Web accessibility is everyone’s job

It’s great to keep up to date with readings, meetups, and training, but until you embed accessibility thinking within your project or product delivery process, you’ll struggle to build truly accessible solutions. Here I’m going to share our journey in implementing a cross-functional working group and weaving accessibility into our product development process.

So this is how the story goes.

2013: Take 1

I attended Melbourne Web Accessibility and Inclusive Design meetup’s A11Y Bytes 2013 to celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). I had been closely following the web accessibility space for a little while by this stage, but didn’t know how to expand my knowledge. So I thought this would be an amazing opportunity to meet and interact with some of the accessibility experts in town.

Adem Cifcioglu and crew did an amazing job in organising A11Y Bytes, an evening of lightning talks to create awareness, raise the profile of, and spark discussions about digital accessibility and different users’ needs and preferences. The program included talks from some of the well-known leaders in this space — Dey Alexander, Kim Chatterjee, Ruth Ellison, Adam Kendall, Chris McLay, and Kevin Galvin.

Global Accessibility Awareness Day, RMIT University, Melbourne / 2013

My favourite part of the night was Kevin’s talk on the importance of having a framework for achieving WCAG 2.0 accessibility compliance. His talk inspired me to pitch an initiative — the Seamless Web Accessibility Committee (SWAC) — to the Seamless management. The idea was simple — SWAC will have members of each team (UX, visual design, front-end development, back-end development, and testing), and will gather fortnightly to review WCAG 2.0 accessibility guidelines and translate each accessibility principle into a clear, actionable role-based checklist for our project teams.

Even though the SWAC initiative received approval from management, we didn’t receive buy-in from all levels of the organisation. Individual KPIs were aligned with client projects, so SWAC work was often considered secondary and the meetings got rescheduled whenever there was client work due. These unexpected delays in the work caused team members to lose their momentum over time and it took 2 months longer than our original estimate to build up the role-based accessibility checklist.

We collectively spent 168 hours over 5 months and completed the first draft of the checklist on 31st October 2013. However, this initial attempt to spread accessibility knowledge didn’t make as much of an impact as we had hoped for. Once the checklist was completed, everyone got busy with their day-to-day tasks, and we failed to maintain the enthusiasm throughout the company.

Decent idea, poor implementation!


2016: Take 2

To establish a practice of accessibility within an organisation, you need to overcome preconceptions about the complexity, effort, and cost of achieving it. The challenges of changing existing processes and integrating best practices often put accessibility in the too-hard basket.

By running SWAC in 2013, I knew creating awareness and getting internal buy-in could really help overcome the internal resistance. So before resurrecting SWAC, it was time to focus on creating awareness and building internal accessibility momentum.

A shift inside

There are a few things we did to start the accessibility conversation across the organisation and beyond. We got involved in community meetups, organised company-wide events like GAAD, created accessibility posters, and conducted sessions to educate our staff and customers.

Team Seamless at A11YBytes Melbourne / 2015
Team Seamless at A11YBytes Melbourne / 2016

As a part of our GAAD 2016 celebrations, we ran a pop-up lab to expose team members to the wide variety of disabilities our users might experience while trying to navigate through our products. This really put the team in our users’ shoes and helped them understand the challenges users face.

Seamless employees participating in our pop-up lab / GAAD 2016

Infusing accessibility into the organisation is not mandating a change on the outside. Instead, it’s laying a framework for a change in the way we think and do our work so we can do the right thing in the first place.

The new round of accessibility efforts was an eye-opener for all staff members, from the front-line customer success officer to the project manager. Articulating the purpose of accessibility empowered our staff members to plan ahead instead of treating it as an after-thought. We’ve now started baking accessibility into our process from the outset.

Develop your accessibility champions

As David Malouf wrote in The Guide to UX Leadership[1],

“an evangelist is only as good as the stretch of their voice. You can’t be everywhere. If you’re trying to scale across increasingly larger organizations as your career grows, you must build a group of disciples to shepherd their own flocks.”

It was clearly time for us to inject fresh blood into SWAC, so I had 1–1 chats with all team leads and got them to nominate someone from the team to be a part of SWAC 2.0. This time, we ensured that all team members would have dedicated hours every week to work on SWAC tasks. We also tied in accessibility efforts with individual KPIs, and found ways to formally recognise team members for putting in extra effort to improve our accessibility processes and make our product experience more inclusive.

The key is to tell your new team members what job needs to be done rather than how to do it. One of the team’s first decisions was to rename SWAC to the Seamless Web Accessibility Group (SWAG). A team that has momentum is on the move and hard to stop! :)

The new Seamless Web Accessibility Group (SWAG) / 2016

They now lead the charge to organise company-wide accessibility events, maintain the checklist, educate others on how to embed accessibility best practices in their work, and share their learnings at community events like A11Y Bytes and UX Australia.

Srikant Ramachandran presenting at Seamless First Friday, our monthly showcase
Shannon King sharing our SWAG journey at UX Australia / 2016

The new SWAG thrived having larger responsibilities placed on their shoulders and as a result they well and truly smashed our accessibility goals — the group collectively worked 222 hours and completed a final draft of the checklist in 3.5 months (1 month earlier than the estimated timeframe).

Infusing accessibility as part of the organisational culture

We found that the key ways to ensure accessibility knowledge is spread across the organisation in a sustainable way were to:

  • Sponsor staff members to get professionally certified in web accessibility
  • Establish accessibility champions as points of contact and sources of information
  • Ensure champions are kept up to date with organisation strategy to ensure accessibility efforts are in line with our overall business goals
  • Conduct a web accessibility session during induction to get new staff members onboard with an accessibility mindset from day one.

Accessibility as a competitive advantage

“Not only do we get the satisfaction of doing the right thing, but it’s a great market opportunity in its own right.” (John Browett, Tesco Chief Executive)

With the renewed enthusiasm in learning and building truly accessible products, our teams were able to make two of our flagship products OpenCities and OpenForms fully Level AA accessibility complaint in less than 6 months. To the best of our knowledge, right now none of our competitors are offering this level of accessibility compliance to the market.

We engaged Vision Australia, the leading national provider of blindness and low vision services in Australia, to conduct accessibility audits of our products. After an extensive audit, we received a formal acknowledgement that our products met Level AA accessibility compliance in 2016.


Building a robust accessibility program is an ongoing process. We wanted to ensure our team had the skills and resources necessary to achieve full accessibility compliance. The launch of SWAG and the team’s ongoing activities have helped establish an accessibility mindset across the organisation that’s now a fundamental part of our culture.

What’s next?

We’re in the process of developing an accessible UX framework to help us integrate accessibility throughout our product development life cycle. In particular, we aim to:

  • Create personas for differently abled users to ensure we’re building our products in an inclusive way
  • Recruit differently abled users to participate in usability testing

We believe these actions will help us offer a truly inclusive product experience to our users. I hope some of the tactics shared here might help you to build accessibility know-how in your organisation.


How far along on the accessibility journey is your organisation? Have you integrated accessibility practices into your development process? What strategies worked best to get organisational buy-in? I’d love to hear what worked for you, share your experiences in the comments below.

References

[1] Evangelizing UX: How design leaders win buy-in by David Malouf
[2] Case study of accessibility benefits

Special thanks to Rachael Mullins, Rodney Gordon, and Braedon Reid for helping me polish this article :)