My manager asked me to make the company’s website accessible to people with disabilities. And when I realized how artificial yet systemic the barriers were that prevented this website from being fully accessible, a lifetime accessibility zealot was born.

In 2008, I left a highly stressful tech startup so I could get a real job. A real job, according to my mother, required a respectable employer, regular daytime hours, and also apparently a cubicle. After three weeks of Casual Fridays, my manager knew I was ready to bolt. So, he decided to give me a new challenge, and he asked me to make the company website Section 508 compliant. I was excited! New to accessibility but a big fan of web standards, I remember thinking, “This should take me about three months. I’m all in!” Almost five years later, I was managing a Fortune 100 web accessibility program.

Wait, that’s how I got into this, not why. Let’s rewind.

You had me at barrier

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been driven by two forces: a need for social equality and a curiosity about innovation in technology.

I was (and remain) captivated by how we share knowledge, and I was (and remain) frustrated when artificial barriers lock people out of that experience.

So, when my manager asked me to make the company’s Medicare website accessible to people with disabilities—arguably the target audience for this content—he knew me well enough to know I’d cheerfully agree. When I realized how artificial yet systemic the barriers were that prevented this website from being fully accessible, a lifetime accessibility zealot was born.

Since 2008, I’ve laboured to tear down these barriers, as a staff member within an organization and as a consultant to many others. After years working in this industry, I think I finally understand the battle I’m in, and I find it very troubling. The real accessibility barriers aren’t those that people encounter on websites. The real problem lies much closer to home.

An equal and opposite reaction

As Director of Strategy at Simply Accessible, I still encounter managers and decision makers in organizations who honestly have no idea how people with disabilities use computers, mobile devices, and the internet. And, when they’re shown, it often seems like they’re watching an episode of NOVA: it’s all fascinating, sure. Black holes and dwarf planets are incredibly interesting to learn about, but that information isn’t something we actually need to know a lot about, right? It’s not what we use every day to do our jobs—not something we live our lives by. Let’s be reasonable.

And there’s the rub.

Managers, designers, and developers: I don’t need you to understand a little and care a little. I need you to understand a LOT and care a LOT. I need you to give a damn—about your job, about the quality of the work you do, about your website, about who your company thinks your customers are.

Accessibility professionals, we who spend time teaching and consulting and testing and remediating, we are facing a crisis of ignorance and apathy.

And, it seems that the only way to solve one problem is to solve the other. So, how do we get people to give a damn?

Jared Spool wrote a fantastic article in 2015, eloquently describing the futility of “convincing” someone to invest in UX. At Simply Accessible, we get the same kind of question all the time: “Could you present to our leadership team? They just don’t see it’s worth the investment yet.” Unlike Jared, I’m still trying to build the case for accessibility. Each time, I tell myself that we just need to make a more compelling argument; once we get hard data, it will magically unlock enterprise budgets.

But, that’s like telling people the health benefits of exercise and expecting everyone to go to the gym. It just doesn’t happen. Just as no lawsuit (however necessary) inspires a web developer to create quality code, no business case will change a corporate culture. Litigation and data do not open hearts. Here’s the compelling argument: humans need accessibility. That doesn’t go over well in board meetings.

Lately, I’ve asked myself the hard questions, “Why are you still at this? Is this a lost cause?” I hate lost causes. I hate feeling hopeless over something I believe in so deeply.

But, I’ve had an epiphany.

Taking the leap

In every agile bedtime story, we learn about the importance of failure and business value. Both are critical to success with any project. To continually improve, you must be willing to leap, try something new, fail, and learn from that experience. You also have to recognize and prioritize what’s truly valuable so that all those efforts aren’t in vain.

Just like with software development, to succeed in accessibility where people at an organization are totally invested with their heart, mind, and budget, we need to leap.

We need to try new ways of solving our accessibility problems. If we fail and learn from these experiences, then we’re undoubtedly going to improve the way we do things. It’s an agile law.

I’ve seen this happen over and over with our team at Simply Accessible. The only thing we love more than accessibility is iteration. Unlike some of my colleagues, my job has different challenges. My accessibility problem to solve isn’t about positive tabindex, reckless ARIA use, or faux buttons (tip: don’t do those things). But I should be able to apply the same agile principles to building the business case for accessibility and making people believers.

If I keep trying new ways to communicate the value of accessibility to others, I’m sure to fail at times. I may even lose business. But if I commit to improve as I go, if I work with decision makers as partners on this journey, and keep learning what we can do better, my message will resonate more each time. I will find a way to communicate the value of designing inclusively for all humans in what we do. So, it’s time to get messy and find out how to make this matter to people.

This is why I’m still here.

How about you? Who’s ready to leap, fail, and innovate with me?

6 thoughts on “Accessibility: Why I got into this and why I’m still here”

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  1. I strongly agree with you and for my self. I do love working on a11y stuff for the marriage of social inclusion (doing real things for real people needing them instead of one more website to sell something…) and technical and organizational challenges (how this CMS will let us remediate or how to deal with “apathy and ignorance”…)

  2. Holly says:

    I’ve been wrestling with this conundrum myself.
    As I age, I empathize more and more with the need for accessible content. Perhaps that is the only way — for developers to age and finally get it.
    As time moves on, more users will become savvy about consuming content the way they want to consume content (despite the programmers’ intent). Get out of my way! This, along with age, will also underscore the need for accessibility to developers.

  3. Kevin Prince says:

    Nicely put – it’s not a losing battle albeit somewhat attritional. If you can keep making a difference, keep pointing to the incremental improvements they start to accrete. Certainly finding that here where I joined a team that were aware that they didn’t know (which is a huge step) and now they realise that their web tester will keep sending things back if they don’t meet access as well as if they don’t meet branding or the like. Oddly I don’t have to send things back too often after a couple of months in post.

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