Accessibility in the age of uncertainty

Kristian Mikhel
Product Design Community
6 min readAug 22, 2023

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How designers can pioneer accessibility at their organisations, become the voice of the underserved, and stay sane when no one is listening.

Accessibility matters.

Accessible products benefit everyone. By design, they are created to be accommodating and convenient, to provide an easy, barrier-free access to tools and services for all users.

Accessibility is not a “necessary alteration”, catering to a small group of individuals with impairments. It is a fundamental quality of great products, demonstrating true care for the users, embracing and celebrating their diversity.

From customers relying on assistive technology (e.g. people with visual impairments using screen readers) to those who found themselves unable to employ a particular feature in a particular situation (e.g. watching a video with captions in a loud coffee shop): accessibility ensures an equally pleasant and complete experience.

An image of a Barbie in a wheelchair, caption: Delivering universal experiences, removing all barriers, blockers, and challenges. An image of a pregnant Barbie with a child, packing a suitcase, caption: Designing for everyone, anyone can enjoy your product or service. Three Barbies, one missing a leg, another on crutches, a third one blind, caption: Being considerable and caring, embrace diversity and respect the choice
Accessible design is removing all barriers, blockers, and challenges, designing for everyone, being considerable and caring.

Unfortunately, accessibility also means extra work.

Being the voice of the voiceless

Getting the leadership to buy into supporting accessibility initiatives and embedding the principles of accessible design into their products is a challenging task. Charlie Triplett, an accessibility professional and the author of “The Book on Accessibility”, wrote an entire chapter on how to convince the company leaders to join the cause:

As your program evolves, leaders and managers must be willing to review reports, enforce accessibility policy targets and support strategic goals. Teams will not change behavior when they don’t believe accessibility policy is a top-down enforceable initiative with consequences.

The reasons for not embracing accessibility can differ: from a complete lack of understanding (“what does accessibility mean?”) and perspective (“we don’t know where to start”) to a skewed perception of accessibility as a set of formal requirements that can be addressed later.

Accessible sites are ugly, UX myths poster
Accessible sites are ugly, a poster by Alessandro Giammaria

Some believe that accessibility is too expensive, others claim that accessible sites are ugly, blame lack of funding and resources, short-term priorities, bad economy: either way, it is the user who bears the load of a broken experience.

As an accessibility pioneer, you will not only be chasing bugs or ensuring compliance. You will fight for an organisation–wide mind shift, where your management fully understands and supports the cause, and your team members share the passion and happily join the endeavour.

Convincing the leaders means making a solid business case in favour of accessibility. Just like any good initiative, it highlights how building inclusive products benefits the company: from clearly showcasing the severity of the current situation to aligning the initiative with the company’s OKRs.

Leaders will expect you to convince them that it is a worthy business investment, but emotions often speak louder than numbers. Building empathy, helping your stakeholders feel for the user will help add a human face to an otherwise dry business case.

Unfortunately, too many aspiring advocates break, burn out, and give up, unable to endure a long journey of pain, neglect, and rejection.

Seven steps to staying sane.

There is no detailed checklist to guide you through the voyage. Every case is unique, and what worked for someone will necessarily do the trick for you.

This guide is designed to merely help you stay focused as you endure one failure after another.

Buckle up.

Remember your mission.

It might be easy to forget that the battle is worth fighting after a defeats Your frustration will get overwhelming at times, and the desire to give in will only grow stronger as you persist.

Keep reminding yourself of the mission. Let your vision of a better product, better practices, better services be your beacon as you regroup and plan your next steps.

Find allies.

Finding the right people to join your cause is essential. Surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals, eager to learn, willing to follow your lead, support, and challenge you will fuel your passion and multiply your productivity.

A perfect partner in crime is someone who forces you to leave your comfort zone while complimenting your skills. Together, you will embark on an important quest of spreading the word, recruiting champions, and staying in touch with your user.

Talk to your user.

Accessible products are designed to benefit everyone, but a team of able-bodied white collars and able-bodied users can only achieve so much. In order to deliver accessible products and services, make your research practice inclusive.

Start by changing your team’s perception of accessibility: for instance, invite them to a guided tour led by a blind guide. An experience of living “the day in life” of a person with disability will help them develop empathy for the overlooked and underserved, and will ease your mission as an ambassador of inclusivity.

Seven people with canes standing in a single line, in front of them a blind tour guide. Writing on the wall: Dialogue in the dark, Singapore Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Braille alphabet on the wall.
Dialogue in the dark, Singapore

Similarly, work on diversifying the pool of users . Reach out to a local community, find volunteers, hire an agency to handle recruitment: ensure that your research participants are as diverse as your users.

Spread the word.

No matter how strong your core squad is, you will not move the mountain alone: as aspiring thought leaders, you need to focus on changing the culture.

Building awareness around accessibility and advocating for inclusive design will take plenty of time and effort: from giving talks and sharing insights, to organising roadshows and running workshops.

A good outreach strategy may include involving the most vocal, influential people in the organisation to help drive engagement. Having a well-known face to advocate for the cause will open many doors and hearts.

Master acceptance.

At the same time, be ready to face rejection: from managers, unwilling to listen, to engineers, unable to allocate time. Growing a thick skin will help you survive its every stinging instance.

Remember that every failure, every rejection grant you an opportunity to reflect. Use them wisely to adjust your strategy, learn, and grow.

Embrace small changes.

Revolutions do not happen overnight. Thus, concentrate your efforts on achieving and celebrating small, impactful changes. A tiny improvement such as a well-designed focus state will not only bring you closer to achieving your goals, but will demonstrate everyone that accessibility is not as hard as they thought.

Button on the left with a 1px solid black inner outline, accessibility requirements failed. Button on the right with a 2px solid black inner outline, accessibility requirements passed.
Designing accessible focus states, by Sara Soueidan

As you progress, focus on establishing formal practices: develop roadmaps and allocate jobs, educate and mentor, share your plans and achievements. Resist the temptation to brutally police the team. Your primary job is to lead and inspire, not to discipline and punish.

Prioritise wellness.

Regardless of how determined, hard-working, and passionate you are, having a strong support system is essential. A withered fighter will not endure a long battle, so maintaining your physical and emotional wellness is critical to staying sane, healthy, and productive.

Choosing between grind and rest is not easy, especially when all tangible fruits of your labour are far ahead. Nevertheless, wellness always comes first. Spend time with your loved ones, find a hobby, binge-watch a cringy series: unwind and recover, recognise and appreciate your efforts. Do not hesitate to seek professional help if you experience symptoms of depression or burnout.

Accessibility demands dedication, not sacrifice.

Human-centred.

When we bring up accessibility, some frown, others sigh, but many feel confused, not knowing where to begin or how to achieve results. The job seems to be impossible due to its enormous scale, lack of experience, confidence, and support.

Business priorities come in the way. Accessibility remains an afterthought, a good-to-have, a formal requirement that can safely be ignored.

Our job as accessibility advocates is to convince the people otherwise. To show them how usable and beautiful accessible products are.

To remind them what “human-centred” truly means.

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