By Kristen Foster-Marks
According to the World Health Organization, approximately 16% of the global population—or roughly 1.3 billion people—lives with a disability.
This may include visual impairments like blindness and low vision, hearing impairments like deafness, neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease, and motor disabilities like limited fine motor control. For some people, these disabilities limit the ways in which they are able to interact with the Web.
How important is accessibility in web design?
Web accessibility is more than a fringe need. And yet, relatively few companies prioritize website accessibility in the design and building of their products. The root causes of this neglect are complex and multifactorial, but they result in part from folks not fully understanding how to diagnose and fix existing accessibility issues, nor how to build websites and applications with accessibility in mind from the start.
Essentially, not many folks creating Web and software products understand what users with disabilities need.
Enter Pluralsight’s website accessibility academy
At Pluralsight, we’re committed to making our products accessible to all of our users, and we believe that one of the most effective ways to increase the accessibility of our products is to strategically upskill our software engineers, product managers, and product designers around accessibility.
To that end, in the fall of 2022, Pluralsight's Technology Center of Excellence designed and facilitated a four-week academy for internal employees titled “Using WAVE to Make Websites Accessible.” The overarching objective of this academy was to arm folks across the company with the knowledge and skills to diagnose the accessibility of our products.
The academy was a great success, with the result being a small cadre of internal accessibility champions who took their skills back to their teams and products. Many of our learners spent dedicated time diagnosing and fixing accessibility issues during or after the academy.
We’re pretty dang proud of the learning experience that we created for our colleagues, and we’re pretty dang proud of what our learners ended up doing with their newfound knowledge and skills. In the hopes of inspiring other companies, product teams, and individuals to upskill around accessibility, and fix accessibility issues within their own products in the process, our team is making public the details of this upskilling effort.
This article will outline the academy’s objectives, curriculum, delivery details, lessons learned, and, perhaps most importantly, its success stories. We hope that what we share here provides a sort of website accessibility academy blueprint that others can replicate.
The Using WAVE to Make Websites Accessible Academy
The Using WAVE to Make Websites Accessible Academy was a four-week learning experience led by the Pluralsight Technology Center of Excellence. Participants learned:
How disabled people access and navigate the Web
The importance of creating websites that are accessible to all users
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
What makes a website accessible
How to evaluate and test websites for accessibility using the WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool
How to remediate website accessibility issues
We used four major learning components to help learners accomplish the course objectives:
Pluralsight Skills platform resources
Live sessions with internal subject matter experts (SMEs)
A hands-on activity
A learning community
Pluralsight Skills platform resources
Our learners started their journey by optionally taking the Developing Websites for Accessibility skill assessment.
The main course content didn’t require coding experience, and so was appropriate for our broad, company-wide learning audience. This course content included:
Brian Treese’s 2.5-hour course Developing Websites for Accessibility: Getting Started
Gerard Cohen’s 1.5-hour course Accessibility: Testing and Screen Reader Use
We also included supplemental course content for learners who wanted to learn more and/or had a coding role or background:
Gerard Cohen’s Meeting Web Accessibility Guidelines (Section 508/WCAG 2.1)
Fiona Holder’s Making a Web Form Accessible
Sessions with internal Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
At Pluralsight, we’re lucky to have an Accessibility Specialist in the Technology Center of Excellence, as well as several internal accessibility experts and advocates. We reached out to these folks for help with a few things, including hosting live sessions that focused on specific accessibility topics.
During one of these live sessions, an SME used WAVE to diagnose and explore solutions for accessibility issues on a web application that our Pluralsight authors use to create courses. During another session, one of our SMEs demonstrated how Pluralsight’s internal Design System was designed with accessibility top of mind. Another demonstrated for learners how to use screen readers to assess the accessibility of products for low-vision users.
No curriculum on making websites accessible would be complete without a hands-on activity to allow learners to practice and apply their newfound skills and knowledge. We were lucky to get access to the evaluation exercise that was used when hiring our Accessibility Specialist. This was a basic multi-page static website that had a lot of issues for learners to find, diagnose, and suggest remediations for. As learners were working through this exercise on their own, we offered multiple virtual office hours throughout the week (with SMEs present) when they could come and ask questions and check their work.
We believe that many things—at their best—are communal activities, and learning is no different. Being part of a learning community provides, among many things, motivation and feedback on learning content. As facilitators, we created and nurtured our learning community by hosting a public academy Slack channel and encouraging folks to engage there with questions, lightbulb moments, and reactions to course content. This is also where we posted course announcements, made all the academy content available via links, and distributed pre- and post-academy surveys.
Outcomes and success stories
In our estimation, this pilot run of the accessibility academy was immensely successful, so much so that since it wrapped up, our team has been asked repeatedly when we’ll run the academy again. It wasn’t perfect, of course—no learning experience ever is, especially in the first iteration—but there were some great wins for Pluralsight employees and benefits for users of Pluralsight products.
Post-academy survey results
A post-academy survey administered during the last week of the academy garnered responses from nine learners, and of those:
100% found the hands-on activity effective in increasing their proficiency with diagnosing web accessibility issues
100% reported being able to apply what they learned to their roles within two weeks
57% reported that they’re already producing more accessible products
100% reported feeling empowered to be an advocate for accessibility
Six weeks after the academy wrapped up, we sent out another very short survey to understand how often learners were using their accessibility knowledge and skills. Again, nine folks responded to that survey, and of those:
33% reported using new skills & knowledge often
89% reported using new skills & knowledge sometimes or often
0% of respondents reported never using their new skills & knowledge
Some of our favorite qualitative feedback from learners included:
“My team now has a document that serves as a backlog for accessibility issues to be fixed. We incorporated 'Tweaky Time' where we spend an hour every other Friday to focus on design and accessibility issues.”
“I've been able to speak to other people on my team doing the academy. We've had discussions about how we approach accessibility where I actually have input of value.”
“This academy was my first with Pluralsight and I really enjoyed the experience! Just want to say thanks for putting this together. I feel like it jump-started my journey as an accessibility advocate and will help me build better products going forward.”
Perhaps our greatest success story, though, is the Pluralsight Flow engineering team’s creation of an Accessibility Tiger Team. Shortly after the academy commenced, four front-end engineers from multiple teams dedicated a two-week sprint to finding, documenting, and fixing accessibility issues in the Flow application. During that time, they deepened their own accessibility knowledge, made the Flow product more accessible, and created a backlog of issues to address in later sprints.
Despite our successes, there are certainly things we’ll do differently in our next iteration. Some of the things we learned are:
Publicizing the academy more might have increased participation.
While our learner cohort was quite healthy in size, we do think we could have more widely publicized the academy before it began, and with more advanced notice.
Our hands-on activity could have been more authentic.
While the hands-on activity provided learners with many examples of inaccessible web components, it did lack a certain level of authenticity, which may have affected the applicability of learnings.
More engagement with the hands-on activity during office hours might have increased participant learning.
While we did encourage learners to come to office hours with their questions, we should have dedicated part of each office hour to working through a certain part of the hands-on activity. For example, we might have dedicated an office hour to talking through any web form issues, and another to finding and fixing color contrast issues.
Prioritizing website accessibility
We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to create web and software products that are accessible for our diverse set of users—both current and future. We sincerely hope that this description of what Plurasight’s Technology Center of Excellence did to upskill its folks internally provides a replicable blueprint for how other teams and companies can do the same!
About the author
Kristen is a Technical Lead at Pluralsight’s Technology Center of Excellence, where she enables engineering excellence across her company through the planning and execution of technical upskilling initiatives. She is a former ESL/EFL instructor who spent her early career teaching English as a Foreign Language in South Korea, as well as Academic English and Composition at Colorado State University. She transitioned into a career in software development in 2016, and through learning programming languages, has been delighted to observe the many similarities between learning human and computer languages.
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