It's hard being the only one in your organisation or team responsible for accessibility. If that sounds familiar, I salute you, and this one's for you.
I've been thinking a lot recently about the challenges you face and some of the ways you can approach these, which I thought I'd throw into a post.
Firstly, you're not the sole person responsible for accessibility.
Now read that again.
It's everyone's responsibility, from product owners and managers to designers, UX'ers, content editors, developers, and QA. The list is as long as there are roles in your company or team. This also includes company owners, directors, CEOs, and managing directors who have a moral and legal responsibility to make products accessible.
If you are the only person with accessibility in your job title or responsibility for accessibility, we sometimes forget this and think we must do everything. Equally, your team and others expect you to have an in-depth knowledge of everything from design, code, QA, strategy, and legal.
Establishing that you are the person who can support teams and not the person to do all the work and decision-making is key. Defining clear boundaries and understanding where your role and expertise start and stop is essential.
Which leads me to relationship building.
Your role is as much about relationships as it is about accessibility.
Look for the decision-makers and managers who can make things happen and get their buy-in. They are the people who manage the teams and can get accessibility written into product requirements and team objectives. They hold the budgets, and have the first and last say; they have the authority.
Equally, look for the designers, developers, editors, and testers who want to get into accessibility. They are powerful advocates and can help you by matching their subject matter expertise to your accessibility knowledge. Using your time to support and empower people is a great way to amplify your reach and create a network of accessibility advocates and practitioners.
On that note, scale.
As an individual, look for ways to scale and amplify what you do.
Often we're pulled into the detail of reviewing a design for accessibility, training, testing, triaging accessibility issues, or responding to complaints. All the above are essential but not sustainable if you follow a model of doing all the work. Investing time in showing others how to do the work has a more significant impact and creates accessibility practitioners.
So instead of doing all the work, invest time documenting a process that can be demonstrated and socialised within teams. This could be a process for reviewing designs for accessibility, testing, triaging accessibility issues, or writing user stories for accessibility.
Think about what questions you're asked most, then document your answers in shared spaces: Confluence, a Wiki, onboarding materials, design system documentation…wherever your organisation pools knowledge.
In my early days at BBC, we were an accessibility team of two. Having been embedded in two products, we flipped our working model so that I no longer supported products and instead worked on establishing an accessibility framework, guidelines, and training that everyone could access and use across the organisation.
Which leads me to managing expectations.
Accessibility is as broad as it is deep.
You can't be the specialist in everything to the extent that people need you to be. You will have your area of expertise and should play to your strengths. It's fine not to know the answer, and there are plenty of ways around that. Build up a list of trusted resources and contacts. Tell people you will need to go and research it and come back with some options for them to consider. Your job is to help teams understand what their options are so they can make informed decisions about the accessibility of their products. If specialist knowledge is needed, get a consultant or additional support. If you need a budget, invest some time in writing a business case for accessibility. If you don't ask, you don't get.
Again, as the sole accessibility specialist in organisations, I found it more efficient to commission an accessibility assessment, research, or usability testing than to do it myself. I'd invest time curating findings from the assessments, research, and usability testing back into our accessibility documentation and processes so everyone benefited, not just the product being tested.
None of this is easy without support.
As well as building your relationships internally, build a support network externally. Step one is to plug into all the right places. There is so much out there now that you can pick and choose; if you're unsure where to start, you can't go wrong with the following:
- A11y Slack, a Slack channel dedicated to multiple topics around accessibility
- Champions of Accessibility Network (CAN) on LinkedIn, a group of people who have experience in setting up and managing accessibility champion networks who hold monthly online meetups
- WebAIM discussion list, a long-standing discussion group with lots of knowledgeable people curated by the brilliant team at WebAIM
Getting a mentor is a great way to get direct support and a safe place to ask questions and get guidance. If you don't know people to ask directly, some groups match mentors with mentees. I'm currently a mentor with Accessible Community, and together with my mentee, we focus on what she needs in the "now" and act as a sounding board for ideas and provide feedback.
- Accessibility is everyone's responsibility all the time, not just your responsibility all the time
- Build relationships with decision-makers with authority to embed accessibility and practitioners ready to build up their skills
- Look for ways to scale what you do through demonstration and documentation
- Manage expectations and be clear about what you can do
- Build a support network through community groups and mentor programmes
Your role is as much about diplomacy, communication, and empathy for the challenges teams face as it is about accessibility knowledge. You also need to look after your headspace and be realistic about what you can do. You don't need to do everything; all you need to do is open the door and bring others with you.
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This article was first posted on LinkedIn.
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