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

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

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

The accessibility team makes extremely basic accessibility recommendations that product/ design / IT / marketing refuse to follow

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).

Cost cutting is a never-ending activity

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.

  • 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.

Remote work is discouraged

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 effort of preparing for work, which for people with mobility issues can take much longer than for people without disabilities.
  2. 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.
  1. 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).
  2. 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).

Your organization has few, if any, employees with disabilities who can be consulted on accessibility issues

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.

  1. Consult with native users of assistive technology may have to be accomplished outside of the organization which requires NDAs and payment.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Accessibility innovation is frowned upon

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.

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.

  • 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.

Written by

Blogger, disability advocate, nerd. Bringing the fire on ableism. A11y Architect @ VMware. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter. CS, Law, and Business background

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