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How to Build a Digital Accessibility-First Company Culture

By Jeff Adams, Accessibility Operations Director, UsableNet on May 3, 2023
Topics: Web Accessibility, Accessibility-First Culture


The internet has a problem. Lack of digital accessibility.

What is digital accessibility? Digital accessibility is the process of designing, developing, and maintaining digital experiences that are inclusive of users with disabilities. 

So much of the web is inaccessible to people with disabilities. It’s estimated that more than a billion people worldwide live with some form of disability. The number is likely substantially higher if you consider temporary, situational, episodic, or unreported disabilities.

We must evolve the way we create, develop, and maintain websites, apps, emails, and social media. An accessibility-first mindset needs to be ingrained in everyone who works on digital projects—and for every organization that does business on the web.

Consider this the call for a digital accessibility revolution!


The Current State of the Web and Digital Accessibility 

Despite the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) being established for 24 years,  digital accessibility remains very rare. Why? After all, no organization wants a potential customer to suffer from a poor brand experience.

Despite that, digital accessibility is something many companies struggle to integrate into their processes and mindsets. This means significant numbers of customers are being excluded from the benefits these websites offer.

Why does this happen? In many cases, it's a result of not enough people pushing for digital accessibility in organizations. A grassroots effort is necessary to help organizations foster and maintain the accessibility-first mindset.


Casting off a History of Exclusion

In the book Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, author Kat Holmes writes:

“For better or worse, the people who design the touchpoints of society determine who can participate and who is left out. Often unwittingly. A cycle of exclusion permeates our society. It hinders economic growth and undermines business success. It harms our collective and individual well-being. Design shapes our ability to access, participate in, and contribute to the world.”

In my experience working with various companies over the past decade, when digital accessibility fails to take root in an organization, it’s because only a handful of people—if any—are consistently advocating for digital accessibility. This oversight makes digital accessibility easy to deprioritize in favor of other initiatives that might produce more short-term returns on investment. It could also mean that any existing accessibility efforts fall by the wayside if the people leading the charge depart the company.

The latest WebAIM Million survey found that accessibility errors exist on 97 percent of the 1 million website home pages evaluated. Nobody wins when customers are excluded. Therefore, organizations must drive forward with actionable purpose to create an accessible and inclusive online experience.


Accessibility Conversations for the Win!

Creating a digital accessibility-first mindset can start with you.

Yes, you.

You might already be doing this if you're taking proper action to advocate for these changes inside your organization. Maybe you're a developer who writes accessible code. Perhaps you're a contributing designer working to produce a more accessible user experience (UX). Or you could be a content creator who ensures that the data entered into a CMS, email campaign, or social media post is as accessible as possible.

You might be new to accessibility, working through remediation for the first time. Or maybe you’re performing some initial research to find out what digital accessibility means in the context of your brand.

Whatever your personal journey is, you have the immediate power and ability to help inspire more advocates and promote positive change within your organization—regardless of where it currently stands with digital accessibility. The more people understand the importance of digital accessibility, the easier it becomes to get traction as a sustainable part of a company’s culture.


Overcoming the Status Quo

One challenge with starting a conversation about digital accessibility is an established organization’s hesitation to change the status quo. If web accessibility isn’t part of the company culture from day one, attempting to improve existing inaccessible processes and products is often more difficult. You may need to find the courage to confront your company’s traditional way of working in order to inspire meaningful change.

The types of conversations you may want to have with your colleagues and leadership teams can vary depending on the digital accessibility knowledge and background you already have. Here are a few ways to approach it:

  • Learn what the company is doing already: If you don't know what the company's digital accessibility plans and policies are, find out. If nothing is happening, ask what can be done to get started.
  • Find out if you can help: If you're on the digital team but are outside the relevant work that's happening, ask what you can do to support the efforts within your role.
  • Share your knowledge: Find engaging ways to educate your colleagues. Perhaps learning sessions can be organized to discuss various aspects of digital accessibility in short time blocks so others can learn. This knowledge might be technical; it could be about why digital accessibility is essential or about an inaccessible feature on your website. Whatever knowledge you share, it'll benefit everyone.

Regardless of your conversation, the meaning can resonate even more if you can express why digital accessibility is important to you.


Initiating Conversations for Continued Progress

I'll share a piece of my story to give you an example of what I say when someone asks me about my advocacy work beyond my role at UsableNet. Because of what I do, I'm well-versed in the exclusion that poor digital accessibility causes. When I see a company or an individual using inaccessible features, I tend to think that they don't realize the barrier they’re creating. As my desire to teach kicks in, I want to help them understand what's wrong and how to avoid or address the problem in the future. This inclination has become part of my DNA.

Ideally, the same type of advocacy and knowledge becomes part of your DNA, your colleague's DNA, and your company's DNA. Then, digital accessibility is always top of mind, and it eventually becomes a natural objective.

Jeff Adams, Accessibility Operations Director, UsableNet

Jeff Adams, Accessibility Operations Director, UsableNet

Jeff is UsableNet’s director of accessibility operations and advices companies around the world on best practices in website accessibility, and integrating accessibility into their processes. He’s been with UsableNet for more than a decade and is a Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies by the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. In addition, Jeff’s a creative entrepreneur and co-wrote the book, “Content for Everyone: A Practical Guide for Creative Entrepreneurs to Produce Accessible and Usable Web Content.”

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