Fear and worry are often companions as we journey towards accessibility. Elle Waters reminds us that in order to build successful accessibility programs we need to face our fears, not ignore them.
The best way out is always through.
– Robert Frost
Whenever I lead a workshop, I like to start things off with fear.
After welcoming people to the room, I ask everyone to answer this question: “When trying to build an accessibility program, what’s your biggest worry about being successful?” As people volunteer to share their personal anxieties to the group, I put the big list onto the big screen, and we talk through each one.
As shy nervousness inevitably gives way to raw frustration with each admission of the struggle, I often feel like I’m actually here to host a support group. It’s permission to complain, to vent…to rant, even, about fulfilling this idealistic dream of making digital experiences for everyone actually sustainable. Interestingly enough, expressing shared anxieties about building an inclusive world does a lot for people. In my experience, accessibility program workshop attendees, often solo champions, are a little weary and isolated.
Last year, we ran a poll on the Simply Accessible homepage over a period of several months, asking our readers a single question: “What’s holding you back?” And, you know what? The answers we received were almost identical to those shared in workshops.
Instead of pretending like those fears don’t exist as everyday reminders of our possible failure in this profession, I like to get them all out there. These kinds of worries are impossible to ignore. By facing them openly, we create real solutions to problems we will face today and the very next day. A simple but powerful principle that I learned from a children’s book.
When I was growing up, we had a tradition in my rather large family where older siblings would read a book aloud to the younger ones each night for bedtime. As the loud one in the family, that duty often fell to me. So, I carried the practice forward with my own son when he was young. One of his favourite books for me to read aloud to him was We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen. I suspect he liked the delightful illustrations by Helen Oxenbury and the repetitive, chant-like sounds that the narrator used to describe each challenge the characters faced. But this fall, when cleaning out my son’s bookcase for his move to college, I found the book and was struck by how much wisdom it contained.
The story begins with a family stepping outside and boldly proclaiming their intentions.
We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared.
How true this rings! This bold proclamation sounds a lot like the passion many of us feel when we decide to go on this accessibility journey, when we first really “get it”—that moment when the mission of inclusion clicks and we understand our place in it.
The family in the book then encounters a series of obstacles, each one unavoidable. The narrator describes each one in tangible detail.
Uh-oh! Grass! Long wavy grass.
Together, the family repeats the same refrain…
We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!
And they do.
Swishy swashy! Swishy swashy! Swishy swashy!
All too often in accessibility, we avoid doing what lies before us because it seems impossible. What’s our long, wavy grass? Here are some worries that may sound very familiar to you: We can’t change this legacy platform—everyone at the company relies on it. Or, we can’t get leadership to support accessibility initiatives when they just cut the design budget. Or, there’s so much work to do, and accessibility won’t succeed, because I’m all alone here.
Sometimes, we try to convince ourselves that we can go around the obstacle, deferring the needful to avoid the pain. Maybe if we just run an automated scan. Or maybe if we don’t object when it’s clear that the development team thinks of accessibility as a “bug list” to meet minimal compliance requirements, we’ll at least make some progress. And we make incremental improvements that make us feel a little better. But it’s not transformative. And we know it’s not. The problems still exist.
As accessibility advocates, we often believe more in the obstacles we face than in our own shared expertise as a community.
So, what are those fears that people have when trying to build a successful accessibility program? What’s really holding you back?
In the following months, we’ll go on a bear hunt. Together, we’ll focus on several topics that hinder the progress of accessibility. Things you’ve shared in workshops and in our website poll. We won’t go over them, we won’t go under them—we’ll go through them. Together.