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What is Accessibility Coaching and why does it matter?

Accessibility isn’t just a requirement for compliance. It’s about being inclusive and accounting for human diversity. It’s also a great business differentiator. At least 73% of Americans care about equal access to the web and that accessibility influences their buying decisions. But it’s still unfamiliar territory for most development teams and so they struggle with releasing products that are accessible from the start. There are many approaches, services, and tools to help teams make their products accessible, but these are not always efficient, or effective. For example, remediation alone isn’t sustainable because it is costly and time consuming. Products that claim to make your software accessible with a single line of code simply do not work. So how can teams make their products accessible on their own, from the start, in an efficient and effective way? One answer to that is accessibility coaching.

The goal of Accessibility Coaching is to change a development team’s will, skill, and process so that they can proactively deliver accessible products with very little help from a subject matter expert. At its core, it’s about building self-sustainability. This means that the coach works at the team level, with all roles on the development team, and other roles that partner with the dev team to execute the software development life cycle.

Accessibility Coaching is a fairly new concept and is still evolving. In this post, I’ll introduce what the practice is as we know it today and how we think it will change as the practice matures. Before we dive into what this means in practice, let’s look at how coaching is different from other approaches.

What differentiates coaching?

  • Coaching: Coaches work with teams and individuals within teams to help them find answers to their own questions and work together more effectively to achieve a common goal for the team and, ultimately for the organization.
  • Consulting: Consultants work with organizations to problem-solve, provide services, and/or give specific feedback and recommendations.
  • Mentoring: Mentors work with individuals to build the mentee’s skills over time. Discussions are usually driven by the mentee.
  • Teaching: Teachers or Instructors work with groups of people to provide formal training (think classroom).

If you think that coaching looks like a combination of all of the above, you’re right. A good coach will leverage each of these approaches, as appropriate, to achieve the team’s goal of becoming self-sufficient. Additionally, the coach might bring in specialists to perform certain tasks, like instructor-led training. As I said earlier, the goal of any coaching engagement is to enable development teams to independently deliver accessible products. By understanding what approaches to use, when, and at what level, a good coach can build stronger, more capable development teams faster. This is a critical combination given the velocity at which teams are expected to deliver products and features and the fact that accessibility is a requirement—legally, financially, socially, and ethically.

The phases of accessibility coaching

So when are each of these approaches used? The answer to that question is “it depends”. When most teams start a coaching engagement, they know very little about accessibility. They might not have the technical skill to make their products accessible, know how to effectively bake accessibility into their development process or have the will to consider accessibility at all.

Agile Coaches have confronted these problems for years. What can we learn from their approach? As Lyssa Adkins describes in her book Coaching Agile Teams, Agile Coaches often leverage  the concept of Shu Ha Ri. Shu Ha Ri is a Japanese martial arts framework that describes the stages of learning toward mastery.

  • Shu: Follow the rule. Practice it, learn it at a surface level.
  • Ha: Break the rule. Now that you know the rule, you can start to challenge it and dive deeper. Learn the underlying principles of the rule, why it exists, how it fits into the bigger picture.
  • Ri: Leave the rule. Now that you know the rule, why it exists, and how it fits into the larger picture, you can begin to craft new rules to improve the process.

This translates into 3 phases of coaching:

  1. Teaching (Shu)
  2. Coaching (Ha)
  3. Advising (Ri)

Individuals and the team as a whole move through each of these phases. At Deque, the Accessibility Coach uses established milestones to provide further structure, track, and quantify progress through each of the phases.

Phase 1: Teaching

In the beginning, the team usually has limited knowledge or experience with accessibility. So, the first thing that the coach does is join the team. They participate in team meetings such as daily stand-ups, backlog refinements, working sessions, and retrospectives. The coach learns how the team operates by observing the team dynamics and gaining insight into their current work-set. This enables the coach to discover how their development process actually plays out in order to identify process and skill gaps. During team meetings, the coach explains how accessibility fits into each step, fields questions, and reminds the team to practice the new process and skills. In addition to working with the larger team, the coach also works with individual team members, builds relationships, and addresses any questions or concerns they might have that might arise.

Thus, the first phase is focused on teaching. This creates the foundation the team needs to succeed. What does the team learn in this phase?

  • The will: The team learns why accessibility is important and how it fits into their jobs. For the team to be effective, there must be a collective desire for accountability.
  • The process: The team will learn when and how accessibility fits into their development process.We recommend Accessibility Behavior Informed Development (a11yBID), although it’s important to remember that good agile teams self-organize and the best process is the one that works for the team. a11yBID has proven to be effective, but it might not be a perfect fit for all agile teams or non-agile contexts. The coach can help provide direction.
  • The skills: The coach will work with every role to gain the technical knowledge needed to create accessible products. This may involve self-learning, instructor led training, one-on-one teaching, and more. Again, the coach will leverage whatever approach works best for that individual.

What roles does the coach work with?

The short answer is: “all of them”! This can get rather complicated though, as some of these roles are not within the coach’s specific team. Sometimes, they’re not in the same organization or, even formally exist. The coach can help the team work through these complications.

Some of the possible roles and how the role fits into the process are described below.

  • Designer: Creates accessible designs, reviews their own work, and documents how their designs impact accessibility.
  • Content writer: Creates and reviews content for accessibility. This can include everything from page titles to alternative text for images.
  • Product owner: Makes accessibility a priority for the team, ensures that all stories have clear accessibility requirements, and looks for evidence that accessibility requirements have been met before accepting stories.
  • Scrum master: Helps the team review their progress with accessibility in retrospectives, and documents it as a team norm.
  • Business System Analyst (or whoever is writing stories): Uses a11yBID to facilitate collaborative planning for accessibility and documents requirements as accessibility acceptance criteria (a11yAC) in stories.
  • Developer: Reads the a11yAC to help point and estimate stories, know what to code, and how to code/test.
  • Tester: Read the a11yAC to help point and estimate stories, know what to test and how.
  • Everyone: Participates in collaborative planning for accessibility, and continually inspects and adapts their process to make their products more accessible.

The coach doesn’t do the team’s work for them

Especially in the teaching phase, it can be tempting to have the coach do some of the team’s work, such as writing and testing stories, coding, content writing, prioritization, or even design work. This can actually be counterproductive because the goal is for the team to learn to do these tasks on their own. Instead, the coach should guide the team through accomplishing these tasks on their own. Additionally, the coach does not take responsibility for the accessibility of the product: the team owns that responsibility.

Phase 2: Coaching

Now that the team has a certain level of experience and confidence with accessibility, the coach can pivot from being a teacher to being a coach. In this phase, instead of directly answering questions, the coach will guide the team to answer the questions themselves. The coach monitors the team and their work, stepping in with observations and feedback as needed. Celebrating and reinforcing what that team is doing well is a big part of the coach’s role in this phase.

Phase 3: Advising

Once the team is largely self-sufficient and is seeking less day-to-day guidance, the coach can become more of an advisor. The coach will still monitor the team’s work and step in as needed, however, the team will likely want to adjust their accessibility approach to better fit the way they work. That’s fine, as long as they can still effectively deliver accessible products. The coach will help them ensure their adjustments will still be effective.

After the team has proven that they can deliver accessible products with minimal support, they are considered self-sustainable.

What happens after a team becomes self-sustainable?

Teams will still likely need a minimal level of support from their coach. It’s just a fact of life that the team will change.  People will leave or join.. Processes will change. Leadership will change. Worksets will change. To manage this team lifecycle, there needs to be a system in place to support them long term. At this point, it’s best if the coach is an experienced member of their organization rather than an external contractor to consistently carry the team’s experience, growth, and processes forward. This proactive support coach can help with questions that might arise, bring new team members up to speed, and provide focused coaching as needed. Additionally, there may be times when change is so significant that a coaching restart is required.

Effective coaching requires a strong central accessibility team

For coaches to be effective, the organization needs a strong central accessibility team and program. This team can help the coach by:

  • Partnering with product managers, sponsors, leadership, and people managers to create awareness and unblock issues.
  • Creating and maintaining policies to enforce accessibility.
  • Creating, maintaining, and prioritizing a pipeline of teams that need coaching.
  • Helping to unblock issues that might arise which negatively affects a coach’s effectiveness.
  • Hiring/promoting internal coaches for long-term support after teams reach self-sustainability.
  • Establishing a monitoring and auditing process to detect regressions over time. This will help identify teams that need coaching and provide evidence of the value that the coaching program has already provided.

How accessibility coaching might change

As a practice, accessibility coaching is still fairly young. A key concept with Agile is that teams continually inspect and adapt the way they work, in pursuit of improvement. The same concept applies to accessibility coaching as practice, and we must continue to inspect and adapt the approach. With time and as more organizations adopt it, we will see it become:

  • More scalable and efficient, with teams reaching self-sufficiency faster.
  • Better aligned with different development processes, organizational structures, and cultures.
  • More standardized, with industry-wide collaboration and definition around accessibility coaching as a practice .

What does it take to become an Accessibility Coach?

There is no single path. However, an effective coach must be able to:

  • Provide subject matter expertise to the team as they are learning the fundamentals of accessibility.
  • Collaborate effectively with other coaches and teams to resolve issues.
  • Listen and communicate directly and effectively with every member of the teams that they coach.
  • Be compassionate, respectful, open, and humble.

At the time of writing this, Deque has several open accessibility coaching positions. If you think you’ve got the right skills, please apply.

What’s next?

Contact Deque to let us know if you are interested in having a coach join your team.

Photo of Michael Fairchild

About Michael Fairchild

Michael is a Manager of Accessibility Consulting at Deque, with over a decade of experience with accessibility - including development, testing, coaching, and leadership. He is a Certified Professional in Web Accessibility (CPWA) from the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) and is working thoughtfully to make the digital world more inclusive and accessible.
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