Embracing and enabling digital accessibility for your product

By Mitch Dumke    |    May 16, 2019

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 probably would have been a disheartening “no.” And even just four years ago, some would have said your career in software was probably over.

Luckily, digital accessibility has become a critical issue to more companies over the years — and this renewed awareness to which populations are being excluded from using certain features, apps or products has led to more opportunities and improvements than ever before. There are users who are developing their tech skills and are completely blind; they have no sight, yet they are writing code that results in a visual rich interface.

Examples like this confirm that talent and ability truly is universal — and that we all need to do a better job at providing opportunities for that ability to thrive for those with disabilities.

The road to creating accessible products

The process of making your product accessible requires a lot of time, learning and a willingness to listen. But you shouldn’t have to wait for people with disabilities to advocate for changes themselves when it comes to accessibility — it’s the responsibility of every CIO, team leaders and technologist to be thinking about this proactively and intuitively.

Whether you’re deep into the process of creating an accessibility plan or charter for your organization, or you’re new at it and want to learn, remember: It will feel overwhelmed at first, and you don’t have to do it all at once, but your products and user experience will be the better for it.

To help you on your accessibility journey, here are a few ways you can successfully integrate 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

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 as visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning and neurological disabilities. There are a lot of great resources to understand what digital accessibility is and how to do it.

Dequeue is 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 the accessibility of their digital experience.

If you’re a large enough organization, you’ll 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.

Action items:

• Read and watch authoritative sources on accessibility

• Identify appropriate, legal 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. That’s 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 said the experience was still “kind of abysmal,” we were crushed, but his next words gave us hope: “It’s not that hard to fix.”

The value in third-party audits like these is being able to have someone “tell it like it is” and point out issues you’d never find on your own—and to remind you that making changes isn’t impossible.

Conformance to accessibility standards is like cybersecurity: There’s a spectrum of how much you’ve reduced the risk of an occurrence, while recognizing that it’s nearly impossible to get to zero. The power is in knowing where you currently stand so you can make plans for 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 less accuracy, but are still really helpful and certainly better than nothing.)

Action items:

• 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 is giving the appropriate attention to accessibility is hiring or designating someone to be an accessibility champion — and in many instances, there are so many activities this role owns that it might warrant being someone’s full-time position.

In addition to being the driving force behind the processes 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 when it comes to finding your champion, start by looking for someone who’s passionate and a good teacher, as they’ll be crucial for informing and inspiring team members to design and build accessibility from the start.

Action items:

• Find a willing team member to take on the champion role

• Include them in diversity and inclusion policy and program discussions

• Work toward making accessibility something everyone thinks about

Making the commitment to accessibility

Wherever you and your product are today, take the challenge 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 share with your colleagues what you’ve seen work well as you go along, and look to glean insights from others as well.

About the author

Mitch Dumke is Head of Mobile and Native Apps at Pluralsight. He has been the internal ambassador for accessibility since 2015, and is passionate about using human-centered design practices and technology as a force for good, inclusive of all abilities and perspectives.