggrandizing need for self-promotion and publicity then please find something else to do. This profession demands dedication, humility, and servant leadership. You have to be able to rise above your own needs, to lead with empathy and compassion, to bring people along. This profession demands it on a daily basis. Go beyond the talk. Walk the talk.

My dear fellow accessibility professionals, I am grateful to have found this profession and am doing the work that lights me up from the inside. I hope this wasn’t too bad of a read for you. Please do share your thoughts in the comments below. I love a good discussion and would love to hear from you.

“Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; an argument an exchange of ignorance.” – Robert Quillen

Learn more about us and our approach, The Accidental Ally https://theaccidentalally.com/

References

  • WebAim checklist – https://webaim.org/standards/wcag/WCAG2Checklist.pdf
  • A11Ycast videos – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtTyRajRuyY
  • Khan Academy – https://www.khanacademy.org/