Council Post: Integrating A Sustainable Accessibility Program: A Digital Transformation Imperative

CTO at Deque Systems and author of the “Agile Accessibility Handbook, A Practical Guide to Accessible Software Development at Scale”.

Digital transformation has become a buzzphrase. While it may be overused, its main focus won’t go away and cannot be overstated: leveraging technology in the service of your customers.

As businesses become increasingly agile and their IT matures, we can’t forego the underlying reason for these transformations: Users demand it. In these times of uncertainty with the global pandemic, that demand is louder than ever. Unfortunately, many organizations swept up in transformation projects have forgotten about their users, and most notably, people with disabilities. That’s roughly 1 billion people worldwide.

Whether you’re compelled by the considerable legal risks of inaccessibility, missing out on persons with disabilities’ (PwDs) estimated $490 billion after-tax disposable income, or simply because it’s the right thing to do, many organizations have difficulty getting an accessibility program started.

The reason many fail at accessibility is often the same reason their digital transformation efforts fail. Digital accessibility is a practice, not a project. They don’t realize that successful implementation requires the adoption of significant new behaviors and skills as well as undoing years of ingrained bad practices.

As CTO for a leading web accessibility testing and compliance organization, I’ve found that accessibility needs to be managed like a transformation. It is, in fact, a transformation within a transformation, because it becomes more critical when transitioning to digital. Based on my experience with many companies, there are seven accessibility transformation practices that will create the environment for your teams to be successful with accessibility within today’s agile environments.

Seven Key Accessibility Transformation Practices

1. Build a central accessibility team.

You may think this means your staff executing the program, but I’m referring to the managers. Their job is to support and help your development teams effectively blend agile accessibility into existing agile practices. They should manage the program, develop and report on metrics, bring in the proper tools and stay abreast of regulatory issues, among other functions. The alternative of just dropping an accessibility function onto existing dev teams without this support will likely result in frustration and failure.

2. Get C-level buy-in.

With your team in place, you can make a strong case for the upstream support you’ll need so your program isn’t overrun by competing priorities. C-level execs in marketing, compliance, legal and other departments should be educated on accessibility’s benefits and the pitfalls of going without. If your company is faced with an accessibility lawsuit, that motivation will propel the program, but may not be enough to maintain it. That’s why it’s your job to also relay the business opportunity of PwDs’ significant buying power.

3. Create and enforce an accessibility policy.

Now it’s time to lock in specific accessibility policies based on the unique attributes of your digital assets. These should be stored in a central repository and easily referenced by managers and staff. Require all digital property stakeholders to report accessibility gaps and their progress in closing them, as well as timelines for remediation.

4. Report on the transformations.

To keep senior management bought into your program, and front-line teams motivated, regular reporting is necessary. I like the dashboard approach where progress and the meeting of specific goals are available and regularly updated. Simple indicators (red, green, yellow) can show the accessibility status of each webpage or digital asset, perhaps collated into an overall score. Link code changes to their positive business outcomes; for example, a previously inaccessible order button now working for more users with impairments. Lawyers and compliance managers should receive regular executive summaries outlining how the legal threat is continually diminished.

5. Bring in accessibility coaches.

This is a form of training where basic technical knowledge is relayed and teams are supported as they learn and conduct the program. The term “coach” is used quite deliberately, as the coach does not implement the technology at all. They oversee agile team members as they work, help them practice and put new skills into place, and suggest more efficient approaches and strategies. This format can be more useful than intensive, days-long training, as much of the coaching ideally should occur in real time during implementation.

6. Host empathy events.

Having an emotional connection to a project can be a powerful motivator. Empathy events are great vehicles to achieve this as they help team members understand the challenges faced by PwDs, by simulating a disability while using their technology. Companies large and small can host these events. It’s not just for team members but also for executives (which can help confirm buy-in). Examples might include blindfolding a sighted person and having them navigate webpages with a screen reader or games that simulate the most common problems PwDs encounter.

7. Publish learning resources.

Access to a quality knowledge base of information and resources will be invaluable as your accessibility journey proceeds. We suggest your team leaders carefully curate this information so it is current and relevant to your industry. There’s much valuable information on the web, but some of it is outdated or incorrect. Your organization’s unique knowledge base can include best practices developed by team members, procedures for testing applications and a list of web sources known to be accurate and up-to-date.

These practices, together with the skills of your teams, can create an environment that fosters full integration of accessibility into your web and software development. It’s a significant change that, with commitment, becomes part of your organization’s ongoing processes. The end result: Accessibility is addressed in the earliest development phases — driving down program costs while driving up the delivery of results.

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