ICT Accessibility and Organizational Management

by Cam N. Coulter


Posted on July 10, 2021 accessibility


Universal access icon: a stick figure with a circle around them.

By this point, we’ve looked at different types of disabilities and assistive technologies. We’ve talked about the principles of accessibility and universal design in both physical and digital environments. We’ve also reviewed disability rights and accessibility laws outside and inside the United States. What’s left? Putting it all into practice: integrating ICT accessibility into organizational governance and management.

Be Proactive about Accessibility

There are two broad approaches to dealing with accessibility:

  1. Proactive; built in; baked in; accessibility as an ongoing program
  2. Reactive; bolted on; added on; accessibility as a one-time project

Sheri Byrne-Haber writes:

Proactive accessibility, which is designing and implementing the product with accessibility in mind […] is the preferred approach.

Reactive accessibility, which is basically taking an inaccessible product and retrofitting accessibility in […] is more expensive, less effective, and more likely to result in schedule delays.

Cordelia McGee-Tubb has likened creating accessibility to baking blueberry muffins:

And I will use metaphor, because we all love those, and talk about making muffins for your niece’s birthday party. And on your way there, your mom said, these were supposed to be blueberry muffins. And you forgot that, and you start to force blueberries into the muffins and they are gross.

They are not really the same as blueberry muffins; they are not melted and delicious. It’s not a good experience. By definition yes, it’s a blueberry muffin, and yes, you may have an accessible system, but it is not a good system.

Accessibility is like a blueberry muffin. You don’t want to add the blueberries after the fact. If you take the reactive approach to accessibility, you are generating significant technical debt, and it’s not going to be pleasant or easy to remediate.

If you walk away from this post with just one idea about managing accessibility, it should be this: accessibility should be an ongoing program, proactive and built-in from the start.

You may have heard professionals talk about “shifting left” when dealing with accessibility. This is what they mean: you should integrate accessibility from the beginning and throughout an entire project, rather than treating it as a final or optional step.

Recommendations from the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative

The World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) provides detailed recommendations for managing and supporting accessibility within an organization on their website. Their recommendations fall under four categories:

  1. Initiate
  2. Plan
  3. Implement
  4. Sustain

On their website, they break down those general categories into specific, actionable recommendations. If you are working to start (or review) an accessibility program, go read those action items.

WAI also has recommendations for managing urgent, interim repairs, developing an organizational policy, and developing an accessibility statement.

Embedded within these recommendations are a few items that I think are of particular importance:

  1. Establish an accessibility program and policy, which includes accessibility standards for your organization.
  2. Publish an external-facing accessibility statement.
  3. Make sure your websites, products, and services are accessible.
  4. Have a clear system or process for receiving and responding to accessibility feedback.

Recommendations from the European Agency for Special Needs & Inclusive Education

The European Agency for Special Needs & Inclusive Education has also published recommendations for implementing accessibility within an organization: “Making Your Organisation’s Information Accessible for All.”

The agency has seven main recommendations:

  1. Adopt a long-term accessibility plan.
  2. Create a strategy for implementing accessibility.
  3. Make someone responsible, and give them resources and authority.
  4. Be incremental — simultaneously ambitious and modest.
  5. Embed accessibility into your processes for creating and publishing.
  6. Give all staff training on accessibility.
  7. When outsourcing, make sure you include (and double-check) accessibility requirements.

The Capability Maturity Model

The Capability Maturity Model is a way to describe how developed a process is. It was created with a focus on software development, but it can be applied to other processes as well. The model includes five levels:

  1. Initial
  2. Repeatable
  3. Defined
  4. Managed
  5. Optimizing

I like it. It’s a simple way to understand how developed and robust a process is, and it helps me think about what next steps might be helpful in further improving the process.

Business Disability Forum: Accessibility Maturity Model

The Business Disability Forum has created the Accessible Technology Charter, which lists ten commitments on ICT accessibility that businesses are encouraged to make.

In conjunction with the charter, the forum also created the Accessibility Maturity Model. The model is similar to the Capability Maturity Model, but it was created specifically with accessibility in mind. It also has five levels:

  1. Informal
  2. Defined
  3. Repeatable
  4. Managed
  5. Best Practice

Security, Privacy, Performance, & Accessibility

Security, privacy, performance, and accessibility are all important. Except for performance, you can get sued if you fail on these, and all of these can impact your bottom-line. None of these are things you want to “bolt on” at the end of a project; if you try, it’ll often be harder and more expensive than the alternative.

Accessibility, however, is also quite different than security, privacy, and performance. Security, privacy, and performance are primarily about coding and development. Accessibility starts earlier than that. Accessibility is also about design and content creation. More people need to know about and be involved with accessibility.

For more on the differences between accessibility on one hand and security and privacy on the other, see Jeff Singleton’s post “Web Accessibility is Broken (Part 3).

Get an Accessibility Champion in Management

Accessibility programs don’t tend to succeed if they don’t have people championing and advocating for them, ideally a higher-up manager. Of course, it’s important to have buy-in throughout an organization, but management champions are particularly important because:

  • They build a vision and align others toward it.
  • Managers have authority. They can make accessibility a real priority and sustain that commitment.
  • Managers are in a position to embed accessibility through different organizational processes, really making accessibility a program rather than a project.
  • Managers can use the accessibility maturity model to develop, formalize, and improve accessibility workflows within the organization.

Define Your Scope

On the development side of things, most accessibility projects fall into one of these four categories:

  1. Innovation: Research and development, essentially. Creating something new that others haven’t done before.
  2. New Design: Creating a new feature or product.
  3. Retrofitting: The reactive approach. Trying to remediate something that wasn’t designed with accessibility in mind. These sorts of projects often require the most time and money.
  4. Maintenance: Testing, updating, and maintaining something that should already be largely accessible.

Create Role-Specific Requirements and Job-Aids

It’s not enough just to train employees and expect them to be able to “go and be accessible.” I work as a training specialist, and I see just how easy it is to give someone a training that’s related to their work, for them to “get it” in the training, and yet they then go back to their job and nothing changes. If you want your accessibility training to actually change things, you need to walk the last mile.

You need to break down accessibility standards and policies into role-specific requirements and guidance and then create job-aids like checklists and guides. And then, you need to use these tools in your trainings and have trainers and managers ensure that these tools are being used and the role-specific requirements are being met in practice. I think Ken Nakata and Jeff Singleton at Converge Accessibility do a good job making this point.

Test & Evaluate

Testing and evaluating is essential to creating accessible ICT. In particular:

  • Testing should be integrated proactively throughout the design and development processes, rather than tacked on at the end.
  • Pay attention to the tools and libraries that your designers and developers use and reuse. Make sure they are accessible, or that your developers know how to use them accessibly.
  • Automatic testing is helpful and has a role to play, but it’s insufficient. Automatic testing won’t catch all accessibility bugs. Human testing and evaluation is essential.
  • Don’t rely on accessibility experts to tell you whether something is truly accessible. Conduct usability testing with people with disabilities.
  • Consider hiring outside experts or consultants if your organization doesn’t have in-house accessibility expertise.

See WAI’s website for more specifics on testing and evaluating for accessibility.

Communicate Accessibly

Pay attention to communications, both within your organization and for public-facing communications. Create accessibility standards for communications. Ensure that all your communications (of all media types) are accessible. Use plain language where possible, and consider translating your communications into other languages. For videos, remember to include captions, audio descriptions, and transcripts. Accessibility is good for your brand and reputation.

Follow the Law

There are also accessibility considerations when it comes to legal compliance. Basically, make sure you’re following the law. Become familiar with accessibility laws and standards, and assess your potential liability. If you’re not already practicing accessibility, set priorities and start doing so, starting with the largest barriers to the most essential services. Create an accessibility policy if you don’t have one already, follow it, and document it.

Procure Accessibly

Pay special attention to procurement. When your organization procures new products or services, make sure they are accessible.

  • Write accessibility into your organization’s procurement policies.
  • Include accessibility as a requirement in Requests for Proposals (RFPs).
  • Ask to see — and then carefully review — VPATs.
  • Takes steps to actually verify an organization’s claims about accessibility.
  • Write accessibility requirements into contracts.
  • Periodically review and assess your vendors for accessibility.

If you take these steps, you not only ensure that you are practicing accessibility, but you influence vendors by showing them that accessibility truly is a priority.

Recruit, Hire, & Train People with Disabilities and People with Accessibility Skills

When it comes to “human resources,” there are three main priorities when it comes to accessibility:

  1. Proactively recruit and hire people with disabilities.
  2. Recruit and hire accessibility experts and people with digital accessibility skills.
  3. Train and develop your existing workforce on accessibility.

Many organizations have nondiscrimination policies and ostensibly will (and want to) hire people with disabilities, but they are not really serious about it. They don’t have accessibility policies or programs. Their website, their job postings, and their job application process may not be accessible. They don’t proactively reach out to potential employees with disabilities, and they don’t educate current employees on accessibility or promote disability justice. Don’t be like that.

Hire accessibility experts when you can, and remember, practically everyone needs to know something about accessibility. Content creators need to create accessible content. Designers need to create accessible designs. People who work in customer service need to know about disability etiquette and need to be able to provide accommodations and support assistive technologies. When you interview candidates for all sorts of positions, make it clear that you value and want accessibility skills. Consider listing accessibility certifications on job postings.

Finally, train and develop your existing workforce on accessibility. It’s useful to have in-house accessibility experts, and as we just touched on, practically everyone needs some accessibility skills. Provide accessibility trainings and encourage your employees to acquire accessibility certifications (and when they do, pay for their IAAP membership and exam fees).

Remember What It’s All About

Finally, remember that while accessibility benefits everyone, it’s essential for people with disabilities. Center people with disabilities. Engage with them, listen to them, include them, hire them, pay them well, and promote them. And remember that accessibility is only one piece of disability justice.

Image created by Cam Coulter. Icon by mikion on the Noun Project.


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