How to identify a Toxic Accessibility Culture, and what you can do about it

Sheri Byrne-Haber
Jul 1 · 9 min read

A broken organizational culture makes everything disability-related harder, from implementing accessibility projects to getting critical support to move the disability / accessibility needle forward

A real dumpster fire (from which the term “dumpster fire” was coined)

Urban dictionary defines “Dumpster Fire” as:

1. A complete disaster.
2. Something very difficult that nobody wants to deal with.

In an immature organization, accessibility can unfortunately be both. Please interpret the below as the collection of my 15 years of experience working exclusively with people with disabilities, several decades of being a person with a disability, and the parent of someone who has a different disability than I do. I am not casting aspersions on my current or previous employers.

General organizational “toxic culture” signs include things like product silos, focus on managerial hierarchy and titles, rumor mills, and fear of speaking up publicly. Those have a bad impact on all business functions. However, there are several signs specific to accessibility where even if the organizational culture is generally good, the accessibility culture may be bad or toxic.

When someone thinks that THEIR “business need” or “priority” is more important than implementing minimal accessibility for people with disabilities, you are on your way to a toxic accessibility culture (if you haven’t already arrived).

These days, failing to follow basic accessibility guidelines is a lawsuit waiting to happen, either from the public, your customers, or your employees. For serial filers, these lawsuits are money makers because 98 % of the time the case settles or the plaintiff wins in court. Either way, the lawyer and plaintiff receive an almost guaranteed payout. An accessibility lawsuit can add up to millions of dollars in lost sales, legal costs, rework, and brand harm.

Why do organizations allow someone who isn’t allowed to expense a $25 stapler without two other levels of approval make decisions ignoring basic accessibility guidelines that triggers this massive risk? In my experience and in the stories I’ve heard, the motivation appears to almost always be linked to the decision maker being strongly financially incentivized on some parameter OTHER than accessibility, like receiving a bonus if a particular feature is released by a certain date. In other words, the anti-accessibility individual is more interested in their own financial well-being than the well-being of their disabled customers, or frankly even their employer’s long-term success. If deprioritization of accessibility requests happens frequently in your organization, you have the de facto definition of a toxic accessibility culture.

Accessibility can be expensive when you are doing it retroactively. Rather than building an accessible product out of the gate, retroactive accessibility takes something that is largely done and then “fixes” it. Leaving out form legends or using inaccessible color choices will require going back and getting designs re-opened, which is never fun or cheap. There are opportunity costs as well since the people that have to go back and do this rework won’t be available for the next money making feature or project at your organization.

Once your accessible release train is humming along, there are still costs associated with maintaining accessibility, including:

  • Automated tools licenses, if you choose to use them
  • UX research with people with disabilities
  • Training new vendors/employees/contractors as turnover occurs
  • Ongoing outside consulting if you have chosen that model over hiring accessibility personnel internally.

It is possible to do good accessibility work without spending a ton of money, but that requires a substantial amount of creativity and giving up creature comforts and accessibility optimizations like machine learning, automatically updating dashboards, and instant “press one button press and this defect is logged as a JIRA ticket” features. However, number crunchers frequently try to do a cost-benefit analysis looking only at the number of people they think are being benefited by being accessible and measuring that against the associated costs. The result may be your budget getting slashed.

Accessibility needs to be financially viewed as yet another specialized regulatory strata like GDPR, HIPAA, PCI, and privacy / IPV6, where compliance failure can cost an organization WAY more than being compliant. Constant cost cutting pressure can lead to indiscriminate accessibility budget reductions which is not good for a positive accessibility culture. Even when the accessibility budget is untouched, other departments will resent the fact that their budgets have been slashed when the accessibility budget was less impacted.

Remote work is the best thing since sliced bread for people with disabilities, for the following reasons:

  1. Being able to work remotely reduces the burden of commuting. For some people with disabilities, commuting is merely tiring. For others, driving can be expensive. Hand controls, trailers, and custom vans all cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, all of which must come out of the disabled individual’s pocket. People with epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and brittle diabetics typically can’t drive at all. Looking past driving, people with anxiety disorders, compromised immune systems, or multiple chemical sensitivity have issues with mass transit. Most people can’t afford to take taxis or ride share every day round-trip to the office.
  2. Being able to work remotely reduces the effort of preparing for work, which for people with mobility issues can take much longer than for people without disabilities.
  3. Being able to work remotely also allows people with disabilities to work around whatever schedule our disability imposes— frequent small meals, extra trips to the restroom, starting early and leaving early for physical therapy, whatever those needs might be.

Working in an organization that discourages remote work means that:

  1. You (if you have a disability) will be penalized for being disabled and needing to be in the office every day at fixed hours.
  2. It is less likely that there will be people with disabilities around you, since they would get hit with the same penalty (see next section for why this is important).
  3. Your company will not be as an attractive of a destination as other companies who do allow employees to work from home, which will hurt your organization all the way around (disabled or not).

WFH is also specifically identified by the EEOC as a potential reasonable accommodation for someone with a disability. So an organization whose official or unofficial position is “we don’t support WFH, ever, period” may be acting illegally in the United States with respect to its employees with disabilities. Hence, the lack of support for WFH is definitely a potential factor in toxic accessibility culture. Yes, it’s a nuisance to request WFH as a reasonable accommodation. But if you do so, your WFH privileges can’t be unilaterally eliminated if your department or manager changes. There is significant value in that stability, especially if you work in an organization that has a high rate of managerial turnover.

I know how to use a screen reader (six of them, as a matter of fact). But no amount of screen curtaining will change the fact that I can see, and have been biased by learning to use computers and the internet while being able to see. That’s why I occasionally need to be able to consult native screen reader technology users for advice on their preferences, how they process data, and how they tackle new situations, just to name a few things I have inquired about in the past.

An organization with few or no employees with disabilities has multiple potential accessibility culture issues:

  1. Any language about organizational diversity and inclusion are at the VERY best #Diversish. At worst, that D&I language is not really being followed-up with by any activities that are moving the needle forward with respect to employees with disabilities.
  2. Consult with native users of assistive technology may have to be accomplished outside of the organization which requires NDAs and payment.
  3. If you are in a large organization with poor disability representation in its employee base, for the few employees with visible disabilities, the very nature of their “token representative” status is simultaneously both wearing and demeaning.
  4. A large organization with few people willing to be “out” with hidden disabilities is a sign that at that particular organization, being disabled is something that is best kept hidden — a screaming signal of lack of support for disability-related issues.

Seventy percent of disabilities are hidden. Statistically, 9.5 % of people in the work force age range (18 to 65) should have one or more disabilities.

If you don’t see 1 out of every 30 of your co-workers with a visible disability, and 1 out of every 15 comfortable discussing an invisible disability, your organization is under-represented in identifying, recruiting and supporting its employees and potential employees with disabilities.

None of those things are good when trying to create a positive culture surrounding accessibility.

I define “accessibility innovation” as “doing accessibility better or differently”. W3C was scrupulously careful in not dictating the approach that must be taken to satisfy any of the accessibility guidelines. W3C merely provides examples of different types of successes (and failures). Whether you have succeeded or failed at meeting the WCAG guidelines is assessed only by looking at whether the successful behavior is being supported and the failure behavior is being avoided. WCAG never restricts HOW from the technological perspective a guideline should be coded.

W3C’s approach means any good accessibility manager is going to be inherently required to exercise a certain degree of accessibility innovation in coming up with recommended solutions. If you are in an organization where you are being constantly asked to “prove” that the accessibility approach you are recommending is required, that is a problem given W3C’s underlying WCAG methodology. It is also indicative that people only want to do the minimum required, looking at WCAG as a goal rather than a floor. Sometimes, you will spend much more time arguing about a solution than it would take for the developers to actually implement it. That is always frustrating, and the sign of an organization with a poor accessibility culture.

Steps to improve a Toxic Accessibility Culture

Fortunately, toxic accessibility culture does not have to be a permanent state. The most important thing to understand is that organizational values with respect to disabilities need to come from the top. That in turn will drive the organizational support for accessibility.

Without explicit executive support for disabilities, people lacking first-hand experience dealing with disabilities may not care about accessibility, especially if they aren’t being rewarded for it. If those people are managers, they may not support their subordinates caring about the needs of people with disabilities. In organizations without explicit support for people with disabilities, managers fall back on wanting to interview and hire people with a firm handshake and good eye contact from someone that looks like them. This inherently excludes people on the autism spectrum and introverts, or people who have arthritis, carpal tunnel, or any other type of disability that affects the hands. This type of interviewing methodology will effectively undermine any diversity / inclusion / accessibility initiative that might exist on paper.

From my perspective, lack of executive support is frequently the beginning of a toxic accessibility structure. Improving executive support is the first step towards turning things around. Other steps that will help improve a toxic accessibility culture include:

  • Focus on the accessibility conversation as something that is a legal / regulatory necessity and not something that is “nice to have so we look good.” “Nice to have so we look good” is optional and expendable. Legal / regulatory necessities are not.
  • Start (or participate in) a disability employees’ resource group.
  • Try to stimulate people’s compassion and empathy if they show no interest in accessibility. Explain why the behavior you are asking for is important, followed by “if that was your sister, wouldn’t that be important to you?”
  • Rotate Designers/Developers/QA through 3 month accessibility internships so that everyone gets first hand exposure to assistive technology and accessibility programming and testing techniques.
  • Encourage a reasonable accommodations process that includes WFH as an acceptable option.
  • Publicly praise accessibility champions. Recognition goes a long way towards “behavior that gets rewarded, gets repeated”.
  • Show progress, no matter how small. I used to think accessibility dashboards were useless. As an individual, I knew who was doing well and who wasn’t without looking at a status page. However, the value of an accessibility dashboard is in others being able to easily see whether or not they are doing well. Accessibility dashboards also stimulate competition between development and product teams because no one wants to finish last in a race.

Sheri Byrne-Haber

Written by

CPACC Certified Accessibility professional with degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter. AccessibilityMarketplace.com