Accessibility: a Practical perspective
Hi all. Hope you Americans out there had a good weekend with your families. (And if you’re not, I hope the same for you. We just got two extra days to do it last week.)
First, a word from our sponsor
Did you know Practical Equity and Inclusion is a company? It’s true! And through January, we have one and only one service: 50-minute personal mentoring services for folks working (or wanting to work) in accessibility, inclusive design and product equity. I help people with their career trajectory, navigating issues with their work, and dealing with the stress of working on DEI in the tech field.
Practical also offers free mentoring sessions. The only difference is that these are only bookable on Thursdays, and only up to 10 days in advance. Each paid session causes a free slot to open up for the next week.
I’ve facilitated hundreds of these sessions over the last six years. If you’re looking for some advice, or just someone to talk to, sign up for a session and let’s talk.
What is accessibility?
Last week I promised to jump into accessibility, inclusive design and product equity. I was thinking it’d be a companion piece to a blog post I wrote back in 2018, mostly to clarify differences between universal design and inclusive design. But then, it turns out I have feelings about each piece of the puzzle, so I’m going to serialize it rather than give you a novella to read.
Accessibility is one of those terms that seems pretty clear from far away, but as experts know, it gets fuzzier the closer you get to it. I think most people take for granted that all definitions center around the lived experience of disabled people, but unfortunately I don’t think that’s the case. Who you are and how you intersect with accessibility has a lot to do with how much actual people factor into your understanding.
Your perspective on accessibility can also vary widely based on whether you view the term qualitatively, or quantitatively. If you understand the humanity of it, and especially if you are disabled yourself, you are more likely to think in terms of how well accessibility is done. If you don’t, you think about how much needs to be done. Those two things are not remotely the same.
If accessibility is not defined by disabled people, then exactly what does define it? In practical terms, what we usually end up with is a comparison of a product or service with a measurement (e.g., a web resource against the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG); a new building against the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design).
If I were to take the intersection of many perspectives and boil it all down, my definition of “accessibility” would be:
the degree to which a product, service or experience meets the standards set for equitable participation by disabled people
the measurement of the above
Or, more cynically:
the degree to which a party is legally liable to meet disability-related policy requirements
the measurement of the above
To quote Buddhist philosopher D.T. Suzuki: “To point at the moon, a finger is needed; but woe to those who confuse the finger for the moon.” Standards are great for communicating what needs to be done, but not why or for whom. When we use standards and measurements to point at the moon of disability equity, we have already abstracted the problem at least one step away from the lived experience of disabled people. This is where we begin to turn a qualitative problem into a quantitative one. That’s not necessarily all bad, because that can set a lower bound for what is expected. But if the standard is your definition of done, to borrow an Agile term, then how are you ever going to get your organization to do better?
I’ve managed multimillion-dollar accessibility budgets, and it frustrated me how much of that money went not to progressively improving the product, but simply documenting and re-documenting their quantitative accessibility in the form of compliance reports. Those reports (which many of you in the US know as VPATs, or ACRs), aren’t created as a roadmap for improving the product, but as documentation for government sales. In reality, producing an ACR on request is mandatory; reading it is optional. And ironically, they’re actually not very good guides for improving the product. If you turn the ACR failures into bugs, all you are sure to get is a better-looking report.
Where the accessibility team lives in an organization can tell you how it’s perceived. Legal departments are explicitly quantitative: they exist to interpret and execute policy. If your boss is the general counsel, they’re funding your team to improve legal compliance. Legal doesn’t fund product development, but when it instructs a product team, it’s a safe bet they intend to make it more compliant, and therefore more marketable and less liable to litigation. Accessibility teams can also live in government relations; sales and marketing; standards; or security and privacy organizations, and in each case, it’s highly likely that their work will be measured quantitatively, in line with each one’s main line of business. Ultimately, that’s all measured in dollars.
The backlash against accessibility overlays can be seen as a battle along these very lines: overlay companies are selling cost certainty under the banner of disability support. And that can’t fly. In fact, the only way overlay vendors can succeed is by selling their products directly to people who don’t consider the lived experience, but do care about their liability, or their brand perception. “More” is a quantitative measure, and we know from our experience with overlays that “more” accessibility code doesn’t mean “better.”
If you work on a corporate accessibility team, you may be thinking I just said compliance work isn’t valuable. It’s tremendously valuable. Evenly applying the laws and policies that exist for the benefit of disabled people is critical. Generations of disabled activists made those policies happen, and we need to make sure those policies are respected.
That said, I think a lot of you are doing more than what is expected. You’re pushing for what is right for the people, over and above what policy dictates. You are doing disability advocacy work—qualitative work—where the job description doesn’t call for it. You and your employer have mismatched expectations. That’s hard. It doesn’t make you a lot of friends. A lot of employers don’t like it. And when we do that work anyway—when we push, when we say no, when we make noise—it comes with some amount of personal risk. And it’ll burn you out in a hurry.
This is my point: don’t call your individual disability advocacy or activism “accessibility” if it’s not what they pay you for. Organizations should not get a pat on the back simply for doing what is legally expected of them. They should demonstrate how they support disabled people’s needs and wishes above and beyond that. And they should recognize the added value you provide to them by spurring them to do more than the baseline. If you do more than measure legal compliance, say that. You are an advocate for disability equity.
Quantitative accessibility itself is not the answer, but it is part of the answer. Disability rights has to exist in every part and process of the organization. We need to look at ways to use all the levers available to us, and direct our energies toward qualitative approaches to disability equity. To me, that starts with inclusive design. I’ll talk about that in the next issue.
That’s all. Happy Cyber Monday to all who celebrate. See you next week.