Building Accessibility Culture

Accessibility must be part of every aspect of business, part of the minimally viable product, a core part of how we approach the launch and growth of our platforms.

by David Peter on June 22nd, 2016

Society hates when bodies deviate from the type you see in movies and magazines. These bodies are not just blonde, white women with curves softer than ice cream; they are not just rippled, white, male lumberjacks with jaws sharp enough to slice thrown tomatoes in half. Even the Seinfelds of society don’t dare deviate too much from the norm — and at this point, they are the norm — white, cis, able-bodied people.

People with disabilities are kept out of sight and out of mind — a body with one arm, a person with autism, a wheelchair user. I’m tired of how little I come across people who are deaf in films and books, and when I do, the representation often leaves something to be desired — favoring novelty over characterization, reduced to stereotypes over subtlety.

Despite race and gender becoming hot commodities, disability has stayed invisible, pushed to the margins. Take a look at the diversity data many tech companies have released.

How many of them mention disability? Issues experienced by disabled people aren’t popular enough, and because of that, systemic inequality persists, and because of that, their issues aren’t popular enough. It’s a snake eating its own tail, an ouroboros of inequality.

A door handle with the rim defined by a carved, decorative ouroboros. A lion is at the center of the knob.

Photo CC-BY Sebastien Wiertz.

The world we live in perpetuates many kinds of ableism all the time. Fixing (“changing”) the world doesn’t rest on a single axis, or even three, but we can reduce injustice by making our websites and workplaces accessible for people with disabilities.

Building Accessible Websites and Products

The Internet is often touted as a neutral platform where everyone is equal. But if you want people with disabilities to use your website, people with disabilities must be able to access it. The United Nations, in a study of one-hundred websites, found only three websites met the international standard for accessibility. Out of a hundred, only three. This study is meant to be indicative, not exhaustive — and it indicates the Internet is not as neutral as we like to believe.

For a long time, I loved tech: from when I had my first personal computer, with a blazing fast 56k modem that dialed a noise I couldn’t hear but my mother could. I couldn’t hear the dial, but I didn’t need ears to post on forums, chat on AIM, play video games. But after years, YouTube became mainstream — without captions on thousands of hours of videos. One of my favorite games has voice-acting in all its cutscenes — without accompanying text. Podcasts these days have exploded in popularity — the ones I want most come without transcripts. I wish I were as interested in tech as before, but these small frustrations have built up, over years, as the world has continued ignoring me as part of its audience.

If you are a tech company committed to diversity, what does your diversity mean? Is it only for people who work for your company, or does it include who uses your website? If your website is for creative people, what kind of creatives does the website enable? Are they mostly white, middle-class people? The culture of the community your website fosters is just as important as the internal company culture. Heck, some users might even become your employees!

Our development teams must learn how to make websites more accessible. In my experience, people seem to generally agree that accessibility is important, but no one takes the plunge. That ends up being just lip-service, and is the same thing as not valuing accessibility.

I could tell you many things to include, like a “Skip to content” button for keyboard-only users, but inclusion isn’t a checklist. A checklist treats symptoms but isn’t a cure; it (and I!) won’t cover all possible situations. You must put yourself in their shoes — literally use keyboards only, mute speakers, and use screen readers to understand the user experience of people who use different tools to navigate your products.

You cannot avoid training. Your team needs to learn how to make your website and apps accessible. Hire accessibility-aware people to help fix issues or bring them up. Hire consultants, bring in speakers, take classes. Learn WAI-ARIA, the specification for increasing web accessibility. The Accessibility Project provides incredible resources for building your skills. Your site should strive for level AA conformance to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, the global standard for web accessibility that is slowly becoming a legal requirement. And just as we test websites in multiple browsers, we should test multiple ways to access a website and see how it affects that user experience.

Subtle Distinctions

Black arrow drawn on the wood of a construction site.

Photo CC-BY Eduardo Sciammarella.

Accessibility is about giving users choices. A website for a restaurant could be a single colossal image of a menu — that’ll make the user experience amazing for a certain type of user, but at the expense of everyone else. People who are blind or visually impaired have no chance of reading this image, and the fixed font likely impedes legibility for others who require a customized stylesheet. Forcing your audience to experience your website in only one way is naïve and ignorant; more than one way to access web content exists.

We should create our websites with universal design in mind. The principle of universal design ensures people with disabilities can access your website while improving the experience for people without disabilities. Universal design has its roots in architecture; wheelchair users cannot climb sidewalks, so sidewalks dropped their curbs — this also benefitted, among others, skateboarders and parents pushing strollers.

Sometimes brand decisions clash with accessibility, so accessibility can mean customizability: adding options to toggle settings on or off, like captions, animations, or a color-blind mode. We should allow our users to customize how they consume our content. Their user experience, ultimately, is what matters most.

In that way, usability trumps guidelines. Accessibility and usability are similar, but not the same. Accessibility is adherence to the WCAG 2.0. These guidelines are a proverbial line in the sand on whether a website is accessible, but compliance to official practices may not result in the best user experience for your particular audience.

Accessibility As Part of the Product Cycle

Hand-drawing of the scrum product development lifecycle, moving from a product backlog to the sprint backlog, with a circular arrow depicting the sprint itself, and moving into the "increment" stage, illustrated with a building block or lego.

Photo CC-BY Oliver Tacke.

As “software eats the world,” our communities merge into a global village. Companies who internationalize their products learn it affects the whole company forever — it’s a commitment to maintaining a diversity of languages across your whole website. It’s reaching out to different communities and convincing them your website is right for them. Yet we don’t do the same within our own country. If you’re lucky, people who are traditionally underrepresented might accidentally discover your website and spread the word. But don’t depend on luck. Do your own outreach; reach out first. People with disabilities comprise 15% of the world’s population. Do the work to make your product accessible — beyond minimally accessible into universally accessible.

If we want the best product experience, accessibility must always be considered a line-item, just like you would consider security, performance, and internationalization. It must be part of every aspect of business, part of the minimally viable product, a core part of how we approach the launch and growth of our platforms.

If your engineering, product, and design teams value modularity, as most should, then include accessibility as part of the product cycle; if you’re making a component accessible, you’ll only need to ensure accessibility when creating and maintaining the component. Then people who use the component somewhere else won’t need to worry about whether it’s accessible or not. Even better, improve the frameworks your engineers use until they’re accessible by default — components in iOS have accessibility built-in, and Ember now has an accessibility community team which devotes time to improving accessibility in Ember and Ember addons.

Analyze where in your existing processes a simple accessibility check could exist. A code review is often the last gate before a product is released to production — they are good places to surface last-minute issues, like ensuring images have alt attributes and using semantic HTML5 elements as much as possible.

But we can do much more than code reviews. What about issues of low contrast between background and text, which concern users with low vision, or issues with unfocusable elements, which concern screenreader and keyboard-only users? Automated testing might be able to catch issues that slip by code reviews, but only on pages you tell it to check, and only for issues they’re programmed for. QA checks and manual testing by stakeholders are great ways to ensure your product is accessible. But that’s more reactive; to truly build accessible products, we have to start from the very beginning.

Including People with Disabilities

A crossed-out universal access sign against trees, text reading 'Non-ADA Trail'.

Image via the author.

Company A is small. Its founders have just raised a series and netted a cool million. They decide to rent an office. This office is temporary, they say. They turn the office into their own, something like the prototypal garage of Silicon Valley’s early days. It has stairs, shoulder-length halls, and everyone shouts across the cramped office. By default, Company A has already excluded people who cannot navigate or work in this environment due to physical or neurological diversity, and the company did not even have to say a word.

I have different social needs from hearing people — my easiest communication mode is visual, not verbal. I’ve experienced my share of meetings where people talk too fast for the interpreter or captionist to keep up, and someone has to tell the group to slow down and talk in turns. The best meetings are those that are moderated. If this sounds “corporate,” surprise — many aspects of the government, the epitome of “corporate,” are actually accessible and inclusive, but it seems trendy to hate.

In the hearing world, people want group conversations, where I want one-on-one. I tend to avoid “company lunch” where the space is full of noise and bodies and I can’t understand anyone through mouths stuffed with food. I prefer sitting at a restaurant with a book or with someone else. I no longer care to be in a group where everyone is laughing and I don’t understand why. I no longer care to be in a group chatting about something while I stare at each face in turn, trying to figure out the puzzle of their lips. I no longer care to feel powerless.

Employees have diverse needs, and rather than forcing them under yours for “culture fit,” ask them what theirs are. How can you make things better for everyone? What are their dietary restrictions? Any allergies you should be aware of? Do they need any accommodation? How is public transportation to and from the office? Are your happy hours drowning in alcohol? Figure out how to cultivate the radiant and bursting diversity inherent in the population, and make your workplace reflect that.

Systemic Inequality in the Workplace

From the photographer: White skinned male mannequin, lighted from the right side of the image, sitting behind a large shop window. It has strong features, colorful eyes and plastic hair. Behind it there are two other models, another white one and a female mannequin with shiny black hair.

Photo CC-BY Horia Varlan.

The benefits of increased diversity in the workforce have been repeatedly cited across numerous publications, including this one. In popular culture, I see this “diversity” becoming only about white women; rarer, people of color. We seem to forget diversity is multifaceted, with disability part of the definition. Hiring workers with disabilities will improve accessibility of your product, either due to putting the onus on them (don’t do this) or by increasing awareness of accessibility issues and empowering the company to create more accessible products.

And yet, we’re not hiring people with disabilities. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says, “A 2004 United States survey found that only 35 per cent of working-age people with disabilities are in fact working, compared to 78 per cent of those without disabilities.” Even when they are hired, they earn significantly less than their able-bodied peers. This is despite the fact that, as the Convention states, people with disabilities have higher retention rates after one year and more small business experience. Most disabilities cost $0-500 to accommodate. Making buildings accessible adds 1% to its total cost.

Even when accessibility is more expensive, that should not factor into your hiring decision. I promise you it costs less than employee turnover. And certain accommodations may be universal; all my engineering meetings have a transcriber, which also benefits remote and sick employees. In the U.S., you can get tax benefits if your business is small enough, and if it’s large enough — the money is a small part of their actual salary. And “being disabled” is not synonymous with “a worse employee.” The baseline becomes, “Given reasonable accommodation, can this person do their job?” rather than “Would I like to drink with this person?”

Hire an accessibility advocate and give that person a seat at the table — a Chief Accessibility Officer, a Director of Accessibility, or a VP of Accessibility; the title doesn’t matter. This someone should manage accessibility across the company. They should advocate for people with disabilities in company goals, direction, hiring, office management, marketing, design, engineering, and other relevant areas. Without advocacy at the highest levels, the people on the ground will have to fight an uphill battle for accessibility that should have been done earlier in the process, and development will slow to a crawl.

We’re Missing Something

Here’s a point most diversity initiatives miss: When people talk race and gender, I see them assume the default body. Diversity 101 tells us every body is a beach body, every body is beautiful. But do we actually believe it? Where are these bodies in movies and magazines? How often do voices of the people inhabiting these bodies get elevated?

We’re not just fighting the patriarchy — we’re fighting the kyriarchy, the intersectional idea that every individual has some sort of advantage. It’s an alienating feeling, being somewhere clearly not built for you. High shelves just out of reach, not enough automatic doors, hallways not wide enough for crutches. Loud conversations at non-circular tables, unplanned social gatherings with no prior accessibility information, no stairs except the little infuriating bump the wheelchair won’t go over. This is no more or less important than matters of gender and race, but we must also recognize and fix the problems society created for people with disabilities.

As we work to improve diversity in the technology industry, we must also celebrate neurodiversity. We must celebrate body diversity. We must celebrate ability diversity. You won’t often find people with disabilities in books or advertising. But we dare to live, our lives just as colorful and explosive and peppered with Netflix as your own.

This piece was originally published in Model View Culture 2015 Quarterly #3, updated by the author for publication online.