If we’re really serious about advancing accessibility, we must do these four things.

Published July 26, 2020.

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That means today is a day for both celebration and reflection.

We celebrate because there’s no doubt the ADA has led to significant gains for people with disabilities.

However, we must reflect because people with disabilities still experience far too much friction in their lives due to inaccessibility, as evidenced by:

Clearly, there’s more work to be done, so that’s what I’m choosing to focus on today. We need to honestly assess what hasn’t worked, where we go from here, and how we can push things forward — and that’s exactly why I wrote this article.

From my perspective, there are many things we in the accessibility community can do to further the cause. However, I believe these should be our top four goals if we truly want accessibility to achieve the mainstream awareness and adoption it deserves:

1) We need to get better at marketing.

Over the years, I’ve engaged in numerous conversations about accessibility and noticed a number of common themes. Two of them are heavily intertwined:

  1. Inside the accessibility community, there seems to be a mindset that it’s crass to talk about accessibility in a commercial way that’s too promotional or “salesy.” In other words, accessibility is a matter of human rights, so people should just do it because it’s the right thing to do, and it would be wrong to promote too forcefully or assign a dollar value to such a worthy cause.
  2. Meanwhile, outside of the accessibility community, there are still a lot of people who’ve barely heard of accessibility, or worse, don’t even know what it is (no joke, you’d be shocked at comments I’ve heard).

See the relationship? Silence and hesitant or ineffective promotional methods all lead to a lack of awareness in the target audience. Clearly, we need to do a better job of communicating, selling, and marketing accessibility to the masses.

We especially need to do a better job of conveying the Return on Investment (ROI) potential of accessibility because, for better or worse, many people want to know what’s in it for them. This is especially true of the executives and directors at organizations, big and small — you know, the people who are ultimately responsible for deciding whether accessibility will become a priority within their orgs. Every decision they make is driven by ROI.

Marketing directors in particular face incredible ROI pressure, and they also happen to be the people in charge of an array of digital experiences within their organizations. If we want them to start building accessibility into all the digital experiences they manage, then we need to start speaking their language. It’s not crass, it’s practical.

That said, as someone with an extensive marketing background, I can tell you marketing is about more than just ROI. It’s also about psychology and persuasion, which brings me to #2…

2) We need less stick and more carrot.

There’s a third theme I’ve noticed in my accessibility conversations, and this one saddens me:

There’s a growing number of people outside the accessibility community who are well aware of accessibility, and they’re starting to resent it. Again, no joke — I’m hearing more and more people express the attitude that accessibility is something onerous they feel forced to do reactively, rather than something wonderful they want to do proactively.

But really, can you blame them? Think of the words and actions that seem to be emanating most loudly from within the accessibility community:

Compliance. Risk. Audits. Testing. Laws. Lawsuits.

These are not fun topics. Does that mean we should never talk about them? Of course not! But I strongly believe they shouldn’t be the lede — and yet many (if not most) digital accessibility webinars are focused on lawsuits, and the homepages of five of the six most well-known digital accessibility service providers mention “compliance” or “risk” right at the top of the page in either the main nav or header. 

Folks, this is psychology 101. Fear is a poor long-term motivator, and when people are pushed, they tend to push back.

But when we change the rhetoric, when we extend a helping hand, when we educate, when we give people reasons to love accessibility and weave it into everything they do, they’ll be much more willing to join the cause. And we desperately need them to join, which brings me to #3…

3) We need to refocus on people.

People don’t like lawsuits and compliance, and it’s hard for us to relate to technical standards — but you know what we tend to have an affinity for?

Other people.

We relate to other people, and we love learning about them, hearing their stories, interacting with them, and celebrating their successes.

That’s why I think we need to shift away from a compliance mindset towards a more human-centered approach to accessibility. After all, accessibility is achieved by people, for people, so why wouldn’t we put greater emphasis on those very people?

It all starts with people with disabilities. Have you ever noticed how rarely we hear directly from them? Yes, it happens occasionally in brief demo videos showing how people with various disabilities interact with certain technologies. But other than that, we don’t see them and interact with them nearly as often as we should — not even close.

As a result, amongst both the general population and accessibility professionals, there is a severe lack of empathy, and thus a complete disconnect from real-world application. We end up focusing exclusively on how to make something accessible without fully appreciating the more motivational and relatable factors of why we should do it, who it benefits, and how it benefits them. 

Clearly, we need to shine a brighter spotlight on people with disabilities, and include them more often. That means talking to them, asking them questions, including them in our teams and processes, and coming to deeply understand everyday moments where our inaccessible choices negatively impact their lives.

Doing so will yield three very significant benefits:

We’ll achieve better compliance with accessibility standards.

Yep, you heard that right: By emphasizing people over compliance, we can actually end up achieving a higher level of compliance.

For example, if you’re looking to gain a better understanding of the accessibility needs of people with either low or color-deficient vision, which is the better teacher — trying to memorize WCAG Success Criteria 1.4.1, 1.4.3, 1.4.6, and 1.4.11 line and verse, or hearing directly from people with these disabilities and seeing realistic simulations of what they see?

It’s no contest: Empathy, real-world application, and learn by doing always lead to superior understanding and results.

We’ll transcend standards and become more well-rounded accessibility professionals.

This is definitely not meant as a knock on the WCAG, but some people with disabilities are not as well represented within the WCAG as others. For example, there is basically no mention within the current text of the WCAG that children on the Autism Spectrum find certain colors overly stimulating, especially reds, yellows, and vibrant shades of orange.

But you know what? We don’t necessarily need a technical standard to tell us this. Instead, we can go straight to the source and discover real-life stories about Autistic children.

Once you possess this knowledge, you’ll know to use those colors sparingly or not at all in both the digital and physical worlds (especially in environmental and instructional design). As a result, you’ll go beyond your niche and become a more complete accessibility professional, able to move the needle across an entire range of experiences.

We’ll become better accessibility marketers.

Looping back to the topic of marketing… The additional ingredient that ties it all together is the human angle. In other words, effective accessibility marketing isn’t just about ROI, or psychology / motivation, or human interest / social good — it’s about all of the above.

In fact, I’ve been fortunate to speak about accessibility at three different events. What I’ve found works best is to describe accessibility as a win-win-win: There’s the ROI benefit of additional customers and revenue, the reduced legal risk, and the reward of knowing you made the world a better place for a large number of people.

Without fail, it seems to work wonders. In fact, my last event was a panel on brand and marketing for small business owners in January. The mention of accessibility came at the end, and it was a hit. I had multiple attendees come up after and thank me for mentioning it, and the panel moderator (who, by the way, is a marketing director) even came over and gave me a hug, specifically citing the way I talked about accessibility.

It may not seem like it sometimes in today’s world, but people care about people. Let’s leverage this fact to our advantage.

And speaking of people, let’s finish by talking a bit more about accessibility professionals…

4) We need to build a massive team of accessibility generalists to complement the specialists.

I want you to take a moment to imagine an alternative-universe version of our healthcare system that consists of only a few brain surgeons, but nobody else. No nurses. No family practice or internal medicine doctors. Just brain surgeons — and even then, there aren’t enough of them to go around.

Does that kind of medical system sound effective? Of course not — but if we’re honest with ourselves, it also sounds a bit like the current state of the accessibility community, doesn’t it?

In my opinion, the #1 reason why accessibility has not “gone mainstream” to the level it ideally needs is because too many people (both inside and outside of the accessibility community) view the practice of accessibility as a silo, if you will — something separate and specialized.

And it’s not viewed like just any specialty — it’s seen as a brain surgeon-level specialty. Basically, if you’re not a “brain surgeon” with a certification, don’t bother because you’ll never be able to do accessibility right. I’ve even heard some accessibility experts express this sentiment publicly, in a variety of ways.

As a result, people who could have been very valuable to the cause are instead driven away from accessibility. They view it as something they’re either not responsible for, or not allowed to be responsible for because it’s too complicated and they’ll mess it up. 

Looping back to our medicine analogy… What would a healthy medical system look like?

Well, it would consist of both generalists and specialists, with the generalists being greater in number and doing most of the upfront work. When unusual or advanced cases come through the door, they get referred up the chain to the brain surgeons and other specialists. 

As far as I’m concerned, this blend of generalists and specialists is exactly what we need in the world of accessibility.

I want to see an army of people from small business, architecture, UX, marketing, IT, HR, customer service, interior design, and other professions and industries add beginning-to-intermediate level accessibility knowledge to their skill set. That way, they’ll be empowered to seamlessly integrate accessibility into everything they do, and take care of the low-hanging accessibility fruit.

Then, when things get more difficult, they can collaborate with, or pass the baton to, higher-level accessibility experts who know how to solve more intermediate and advanced problems.

Bottom line: I think we need to make the practice of accessibility more accessible and inclusive.

Otherwise, if we keep treating accessibility like something separate and unattainable, then people with disabilities are going to continue to feel like something separate and unequal.

We need to do better, and I believe multidisciplinary integration of accessibility is the key.