I have been very happy to see accessibility become a larger and larger topic of discussion over the past three years. Accessible content and sites are even more important after the pandemic forced people indoors and online for nearly everything they need to support their lives. Perhaps, during your time indoors, you have looked over your company’s site and wondered if you could do better. Maybe, you KNOW that you can do better. Maybe, maybe, you KNOW and HAVE to do better. I could do this all day.
Regardless of how many maybes you stack up, YOU know that accessibility work needs to be done. However, perhaps others around you are not on board with doing that work. You feel blocked; there is no time budgeted, you don’t have the resources, you don’t have the buy-in to create change. You need allies. It can feel lonely; it can be defeating. You can see the need, even see the value for everyone involved, but you can’t get through.
I get you; I was among a small group of people here at Portent that started to push for more attention and resources when it came to accessibility. Over the course of a year, that small group grew, and now we tend to have more accessibility work that we can contend with. But, to get there, I had to learn that accessibility work is not… accessible right away, no matter how empathetic, intuitive, or intelligent people may be. My goal is to share the plan I used to introduce WCAG and other accessibility concerns to my organization and the clients we work with.
Information Gathering and Storytelling
The single most important thing to start with is an actual list of problems that need resolution. A mistake I made early on was approaching the needs from only a place of theory. I knew there were problems, but I didn’t have specific issues to point to.
I was attempting to appeal to everyone’s righteous curiosity and fell short. I needed to be able to point to a thing on a screen and describe the problem, easily.
Load up AXE dev tools in your browser. If you do not have AXE web tools installed, you can find the extension here. AXE is as low as the barrier to entry can be. Run a scan on your site’s home page and one other key page (landing page, contact page, about page) and review the results; list a few that catch your attention.
Building The List
Once you have accessibility issues in front of you, it is time to organize a small list of needs that you will research and build some narrative around. You are looking for no more than 10 issues and overall a list of items that could be completed in about 10 hours’ worth of time.
Remembering that the goal here is to make seeing the issues accessible to others, and that the work is not only important but possible, the list you compile will need to include some high impact but lower effort needs.
Accessibility design and WCAG compliance can get into some complex needs and interactions. For now, we will save the higher-level needs, such as keyboard shortcuts and ARIA requirements, for a time when you have won over everyone.
There are some categories of high impact/low effort work that can be both persuading and sustainable:
- Color Contrast Issues: Low contrast, difficult to read text, difficult to read text over images.
- Inclusive Language: Language issues won’t be found by AXE or other scanning tools. Give your content a read and spot words that have more inclusive terms. If you want a concise example of inclusive language, I recommend reading the 18F Inclusive Language Guide to get a baseline.
- Input Labels: Do form fields have persistently visible labels? Are error messages clear?
- Header Tag Hierarchy: Heading tags need to appear on a page in order without skipping levels.
- Decorative Images: Images that are only there to be looked at should be marked with an empty ALT attribute.
- Generic Link Text: Links should describe their purpose, especially when grouped together. More than one ‘Read More’ link on a page is too many.
I want to make a small note about user stories. Small tales of how interactions can go wrong for differently-abled users encourage the empathy needed to address accessibility issues.
The stories you have to tell can and should be simple. “The color mixture we use on this button makes it impossible for a color-blind person to fill out and submit our contact form,” or, “due to our incorrect header tag hierarchy, a user that relies on a screen reader would read our product information out of order.”
If you have friends or family that would be blocked by issues on your site, ask them to give it a look or attempt to complete a goal and listen to their feedback. Just… make sure not to exploit them.
Any human experience story you can bring will add some weight and urgency to the conversation.
Discussion and Planning
You have your initial set of issues and experiences; now, it is time to discuss them. You don’t need to gather everyone in your organization together and give a big presentation, but if that is what you want to do, then be my guest. Big or small, you will be discussing the same thing.
One other thing I found while rallying my co-workers to my side was that accessibility work is about reducing friction in a user experience. Often I would start to talk about some accessibility need and would be met with responses such as, “well, this client probably wouldn’t work with the blind,” or, “this wouldn’t be a product that appealed to users with limited motor control,” or any manner of hand waving. Leverage the user stories to build empathy, but as you share the issues and stories with your organization, link them to the client’s goals. Goals are easier to meet when friction is lessened.
For example, do you have a person or team that relies on form submissions? Discuss form-related accessibility issues with them. Utilize your user stories to supply the baseline empathy they need to understand and then tie that to users not completing form fills, thus not contributing to their goals. Even if it is 1% of users, it is 1% they don’t have. The tail end of this strategy is admittedly cynical; unfortunately, you cannot gain every ally through altruism.
If you have made it this far and still find yourself strapped for user experiences, here is the target issues list from the previous section with some friction-related talking points added:
- Color Contrast Issues: Low-contrast text can really ruin a message, even worse when text is placed over an image. Both vision and cognitive impairments can make poorly contrasting text impossible to read, follow, and understand.
- Inclusive Language: Words mean things, and the wrong words can turn your clients away. Do not overly gender your content or use phrases that deride a group of people just to appeal to your client’s ego, such as, “it’s stupidly easy,” or “a mom-proof setup.”
- Input Labels: Improperly labeled form fields create confusion. I don’t care how cute your form is… forms are not fun to fill out. They are transactional. Your users want to submit it and move on. Keep information and landmarks visible. Set everyone up to succeed.
- Header Tag Hierarchy: Heading tags need to appear on a page in order without skipping levels. Assistive technology helps a user navigate content from top to bottom. Headers that are out of order or improperly used create unorganized documents that are difficult to navigate.
- Decorative Images: Images that are only there to be looked at should be marked with an empty alt attribute. All types of people use screen readers to complete tasks. Don’t waste their time by injecting meaningless image descriptions into the flow of content.
- Generic Link Text: Links should describe their purpose, especially when grouped together. More than one ‘Read More’ link on a page is too many. Imagine yourself in a hall of doors. Every door has the phrase “pull to open” written on it; however, every door has something different behind it. Which door is the door you need?
Discuss Potential Legal Risks
It is important to discuss the potential legal implications of an inaccessible site as well. This is my least favorite part of the persuasion process. Overall it can feel like a scare tactic… and to a point, it is.
The most effective message to deliver is this: If your company is offering a product or service to the public, it should be making all reasonable accommodations to make the acquisition and distribution of that product open to all of its customers regardless of their abilities.
It is rare to see, and notably only happens to large companies with a lot of broad public interest, but in the United States a customer can, potentially, sue your company for making products or services accessible to some people to the exclusion of others. If your company loses the suit, there would be consequences in the form of a settlement that could include everything from paying damages to installing new employees in your company specifically for meeting regulations to being required to fix all accessibility issues in a certain amount of time under supervision.
Being proactive with your accessibility work and reporting on it will shield your company should this ever occur.
Create a Plan
You have discussed friction and potential legal repercussions. Hopefully, you have started to bring people over to your side. Now you need to have a plan. Again, we are starting small here; actions and intent need to be in line.
Hopefully, you were able to keep the time needed to complete the list within about 10 hours. It is OK to trim a couple of items off the list to get into that range. Aim to complete that 10 hours of work within 30 days and schedule a follow-up meeting with everyone who will be involved.
10 hours of work over a month may seem like an incredibly low effort, but resist the urge to go harder. The goal here is to onboard the people around you, and make the work accessible. Some may move faster than others; some may not.
During the 30-day follow-up, focus on what was learned and what was accomplished. At the end of that meeting, commit to another 30-day cycle with new or remaining items on the list. If everyone involved feels they can take on a little more, then add a BIT more. Remember to resist the urge to do it all at once. Accessibility work is ongoing; you won’t sprint on it and then never do it again.
A final note in this section: it is important to keep a record of the work you perform. Keep a spreadsheet of brief summaries and timestamps of the progress made. At a minimum, I recommend recording the following items:
- Day and approximate time the fix was deployed
- Brief summary of the issue that was addressed
- Who performed the work
- Who verified the work
- How was the work verified (list any relevant techniques, browsers, devices, or assistive technologies)
Keeping a record of the work completed is a positive way to look back over what has been accomplished. The information you save is also useful should your company ever find itself having to prove that active accessibility work was being performed.
For Portent and our clients, considering accessibility as a foundational part of our work was not effortless. It took time and some dedicated people willing to learn. We stumbled at first; you and yours will as well. Take a cue from the work you want to accomplish and make it accessible. Commit to smaller amounts of effort at first that allow for your intentions to match action.