What great accessibility managers want from their leadership

Want to be a great leader to an accessibility team either directly or cross-functionally? Here are some specific, actionable ways you can help

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Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Accessibility managers are frequently perceived as contentious trouble makers

Accessibility, by its very nature, creates friction, and friction in turn can lead to conflict. The existance of this friction / conflict has zero to do with the accessibility manager’s personality. Accessibility managers are asking product owners:

  • to make their products accessible, when those owners may have never given this a single thought to this in the past.
  • to rate people with disabilities’ inability to access *existing* product behavior as important if not more so than new feature requests.

The conflict arises from the fact that most product owners are typically rewarded for making customers happy, and selling more product. Anyone besides me see the irony in this self-fulfilling prophecy? You can’t have disabled customers asking for new/different features when the core product isn’t accessible !!!

Additionally in global organizations, the product owners might be from a country or a culture where people with disabilities are not expected to be treated equally or participate fully in society as wage earners and not beggars. 90+ % unemployment rates for people with disabilities in some countries doesn’t help that situation much. Disability unconscious bias (and some bias that is more conscious) is a real thing. Even in the US, a country with “only” a 250 % higher rate of unemployment for people with disabilities, I am the recipient of unconscious bias so often that it only registers as a all-too-frequent microagression. Conveying the value of people with disabilities, which may be contrary to an individual’s culture, is something that also creates internal conflict in the minds of product owners.

In order for an accessibility program to be successful, accessibility managers need leaders who:

  • Create an environment where it is safe to publicly disagree. The accessibility needle doesn’t get moved forward without someone making people do things that they don’t want to do. Which creates disagreements and conflict.
  • Praise accessibility managers’ courageousness and risk taking. All top-tier accessibility managers take risks — whether it is demanding company meetings use live captioning, implementing accessibility best practices in style guides, or any other of the many things we do on a daily basis. This is especially true when our accessibility vision is that the WCAG guidelines are a floor and not a goal.

We want leaders who care about accessibility

If business leaders don’t care about accessibility as “the right thing to do”, at least care about what is best for the organization. Accessibility is like changing oil in your car. When the car engine is running smoothly, not a lot of thought is given to them. As soon as the car engine dies from too many deferred oil changes, it becomes a very expensive nightmare that’s an emergency to resolve. That is *EXACTLY* what happens when an organization receives an accessibility demand letter from a law firm.

Ten law firms filed 82 % of 2019 accessibility lawsuits

These ten firms are financially motivated to find companies that are doing a sloppy job at accessibility and profitting from that sloppiness.

Deferred accessibility is literally their entire business model

Accessibility managers never want it to get to the point where a lawsuit is filed. They are trying to tune up the car with the engine still running to prevent the engine from seizing. Not even the best accessibility manager gets to flip a switch and yell “TA DA !!!! We are accessible now !!!” I know of NO ONE in e-commerce or enterprise tech who has gone from just getting started to completely accessible in less than 9 months, and for more complicated software, it is more like 18–24 months.

We want leaders who know enough they can help us push back

Lots of development managers and product owners don’t want invest the time to make things accessible. Largely, they want to work on cool new features and “things that the customers are asking for” — again what they are financially motivated to do.

But since it is unpopular (especially in the US) to say “Hey those disabled folx? Excluding them is OK”, people against accessibility come up with other made up reasons to say no. If these excuses all sound like “align the axionic transwarp engine nacelle with the transponder dampners” Star Trek Technobabble to leaders, accessibility managers aren’t going to get the support they need when they aren’t in the room, because no one *in* the room will be capable of calling anti-accessibility people on their BS.

Accessibility managers need:

  • Leaders who learn enough about accessibility so they can call BS on anti-accessibility positions. If they aren’t sure, at least be smart enough to ask “What does <Accessibility Manager>(substitute your name here) think about that?”
  • Air cover for said disagreements between accessibility managers and anti-accessibility people. It needs to be important to the leaders, or it won’t be important to anyone.
  • Leaders who explicitly build accessibility into everyone’s OKRs and goals, not just the accessibility team. Employees do what they are rewarded to do, even if they don’t want to do it. Giving people financial motivation to ship not only features, but ACCESSIBLE features helps.
  • Leaders who help accessibility managers navigate through politics. Sometimes there is one linch-pin individual you need to convince (or at least not piss off) and accessibility becomes much easier to make happen. Usually the leaders know who that is, and what is the best approach. This becomes much more important if accessibility managers are neurodiverse, have vision loss, or are just not savvy at reading the room.

Many accessibility managers are disabled

Most people get into accessibility for a specific reason having to do with their personal connection to disability — either they themselves, or someone close to them has a disability and they understand at a personal level what a discriminatory challenge inaccessible technology represents.

  1. Frequently, accessibility managers need accommodations. If for some reason they don’t, many testers who report to them will. If an organization has a convoluted accommodations process, please try to simplify it so that people on the team don’t feel like they are “less than” someone without a disability.
  2. Working when you have a disability requires understanding leadership. Accessibility managers do not appreciate reporting to leadership that complains publicly about accessibility team member’s medical appointments, “strange” food, or that it’s a pain in the ass arranging for meetings to be transcribed. You know what’s a bigger pain than the impact those things have on others? Being the one that needs those things and has to repeatedly ask for accommodations.
  3. Our identities as people with disabilities are inextricably intertwined with our work. Trust me, if we could have separated them we would have. And the longer we’ve been disabled, the stronger this identity is. Which is one of the factors in making people with disabilities outstanding good accessibility managers. As I told someone today, having a disability isn’t required to be in accessibility, but it also doesn’t hurt. Hearing leadership say “there isn’t enough money for accessibility” may be perceived as code for “people with disabilities are not worth spending money on”. Which may be half or more of your accessibility team.

We are good at sniffing out fake news and lip service

You know how musicians can tell with a high degree of certainty who is actually playing music in TV/movie productions and who is faking it? It’s the placement of the hands, what the musician is doing when they aren’t playing the instrument, and dozens of little signs that make it instantaneously obvious to a musician whether or not the person on the screen is faking it.

People with disabilities are the same way with accessibility — we can sniff out people talking the talk and not walking the walk. We can smell stock photos that have been staged with gorgeous models in heels in wheelchairs, or people holding white canes who aren’t really blind. This tends to make many accessibility managers pessimistic. We want leaders who use inclusive language for everyone (not just disabilities) and follow through on their commitments.

If you asked me to cite one element that is crucial to the success of an accessibility program, it wouldn’t be the ones you automatically think of like budget or location of the program, it would be “Does accessibility have executive support”. And the first executive who should be supporting accessibility is the executive in the organization who owns accessibility.

Hopefully that leads to executive support beyond the executive that accessibility belongs to. And those two things are absolutely essential to running a successful, organization-wide, integrated accessibility program.

* some of the topics inspired by RebelsAtWork.com sketchnotes by by Tanmay Vora

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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