This article is meant to be a practical guide to answer the question, “how do we get started with accessibility?” This is based on my own experience, but that’s a lot of experience, so it’s probably sufficient for unpaid advice. Hopefully you found this because you’re interested in building an accessibility practice at your company, and not just because you asked accessibility experts to give you their time (without compensation).

Because that would totally not be cool. Not you? Great! Let’s dig in.

First, let’s make some introductions: how about an intro to accessibility to get you started?

Pay Experts for Their Expertise

Deeply understanding and implementing accessibility practices across business, design, and engineering takes many years of practice, learning, and the kind of expertise that only comes from, well, experience. If you really want to build a successfull accessibility program at your company, pay experts for their time. Ideally, create a Director of Accessibility position and hire a well-known accessibility consultant to interview potential candidates for it. No one at your company will have any idea of how to do this, which is why I recommend it. “We want to make accessible products” is a well-intentioned refrain, but once the reality sets in for just how difficult it is, there’s a whole extra layer of difficulties that arise. I say this as the once glowing-with-happiness new hire who was so excited that the new company “really wanted to make accessible products” but as it turned out, wanted WCAG conformance so they could sell their product to California and the EU.

This isn’t a bad start, but WCAG conformance to meet legal requirements is totally different than an accessible product, and any accessibility professional worth their salt will tell you that. It’s okay to be up front with the accessibility professional/consultant that you hire to take on this problem, though. I will bet anything that they’d rather know than be hopeful that they “finally found the place that wants to get it right.” Most of us don’t actually believe this place really exists, but just in case there is some hopeful soul out there that still does, please be honest about your company’s goals and intentions. “We don’t want to get sued” and “we want to make more money” are legitimate reasons for being interested in hiring some accessibility experts.

Of course, there are other ways to fund accessibility work- How To Fund Accessibility Work is just the guide to get you started.

Building a Community of Practice

Next, let’s talk about the different kinds of commitments that you’ll need to successfully build a community of practice at your company.

Decide what your goals are:

  1. Do you want to build an accessible product that can be used by any type of user, thus expanding your potential customer base?
  2. Do you want to sell your product to state or federal governments and require conformance to do so?
  3. Are you legally required to have a compliant product?

Compliance, conformance, and accessibility. These things are all different. Compliance means that you have a legal mandate to provide a product that meets the current WCAG Success Criteria. Conformance means that you’re not legally required to do this, but you’re voluntarily doing it (probably to expand your customer base). But accessibility goes beyond conformance. Accessibilty means you’ve embraced and fully committed to the idea that digital products should be able to used by everyone. And by commitment, I mean budget.

Once you’ve decided on what your goals are, hire the experts necessary for you to hit your targets. Just like you would if this was a performance issue.

There Are No Shortcuts

Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

While those words are from a fictional character in a fictional story, I would only slightly adapt it for accuracy:

Accessibility has no shortcuts. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

Just like the cake is a lie, so are overlays. But, let the Overlay Fact Sheet tell you everything you need to know.

Did you know that we can only automate tests for about 30-40% of accessibility issues? You can track this using the Accessibility Automation Tracker, an open source project that itemizes potential violations and tells you what tools can be used to check for them in an automated way.

Get the Executives on Board

This will not succeed if it’s just a single person or team’s initiative. It’s noble but masochistic, at best. Your CTO needs to be on board. Your Product Owners need to be on board (or, be informed that they will be doing this, at the least). Your PMs and TPMs need to be on board. And your design team needs to be on board.

Here are the signs of “being on board”:

  • there’s budget for it.
  • they don’t push back with incorrect stats like “why do we need to care about the 5% when we already have the 95%” (not only is this factually inaccurate, it’s ableist and a sign that they are a giant jerkface, sorry but there’s no other way to put it).
  • they don’t try to “get around” it
  • they publicly talk about the importance of (accessibility goals) at company all-hands
  • they reward designers and engineers who actually do this work
  • they hire the experts they need for it
  • they hire outside consultants to back up what the internal experts have already said
  • better yet, they listen to the internal experts

Whew! That’s a big list, but I bet as an enterprise corporation that has expressed a commitment to accessibility, it will be no problem!

The Truth About Accessibility

Ok maybe that last sentence was not exactly correct. The truth of the matter is, it doesn’t matter how well-intentioned or how well-monied you are, this will be difficult. Especially if it’s 2022 and you’re only just now getting started. But it’s 2022, and you’ve waited this long, so it’s time to get the ball rolling.

Here is a list of links to get you going even more:

Also, take some time to learn about the existing experts in the space of web design and development. I consider myself to be one of them, but I stand on the shoulders of absolute giants. So go find some talks to watch, look for WCAG experts on LinkedIn and Twitter, and ask around.

Just don’t ask for free spec work. It’s unethical and there’s enough of that in the world, don’t add to it.

Until next time. -M