Imagine for a moment: You’ve been a sighted software engineer for 10 years, then over the course of a year, you lose all vision. Could you continue with your current career? Just decades ago, the consensus answer would have been a disheartening “no.” Even just four years ago, I would have said your career in software was probably over.
But when I was asked to lead accessibility initiatives for Pluralsight’s product in 2015, my point-of-view changed completely. I have met users that are developing their tech skills and are completely blind. They have no sight, yet they are writing code that often results in a visual interface. Dozen of experiences like this have confirmed to be that talent and ability truly is universal — and that we all need to do a better job of providing opportunities for that ability to thrive.
The road to creating accessible products
As you can guess, going through the process of making your product accessible is something that requires a lot of time, learning and a willingness to listen. But we shouldn’t have to wait for people with disabilities to advocate for changes themselves when it comes to accessibility — it’s the responsibility of CIOs, team leaders and technologists to be thinking about this proactively and intuitively.
Whether you’re deep into the process of creating an accessibility plan for your organization or you’re new at it and want to learn, just remember: It’s natural to feel overwhelmed at first. As Pluralsight is going through this same process ourselves, we’re still learning new things every day.
To help you on your accessibility journey, here are a few ways we’ve successfully integrated accessibility into our research, design and development practices — with a checklist of actionable things you can do to make an impact on your own product.
1 . Study up on accessibility
There are a lot of great resources to understand what digital accessibility is and how to do it. In short, accessibility is about making physical and digital products and experiences available and usable to anyone, inclusive of a wide range of impairments such visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning and neurological disabilities.
This Pluralsight course offers a 90-minute overview on web accessibility. Dequeue has emerged as an approachable and comprehensive resource, with both free training materials as well as paid services. And if you’re ready to go deep, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is the defacto authority and is what most companies, organizations and governments are referencing when assessing if their digital experience is accessible.
If you are a large enough organization, you will see your customers beginning to ask for your conformance to WCAG (Level AA is the most common). WCAG is becoming prevalent enough that some customers will stop the procurement process if your product is not deemed accessible, so having a VPAT stating conformance not only benefits your users, but helps your sales team move faster.
Once you understand the principles and value of accessibility, it’s time to look in the mirror and see how well you product is meeting the needs of those with disabilities. This starts with interviewing people with disabilities to see how your product works for them in the real world.
- Read and watch from authoritative sources on accessibility
- Identify appropriate and legals ways that work for you and your organization to interview users with disabilities
2. Audit your product — then do it again
Even after all the studying and customer interviews, it’s difficult to know exactly how bad or good your platform is. This is where an audit comes in.
We recently commissioned a consultant who is blind and a front-end developer. It was enlightening and humbling to watch someone who wasn’t just auditing, but actually trying to use our product, and couldn’t. We made some improvements to skip navigation and ARIA labels and had him come in again for another audit, thinking we had made some real improvements. When he told the experience was still “kind of abysmal,” we were crushed, but his next works gave us hope: “But it’s not that hard to fix.”
The value in third-party audits like this is being able to have someone tell it to you like it is and point out issues you would never find on your own — and to remind you that making changes isn’t impossible.
Conformance to accessibility standards is like cybersecurity: It’s a spectrum of how much you’ve reduced the risk of an occurrence while recognizing it’s nearly impossible to get to zero. There is power in knowing where you currently stand so you can make plans of how to move forward.
(If you aren’t ready to financially invest in a live auditor, Nightwatch Testing and Google Lighthouse are two developer tools that run automated tests. They report violations with often less accuracy, but are still really helpful and certainly better than nothing.)
- Get an audit of your product (live and/or automated)
- Create a schedule for your next audit (monthly, quarterly or annual — just don’t let it be a one-time thing)
3. Identify your champion
One of the best signs that your organization are giving the appropriate attention to accessibility is to hire or designate an accessibility champion. From our experience, there are so many activities this role will need to support that it often necessitates becoming someone’s full-time position.
In addition to being the driving force behind the processes I’ve already mentioned — interviewing customers, scheduling audits and noting issues that need to be resolved — your champion will also play an important part in gaining executive support for including disabilities as part of diversity and inclusion policies and programs.
If you don’t know where to start on finding your champion, start with looking for someone who is willing to learn and able to teach, as they will be crucial for informing and inspiring team members to design and build accessibility from the start.
- Find a willing team-member to take on the champion role
- Include them in diversity and inclusion policy and program discussions
- Work towards making accessibility something everyone thinks about
Making the commitment to accessibility
Wherever you and your product are today, I challenge you to go one step further in being a champion and improving everyone’s digital experience. There is more than one way to support accessibility, so please share with your colleagues what you’ve seen work well, and together we’ll improve the human condition.