Construction crane building the universal accessibility symbol

How to Build the Foundation For Digital Accessibility

Accessibility isn’t a project, it’s a practice. Because of that, the entire organization needs to be on board and engaged for the practice to take hold and succeed. There is, inevitably, some thought-shifting that needs to take place and foundational principles that need to be understood and accepted. Over the years, I’ve advised all sizes and manner of organizations and I’ve found that the following organizational principles must be in place. A company must have:

  1. The inclination to practice accessibility
  2. The time to practice accessibility
  3. The knowledge to practice accessibility
  4. The automation and tools to practice accessibility
  5. The availability of expert resources for future changes

Before you can get started, every stakeholder needs to understand what these principles are, how they apply to them, and how to realize them across the company. In this blog post, we’ll talk about principle #1: the inclination to practice accessibility, and three important actions that make this possible across an organization:

  1. How to obtain executive buy-in
  2. Creating and enforcing an accessibility policy
  3. Running an accessibility awareness campaign

How to Obtain Executive Buy-in

I’ve seen hundreds of companies practicing accessibility and not a single one has made significant, sustainable progress without the backing of their C-suite. I cannot stress how important it is to make this happen because, with that backing, accessibility will remain a priority through business ups and downs, leadership changes, acquisitions, mergers, and more. In other words, it will become a piece of the company’s fabric and culture.

Your C-Suite will want to know the risks, opportunities, direct costs, and extended costs of the program before they’ll sign off. So, you need to build the business case:

  • Analyze your current risks and how an accessibility program can mitigate them
  • Detail the opportunities, or business benefits: Increased market share, improved brand, reduced operational cost, and legal/compliance risk mitigation
  • Determine your direct costs: Internal man hours needed to transform your organization
  • Frame out your extended cost: Who you will hire to help, the cost of tools, and the cost of training and education
  • Do some modeling to project the return on investment and what your horizon is to build out a sustainable capability

Let’s dive into the business benefits of accessibility. The first is that being accessible increases your market share. People with disabilities have a disposable income of $500 billion in the United States alone. In market terms, that’s 24% of US citizens. This is actually more than the African-American or Hispanic markets. Add to that, the disability community—friends and family of persons with disabilities—and that number jumps to 73% of US citizens!

Secondly, demonstrating a commitment to accessibility aligns your company’s brand with the growing social justice movement–because it’s the right thing to do. Today’s consumers consider a business’s core value when they are making their buying decisions. In fact, seven in ten US millennials actively consider company values when making a purchase.

Third, making your digital properties accessible decreases operational costs. Chances are you’re a multi-channel company. You’ve got brick-and-mortar stores, call centers, a mail facility, etc. But your cheapest channel is always the digital one so, to save on operational costs, it’s important to enable all of your customer base to use that channel.

Finally, being accessible decreases the risk of complaints, demand letters, and lawsuits—and the expenses that come with them. Not being accessible can result in very public, very negative disclosures that harm your brand, but there are also significant financial consequences. The 2008 Target settlement resulted in a $6 million class damages fine, and that was not the only cost. Target had to pay upwards of $3 million in plaintiff legal fees on top of their own defense legal costs.

Talking to your executives about these important factors directly addresses the things they care about, and are accountable for on a daily basis. It will help them make accessibility a priority.

Create and Enforce an Accessibility Policy

Once you have executive buy-in, you must create the policy that will drive your internal organization. An accessibility policy (not to be confused with an accessibility statement) clearly lays out your path to success.

A good policy will:

  • Identify all the stakeholders. Development, design, product owners, compliance, legal, procurement, budgeting, etc.
  • Set your targets or scope. For example, achieving level WCAG 2.0 A/AA compliance by a certain date, or no critical/serious issues, and creating a backlog of minor and moderate issues by a certain date.
  • Make the accessibility policy flexible. It’s important to increase scope and quality over time. Don’t immediately say “this policy covers every piece of digital content out there,” because two things happen: Number one, you’re going to fail; And number two, you’re going to immediately be in violation of your own policy.
  • Don’t let that policy outrun your capability. First, build the capabilities and the teams, and ensure that they have a chance to be successful before you hold them to that policy standard.
  • Understand your audience and communicate professionally. You need to create a good first impression as you’re getting started, especially if accessibility is new at your organization. Good communication is also important as you work across departments.
  • Have timelines and goals around enterprise approval. To convince your C-suite or create a policy, have an actual timeline goal so that you’re holding people to making decisions so you can move forward.
  • Take your roadshow to those key stakeholders that you’ve identified. Once they understand what you’re trying to accomplish, more often than not, they’ll try to help you.
  • Make accessibility easy and funded.

If you follow the principles above, your policy will be written in a way that’s manageable now, and both sustainable and extendable into the future to support your long-term objectives.

Accessibility Governance

It’s also important to adopt a governance structure and a tool such as a tracking system. If you’re a large organization, there’s a 99% chance that you already have a tracking system that your company is using for enterprise risk management. If that’s the case, use that system. Also, you can reuse the policy structure from this system so you don’t have to create everything from scratch.

Lastly, stakeholders need to have periodic accountability discussions. For example, between development executives, senior business leaders, and the C-suite.

Ongoing Awareness Campaign

The majority of people are unfamiliar with how people with disabilities navigate websites and applications. An accessibility awareness program is a great way for people to fully understand what this looks like.

First, discuss what types of disabilities exist and how people might interact differently with your content. Next, give employees hands-on experiences with the assistive technologies people with disabilities use. This is always a “lightbulb” moment. Once people understand what types of disabilities exist and how people with disabilities navigate the web, discuss how everyone can start changing the way they do their own work and how to make your website and applications accessible to these assistive technologies.

This may seem like a very simple project—it isn’t. Accessibility education needs to be an ongoing and regular part of training for everyone in your organization. Some examples of awareness activities you can do include:

  • Awareness Labs–virtual or physical. These labs demonstrate how someone with a disability might use assistive technology to interact with the physical or digital world.
  • Coordinate communications with an accessibility holiday. Global Accessibility Awareness Day and International Persons with Disabilities Day are two major accessibility events.
  • Ongoing and robust communications plan. Plan regular emails to promote learning for everyone, create a dedicated slack channel, and partner with your organization’s disability employee resource group if you have one.

It’s very important for everyone from the C-Suite down to understand how they can help with accessibility, but it’s especially important for designers and developers so they fully buy-in and don’t see it as a burden.

Risk Management and Accessibility: Keeping Things on Track

We’ve discussed how to talk about the business case for accessibility with your C-suite, how to create an accessibility policy, and how to teach people about the importance of accessibility.

In the beginning, you will encounter problems and pushback. Change is hard. One way to overcome this is by managing accessibility formally, with established project or change management processes.

Let’s do a very brief exercise on risk management to avoid or mitigate pushback. A standard risk statement can be thought of like this: due to “X”, there’s a risk that “Y” would happen, and when that happens, your result is going to be “Z.”

For example, “Due to a lack of multi-year funding, there’s a risk that funding for subsequent years might not be adequate for the roadmap, and this would result in a failure to meet your multi-year goals or backsliding in quality.”

What are some of the risks that you think you might have at this stage? Possible risks include:

  • Failure to get executive backing
  • Failure to involve stakeholders (development, design, product owners, compliance, legal, procurement, budgeting, etc.)
  • The policy is too strict and too fast (outruns capabilities)
  • The policy has no exception processes
  • The policy doesn’t track exceptions
  • The policy doesn’t assign accountability

So, how can you mitigate your risks? First, prioritize risk management based on the probability of occurrence and the impact it will have because you simply can’t mitigate every risk that’s out there.

Do a risk session. That means having stakeholders write down potential risks and classify them into topics, probabilities of occurrence, and probabilities of impact. Then, you’ll be able to identify those things that you need to take action on first.

For example: Due to a failure to involve all stakeholders, teams are not allocating enough sprint time to complete the work, resulting in blocking, critical, and serious defects going into production. This is a risk that I see almost every single accessibility program deal with at some point or another.

Here’s what you can do to mitigate this risk:

  • Identify groups controlling product scope
  • Create a communications plan to revisit executive mandate and information
  • Conduct sessions with product owners and managers to discuss needs
  • Prioritize accessibility as a non-functional requirement
  • Make it easy–provide tools, automation, story examples, etc.
  • Measure outcomes, gamify, report, and reward

Start Now – Begin Your Organizational Change Journey

Accessibility isn’t necessarily difficult, but it does take time (sometimes years) to truly affect organizational change. The most important thing is to get started and keep in mind accessibility requires patience, persistence, and commitment.

The good news? Automated tools, such as the axe DevTools browser extension, can have a huge impact on your development team’s ability to get started immediately. Even if you’re just starting your journey, go ahead and get a tool, find some enthusiastic early adopters, and some people who really want to see change happen.

  • In a typical development cycle:
    • Up to 67% of defects can be identified and fixed in design, which is the most effective (and cost-conscious) method
    • Every defect identified and fixed in development costs an average of $350 less than finding and fixing in QA
    • Every defect identified and fixed in QA costs an average of $450 less than fixing in production
    • So, let’s do the math: Letting a defect get into production can cost up to $800 or more to fix! And that doesn’t account for the cost savings of finding and fixing them in design. On top of that, you have:
      • Customers unable to use content
      • Customer complaints and dissatisfaction
      • Increased litigation risk
      • Increased regulatory risk
      • Damaged brand
      • And, and, and…

If you scale these costs to thousands of pages and thousands of defects, you can see how critical it is to prevent defects as early in the development process as possible.

Finally, it’s important to invest in the resources your developers need to do the job right –  education, training, coaching, tools, etc. Without the proper resources, conscientious developers will try, but they’ll struggle and you’ll have poor results.  Supporting them properly from the start is critical to saving development time, money, rework, and delays and for the organization as a whole to practice accessibility sustainably.

What’s Next?

Adopting these foundational practices to help get accessibility off the ground is the first step, but the work doesn’t stop there. To keep the practice growing within your organization, you’ll need to prioritize the time and knowledge needed to be successful. In our next blog post, I’ll cover where and how accessibility champions can find the time and knowledge they need to succeed.

Photo of Greg Williams

About Greg Williams

Greg Williams is the Vice President & Chief Program Architect at Deque Systems, Inc. He oversees program development and operations for some of Deque’s largest customers, helping them to build mature, sustainable accessibility programs.

Prior to joining Deque, Greg spent more than 30 years in the information technology field focusing on large, complex program operations for Fortune 40 companies and before that served in the United States Navy for a number of years. He had great success as the founder and owner of the Digital Accessibility Program Office for State Farm Insurance, building their practice from the ground up into one of the highest maturity level programs in the world between 2013 and 2018.

Greg has always been passionate about diversity and inclusion and has extended this passion to the disability and accessibility community - joining Deque Systems in 2018 to help launch and mature similarly successful programs across the globe.
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