Keep your garden of accessibility in bloom by engaging a network of people who share certain values and span all parts of the organization.

Previously we’ve written about how accessibility is the responsibility of everyone in your team, and how agile and accessibility thinking go hand in hand. As your organization embraces accessibility and begins to transform practices and priorities, one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome is identifying people to lead accessibility efforts in day-to-day work. After the initial push has ended and the adrenaline has worn off, who will keep the momentum going? We’ve found that it takes a network of people in all parts of the organization who share certain values to keep the garden of accessibility in bloom.

Tilling the soil

a trowel full of soil

When we work with clients to build sustainable accessibility programs, we collaborate with them to identify how leaders and managers can support accessibility for the long term. Beyond prioritizing accessibility at the organizational level through policy and practice, leaders can encourage accessibility engagement in a few additional ways.

  • Create a diverse team. There’s been a lot of research around how diverse teams create better workplaces and products, and accessibility work is no exception. Hiring employees with diverse backgrounds, abilities, and experiences creates a team of individuals who solve problems creatively (and differently than each other) with more flexibility than homogenous teams.
  • Reward self-management. Team members who feel like they have freedom to learn and integrate that learning into their work can bring knowledge and information into an organization that wouldn’t otherwise be there. By allowing people to explore topics that interest them, you encourage them to become subject matter experts and allow them to feel in control of their own professional development. Similarly, when people have some say in how they manage their time, it helps them work in a way that best fits their work style within the goals of the team.
  • Fill the toolbox. In addition to the time and education needed for teams to succeed with accessibility, this work requires resources, whether those resources are software, keyboards, office chairs, or snacks in the kitchen. For teams to do accessibility work effectively, they need to have access to the tools they’ve decided to use to do that work. Make sure that procurement, distribution, and maintenance of those tools goes smoothly, it’s an important part of helping team members feel like the work they do is valuable.
  • Leave space for failure. One of the biggest challenges with accessibility is accepting the learning curve.

Team members in every role must learn (and unlearn) certain expectations, practices, and skills to do accessibility work, and it can be frustrating when initial efforts feel stressful and unsuccessful.

Creating products and services is a process, and, just like gardening, there will always be mistakes. It’s important for organizations to identify those mistakes, evaluate and learn from them, and determine how to avoid them in the future.

How your garden grows

seedlings in a tray

So now that your organization is creating a fertile bed for accessibility efforts to flourish, how do you find your gardeners? Your team probably won’t be chock full of accessibility experts right away. In addition to an interest in accessibility, there are some things you can look for that demonstrate the types of qualities that make a great accessibility thinker and doer.

  • Adapts easily to new tasks, tools, and processes. Accessibility requires rethinking how we do work, and that comes with learning new tools and techniques. People who can adjust readily to integrate new information into their day-to-day work are generally more open to the types of workflow changes that come with engaging with accessibility.
  • Empathizes with users. The end goal of accessibility is to make content for all users. Understanding user goals and empathizing with their needs is a requirement for making a truly accessible experience.
  • Volunteers to talk. Team members who speak up in informal and formal settings typically have strong feelings about the work they and their colleagues do. Since accessibility requires internal and external advocacy, seeking out people that already have empathy and passion in their teams can help.
  • Pushes for standardization. Members who push for standardization and documentation in the form of code standards, pattern libraries, annotated mockups, and the like within their team are quick to see the benefit that these types of artifacts provide for maintaining accessibility.
  • Shares information. In addition to standardizing documentation and communication, team members who openly share and collaborate with their coworkers make great allies. People who seek collaboration over competition see the benefits of laying everything out between members of the team so work can be easily handed off with fewer questions and hurdles.
  • Invests in the company culture and mission. Team members who are invested in what the organization is trying to do will also be invested in doing the best by your users and customers. People who take pride in the work they do for the benefit of users and supporting the organization’s goals are willing to stick through the hard times of organizational change. They don’t just celebrate the victories.

In full bloom

sunflowers in the sun

As efforts take root, it’s important to create ways for your accessibility gardeners to interact and support each other, as well as to find new members of the network. Just like you wouldn’t expect a single person to conceptualize, design, develop, test, and release an enterprise-level product or service, a single person cannot be responsible for accessibility in your organization. It requires a network of people, in different roles and on different teams, to share in the intellectual and emotional labor that comes with accessibility work. A network combines the work of  design, development, testing, product and leadership teams to create consistency across the organization.

  • Documentation, discussion, and sharing within teams. Members of a network collaborate on and share results of accessibility improvements within their teams. Since improving accessibility means improving design, development and test practices, team members who aren’t prioritizing it may feel left behind as a critical mass forms around accessibility. Teams can use peer review, brainstorming sessions, sprint planning, or any other forums for discussion to make sure everyone is on the same page.
  • Mentoring. Integrating discussions about accessibility into mentoring helps reinforce to junior team members that it’s a priority, and helps senior members see how those junior members are adjusting to the changes accessibility work has made to their professional development.
  • Cross-team groups. Informal and formal meetings across the network can go a long way to create a sense of community for people doing accessibility work in an organization. They’re especially important when members of that community are spread across the organization. If you don’t work or communicate daily with other members of the network, it can be easy to lose sight of the connection. Informal meetings to share ideas and time to work on cross-team projects allow those networks to blossom. The most important things these meetings and project groups can accomplish are creating consensus on practices, tools, and processes across the organization, taking into account the needs of team members in all roles. These same groups can present and demo improvements across the organization, tools, and outcomes to colleagues and leadership.
  • Volunteering for organization activities and efforts that help the community. Since accessibility is part of making the world a better place, it goes hand in hand with any efforts the organization makes for the larger community. The presence of members of the network at company-wide fundraisers, volunteer efforts, or other events helps cement the place of accessibility as a positive effort for team members’ colleagues. Team members who express an interest in accessibility may already be involved in these activities and will be eager to evangelize.

The specific ways you engage members of your organization in accessibility will be as unique and varied as the members of your team and your company culture, just like every garden is different depending on its climate, soil, crops, and the people who tend it. Odds are, you can find members of your organization that will go the extra mile to help move your accessibility efforts forward. And, you can use your existing methods for building teamwork and camaraderie to find and nurture a network of future accessibility experts. It just takes time, patience, and a willingness to get your hands dirty.