Sheri Byrne-Haber
Apr 20 · 5 min read

Do you have an optimal accessibility testing program abilities mix?

Child’s hands holding toy stethoscope surrounded by toy medical equipment and a stuffed bear

Let’s say you need surgery. You go to a surgeon in your insurance network. “Sure I can do this surgery,” the surgeon says. “How many times have you done this procedure?” you ask. “Dozens of simulations,” says the surgeon.

And you run (or in my case, roll) as fast as you can away for that surgeon and start looking for a new one.

You find another surgeon. You check out their repuation on Healthgrades, make sure they don’t have any complaints against them with the state. You talk to real patients of theirs on Facebook. This surgeon is a little bit more expensive, because they aren’t in your network. They aren’t on public transportation so you have to drive (or Uber) 100+ miles round trip to see them for all your appointments plus pay for parking. It takes eight weeks to get an appointment and another three months to get a surgery date. But that surgeon has done the exact surgery you need hundreds of times on real (and largely happy) patients, not cadavers or video game simulations.

The experienced surgeon is worth all of the inconvenience because for something this important, you want someone who has “been there, done that” on real patients. Valid experience is vastly more important than mere simulations. Accessibility testing really isn’t so different than surgery in this regard. You want a team chock full of people who are “native users of assistive technology” (which is the nice way of saying “disabled”), and not people simulating disabilities. Here’s why.

Running an accessibility testing program without people with disabilities is disrespectful

If your testers do not have any disabilities, what they are doing is simulating disabilities. At the end of the work day, those non-disabled testers get to go back home to their abled lives. They do not experience the day-in, day-out 24x7 frustration of someone with a disability slamming head first into either digital or physical barriers every single day. A layout quirk or an extra swipe that a non-disabled tester might not think twice about might be infuriating to someone with a disability who runs into this issue all the time. Accessibility testing is about more than just identifying WCAG violations.

One blind tester that I worked with called people who could see “photon dependent.” While I laughed the first time he said this, the more I thought about it, the more I realized he isn’t wrong. Once you’ve seen a design or a page, you can’t unsee it. And that creates bias in a sighted tester, no matter how quickly they turn the “screen curtain” on or how good they are otherwise at using assistive technology.

Running an accessibility testing program without people with disabilities is inadequate

No one can legitimately claim that testing with completely able bodied testers will give you the equivalent experience of a population of people with varying degrees of disability. Yes, I can use a switch to navigate through a website or native app. But I am not going to experience the same level of fatigue and frustration as somone who HAS to use a switch. Also, I would not be carrying the same levels of frustration about software developers ignoring the needs of people with fine motor skill disabilities. People with disabilities doesn’t even always understand each other’s disabilities. Someone who is deaf may not understand my frustration with doors that take 50 lbs of force to open. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a testing village of people with different disabilities, both visible and invisible, to build a software program that works well for everyone.

Running an accessibility testing program without people with disabilities is neither inclusive nor diverse

Yes, it is more work to hire people with disabilities. If it was easy, then more than 4 % of companies would have targeted disabilities as part of their diversity programs. As a hiring manager:

  • You will have to do a targeted recruiting campaign (though LinkedIn now allows people to self-identify as having a disability, making it possibly easier to recruit)
  • You have to navigate your company’s reasonable accommodation program
  • You may have to request facilities modifications
  • You will have to repeatedly deal with inaccessible internal tools such as purchasing systems, expense reporting, booking travel, etc. etc.

However, not considering or using people with disabilities in your accessibility testing program is deliberate and discriminatory exclusion, the opposite of being diverse and inclusive. And companies with more diverse teams perform better. So this decision will not only hurt the accessibility team, it may impact the corporate bottom line and shareholders.

If you run a largely overseas testing program, chances are few if any of your testers will have disabilities

Access to tech jobs requires a decent education. In some low-cost labor countries, this type of education is hard to come by even without a disability, and almost impossible to come by if you are blind, deaf, have dyslexia or autism, or are a wheelchair user.

Unless you are working with a consultancy like AccessibilityOz or BarrierBreak who specialize in employing and training people with disabilities for accessibility testing work, chances are that you will struggle to find people with disabilities overseas adequately trained to fill those roles.

If you are working with a large global consultancy, make sure your statement of work describes exactly what types of disabilities the testers need to have and how much work must be performed by them. Otherwise you have no control over the participants.

If you run an accessibility testing program with 100 % abled individuals, chances are your company is #Diversish

‘Diversish’ is a satirical term for businesses that call themselves diverse, but overlook, ignore or postpone anything having to do with disabilities. If you haven’t heard the hashtag #Diversish before, it was first publicly discussed in Davos at the end of January this year.

Accessibility testing is the “low-hanging fruit” of corporate departmental locations for including people with disabilities. The people managing and working with that group are more comfortable and more familiar with people with disabilities. There is no stigma attached that makes managers with less familiarity more reluctant to hire. If you have a low number, or no, people with visible disabilities in your accessibility testing department, more likely than not, you don’t have a high rate of those types of individuals elsewhere.

Conclusion

Representation is important, and representation of a wide-variety of disabilities in accessibility testing is no exception. Making sure that people with disabilities are included in a corporate accessibility testing program not only will improve the quality of the testing, it will improve corporate diversity and make the company less #Diversish. While there may be more initial effort required to hire and onboard people with disabilities (especially at a company where people with disabilities are largely under represented), the pay off for your customers and shareholders will far exceed the cost.

Sheri Byrne-Haber

Written by

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

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