Escaping the web accessibility island

It’s a common story – you are a passionate accessibility advocate, trying to do your bit in an organisation that doesn't seem to care. Or perhaps that’s a bit harsh – they do care, but it seems it's only when a tender comes up that requires WCAG compliance, a complaint is made about the website, or it's just been discovered that the app your company relies on so much is notably impossible to use with a screen reader. When a situation like this occurs, you know what’s coming next –a flustered colleague runs to your desk, screaming your name, saying, “You’re the accessibility person around here, tell me how to fix this!” 

In most intakes of the Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility Compliance course that I teach, there are students who indicate they are the only person in their organisation who knows about accessibility. It often feels like they are a one-person accessibility island – the ‘go-to’ person who puts out the fires relating to web accessibility, and trying to get a whole-of-organisation push is likened to banging your head on a brick wall. One student even suggested that they are more like Hawaii as there were so many people in their organisation needing the person’s help that they were effectively broken up into little pieces across  different departments – either really important to everyone or not needed by anyone depending on what project was the priority at the time.  

If this sounds like you, common questions you may want answered  include “What can I do to share the accessibility load?”, “Should there even be a go-to person for accessibility?” and “What can I do to get organisational buy-in for digital accessibility issues?” Let’s break this down into a few key suggestions I’ve heard over the years from people who have been in this situation.  

An island can be a good starting point – especially if you upskill

It may not seem like a good situation to have people running to you for accessibility advice all the time, but as a starting point it’s not such a bad thing to have a resident expert. Organisations that have no knowledge about accessibility are unlikely to support it, and probably don’t realise they need to know about it. If there’s at least one person who knows about accessibility, and others in the organisation know that you are the ‘go-to’ person, then at least you have a starting point. It’s interesting how many students come to the course I teach after becoming this person unintentionally, having picked up their knowledge originally through being self-taught, or attending a one-day workshop or an event like a meetup group or conference. If you find that you have the passion then getting some sort of formalised training can help, especially if accessibility is not your everyday role but rather something bolted on to your current work.

Specialise if you can

If you have had the opportunity to upskill and really enjoy accessibility work, see if it is possible to have accessibility become a formalised major part of your role rather than just the ‘extra thing you do’. If your manager acknowledges that accessibility is part of your skillset and not just something that people ask you about, it’s likely to help long-term being in the right place for organisational change and an authority within the organisation. Again, formalised training can help with this as it will let management know that you have the skills needed to provide appropriate accessibility advice.

Never underestimate the power of internal training and train-the-trainer

Whether your organisation is large or small, if you are the designated accessibility person either intentionally or by accident, run with it by offering to train others in your area. There’s no shortage of resources and courses available to draw on, and if you start by training up the people around you, it will cement your role as the person who can help others to incorporate accessibility techniques into their work practices, provide you with the opportunity to delegate if the accessibity requests become overwhelming.  Even better, see if you can train up a select group of people who may be able to train others in different areas of the organisation.

WCAG is not just about the website

A common barrier in terms of getting accessibility taken seriously, particularly in large organisations, is an assumption that web accessibility standards such as WCAG 2.0 are only relevant to ICT professionals. Yet if accessibility is going to be truly organisation-wide, you’ll need to help explain it beyond designers and developers. For example, most people in your organisation will write documents, so which part of WCAG applies to them? Is the marketing team you work with sending out accessible emails and tweets? Ultimately, accessible content will overlap into the roles of most people, and you can help to spread the accessibility message by helping others to do the bit of accessibility that’s relevant to their role. As a great believer in the saying ‘Many hands make light work’, I’ve authored a free resource entitled ‘Service Providers Accessibility Guide’ which endeavoured to break up the accessibility work for IT professionals, content producers, marketing, social media, policy officers and what is needed by the people who work directly with people with disabilities. Resources such as this are likely to help you form a strategic process for incorporating accessibility into the workplace without it becoming too hard or intrusive.

Ground-up is good, top-down is better

No matter how much of a groundswell of support you manage to generate for accessibility, its success will ultimately depend on how it’s perceived by senior management. Perhaps your organisation already has a strategic plan relating to disability issues that web accessibility can be added to. Perhaps such a plan does not currently exist and needs to be created. Consider what approaches or conversations need to be had with management around policy as once there’s something from senior management that you can hang the accessibity message on, it’s much easier to promote it through your organisation.

Your island is part of a continent

It may seem like you are alone in your organisation when it comes to accessibility, but it’s important to remember that your accessibility initiatives are actually part of a global community. Groups such as the WAI-IG mailing list, meetup groups, conferences and webinars are just some of the ways you can meet people and talk through issues. I run the local accessibility meetup group and most people who attend acknowledge that it’s useful for two reasons: one is to get information on how to deal with particular situations, the other is that it’s very therapeutic to vent in company about organisational accessibility frustrations. Remember that you’re not alone in making accessibility happen, even if it feels like it is. You may be an island, but there’s a continent of resources and support close by.

So next time someone stands at your desk looking flushed due to the accessibility crises that just occurred, think of it as a teaching moment for your organisation as to why accessibility is important.  While you may not directly see the outcomes of your actions, people with disabilities everywhere will, and your hard work in getting the message into your organisation will be greatly appreciated.