Devon and Elle presented at the annual John Slatin AccessU conference last month. Devon reports back on an exciting culture shift unfolding in the accessibility community.

Earlier this month, Elle Waters and I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual John Slatin AccessU conference in Austin, TX. Attendees from higher education, nonprofit, government, and private sectors spent three days learning about designing, developing, testing, and planning for accessibility, as well as celebrating twelve years of learning and community at AccessU.

When I wasn’t teaching sessions on QA testing and mobile development, Elle and I worked to answer the following question: If accessibility is a story, what’s the current chapter? I took a high level look at what attendees and speakers were talking about, and what questions they were asking, to understand where we’re at in the accessibility narrative.

At Simply Accessible, when we start working with a new client, they’re often just beginning their accessibility journey. Our first step is usually to do an assessment, followed by partnering with teams to remediate and prevent future issues, and to help them understand the important role of accessibility with their customers. The last step is often the hardest: to create a sustainable, systemic approach to accessibility that touches all parts of the organization. You can imagine our delight when it was this last step that came up over and over again in sessions and in conversation at AccessU.

Folks we talked to were largely past contemplating “Why is this important?” and were deep into grappling with “How are we doing this?”

Turning the page to program-level accessibility

There are a few reasons for this culture shift toward building sustainable accessibility programs:

  • Historically, higher education and government organizations have had more oversight regarding accessibility, so they’re already primed for (and making) program-level changes. Their newest challenge is extending that support to the ever-growing digital products and services they provide their users, ranging from distance learning to working with students to create, manage, and understand user-generated content.
  • When private companies engage with government agencies and similar groups that have accessibility requirements, they’re building at least some accessibility features into their products. To keep down costs, it makes sense to integrate those changes into parts of their mainstream product instead of creating and maintaining separate products.
  • Members of all sorts of teams already recognize that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for making products and services. They’re also coming to understand that there’s no one-size-fits-all way to approach their work, and accessibility is part of that. As organizations continue to wrestle with accessibility over time—as resources, budgets, and organization focus change, not to mention technologies and techniques—they’re realizing that accessibility practice needs to be just as flexible as everything else they do.

Across sessions we ran and attended, questions related to building sustainable programs came up again and again. Folks seem to agree that from an implementation perspective, baking accessibility into component libraries, code standards, UX documentation, and QA practices across products and services is key, as is doing testing with real users who have disabilities.

The plot thickens

From there, however, attendees entered more complex territory. Folks in all sorts of roles knew broadly what they needed to do—engage in universal design principles, write standards-based code, do functional testing, get user feedback—but they struggled with how or where to start.

Technologists, designers, and product owners are unsure about what user impacts to prioritize; they’re concerned about not having the authority to make changes at an organizational level; and they’re uneasy about how to train everyone. They’re worried about what they don’t know, and afraid of what they can’t get done.

On paper, starting a sustainable accessibility program looks a lot like moving from waterfall to agile: it’s about transforming each aspect of how work is done, with the goal of producing more—better and faster—for users. I asked Elle why accessibility was seen so differently from an agile transformation. From her perspective, the challenge with accessibility, and perhaps the main source of anxiety, is that it’s not simply about process.

“Accessibility isn’t really a process problem—it’s a people problem.” – Elle Waters

Accessibility requires buy-in, finding allies, getting feedback from users, and recognizing the multi-channel journeys your users go on every day when they use your products and services. A successful program is more than clean code and good documentation: it’s the relationships and hard, collaborative work that happens between the people who practice accessibility and everyone who benefits.

So, what chapter are we in with accessibility? Well, the story of accessibility as a technical problem has been told and many people know the words by heart. Now, we start the hero’s journey to sustainability.

Over the next several months, we’ll share more about the challenging road to sustainable, systemic accessibility, offering those willing warriors the training they’ll need along the path.