The Accessibility Switchboard: A new web portal resource and community of practice for tackling accessibility at the organizational level
Chris M. Law
Accessibility Track Consulting, LLC
McLean, VA, USA
National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute
Baltimore, MD, USA
[Article Source: Proceedings of the 2016 ICT Accessibility Testing Symposium: Section 508, WCAG, and beyond. Baltimore, Maryland, USA, November 2 & 3, 2016. pp105-111]
This presentation occurs at the mid-point of the first year of a project to create a web portal of resources to help people in industry adopt organization-wide approaches to accessibility, and to help consumers identify and articulate to industry their needs with respect to Information and Communications Technologies (ICT). The project website will serve as a connection point for industry, consumers, and others interested in addressing the needs of people with disabilities with respect to employment, the workplace, and ICT used at home, work, or on the move. The creation of the web portal and resource guides is informed and supported by a twenty-member Community Of Practice consisting of consultants and other subject matter experts from the accessibility field. End-user and thematic considerations are presented, along with descriptions of the types of resource being generated, and the review process. Future accessibility field engagement plans beyond the first year are discussed.
The National Federation of the Blind is building a resource portal for adopting organization-wide approaches to accessibility. The name “Accessibility Switchboard” (http://switchboard.nfb.org/) was chosen to represent the idea of connecting people in need to existing published resources and organizations.
The project is being led by The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute (NFBJI). Through its projects and programs, the NFBJI “leads the quest to understand the real problems of blindness and to develop innovative education, technologies, products, and services that help the world's blind to achieve independence.”
In this presentation we will cover the impetus for the project, the methods used, resources being generated over the first year, and proposed future developments.
A company that had little or no prior exposure to ICT accessibility issues might decide to make its public-facing web presence accessible. The spark may be from an internal advocate wanting to “do the right thing”. It may be because of anticipation of future regulations imposing requirements for web accessibility. Or it may be as the result of a complaint brought against the company. Regardless of the impetus, the process of analyzing and remediating things like the company’s public facing website, mobile site, and social media posts, is technically quite straightforward. Consultants may be temporarily hired to help with the process. Analysis tools, guidance, examples and so forth are easy for development and testing team members to find from an Internet search. The guidance and tools can then be put into practice to make fixes to web elements.
But what happens a year later? Without turning a one-off fix into changes in day-to-day operations, such a website could easily lapse in its accessibility. A new developer is hired who does not know of the difficulties presented by mouse-only interfaces, and a whole new section of the website is now inaccessible to keyboard-only users. A new content provider is introduced, and they do not use tags for heading formatting, and have never heard of alternate text. New articles get posted with no testing for accessibility.
Many in the accessibility field are recognizing that enculturation of accessibility into various departments and activities in workplaces is needed to bring about sustained change. The technological aspects of accessibility are well documented. The non-technical aspects of introducing accessibility as an organization-wide commitment are in the early stages of dissemination. A small handful of books, webinar presentations and articles have been produced so far, but this is in fact a very broad field of practice.
There is a great deal that can be done by individuals and teams in organizations to incorporate accessibility in their culture (culture being defined as what people say and what they do), their product development processes, and their interactions with customers and suppliers. Experience shows, however, that the pace of change is typically very slow.
An aim of the Accessibility Switchboard project is to help speed up the process of gathering and disseminating knowledge on organization-wide approaches and thus open up a wider marketplace for consultant practitioners in the field. Related aims are to provide industry practitioners with initial guidance that helps them understand these nontechnical issues, and connect them to existing and emerging resources; and to provide consumers with the means to articulate their needs to industry (ICT vendors and others) and disability organizations.
Community of practice
We set out to develop new freely available published resources, tailored to the needs of industry and consumers. To this end, the Jernigan Institute team is supported by a community of practice of twenty subject matter experts, ten from the consulting field, and ten including disability organizations, academics, government agencies representatives, nonprofits, and a disability-focused technology company.
The community of practice convened to review and revise an initial project plan, and came up with a list of target resources for a one-year pilot project. Later, the community members were involved in the review of the resources being generated.
Half of the community of practice members are consultants. This was a purposeful choice, as it was anticipated that they could contribute case-studies based on real life experiences, and that this content would be key to convincing readers that change was achievable, not conjectural.
Early on, we recognized that the characteristics of the potential audience will vary by type of reader. For example:
- Impetus: Is the reader working for an organization that is interested in gaining a competitive advantage, or wanting to ‘do the right thing’? Or, is she responding to an outside force, such as a complaint or the threat of a lawsuit, because her team has consistently neglected requests to create inclusive products and services?
- Size: Does the reader work for a multi-national ICT development company with tens of thousands of employees? Or, is he the manager of a family-owned restaurant whose web presence is under scrutiny?
- Accessibility Experience: Is the reader a consumer with low vision, who is familiar only with the assistive technologies she has previously and currently uses? Or, is the reader running an accessibility program, having a generally broad familiarity with various technical aspects of accessibility, but she frustrated at her inability to significantly impact the accessibility of the her organization’s products? Or, is she a product manager or executive who knows very little about accessibility, and has been informed that she has an organization-wide problem to address?
- Organizational level: Is the reader a mid-level manager who has time to research and learn the area? Or is he the Chief Information Officer who has to juggle many pressing demands on his time?
Current organizational change resources prescribe differing step-by-step tasks. Various authors use similar-but-different terms. Some resources are based on real-world experiences of those who have helped implement organizational change; whereas other resources are based on logical assumptions, but may be more conjectural. Current published resources are also somewhat generic. Because they are not geared to different types of reader, figuring out where to begin can be quite a daunting task for the novice.
Confronted by resources that are not tailored to certain cohorts, an industry-based or government-based reader may instead opt for hiring a consultant expert. The approach taken in the clients’ project will vary by the chosen consultant. This type of consulting service is becoming increasingly popular, but it is still new, and so there is no established commonality when it comes to providing such services. Of course the reputation and referrals of the more successful consultant firms provide some measure of success, but unfortunately the success stories of their individual client organizations is not available to teach to the wider community. This can be because the work was conducted under a non-disclosure agreement, and/or the consultant is too busy or not inclined to write resources to share their wisdom.
Our problem in consulting is definitely one of scale. Even if each consultancy serves a large handful of clients in a given year, there are more potential clients than can be handled. There are hundreds of federal and state agencies, thousands of ICT development companies, and hundreds of thousands of small business who use ICT. For those who cannot afford to hire consultants, the problem of scale can only be addressed by providing better training and education resources. Resources should be tailored to the diverse needs and characteristics of different potential readers. Resources should be based on the best current knowledge, and should be based on actual success stories produced by people who practice in this area.
Following from the above considerations, a set of thematic considerations were generated at the outset. These considerations would guide the creation and review of the new content:
- Assume little to no prior knowledge about the topic areas on the part of the reader.
- Establish strategy first. Strategy leads to plans. Plans lead to tactics.
- Emphasize the importance of readers to understand and document their initial state through the conduct of informal or formal maturity assessments.
- Resourcefulness trumps having resources.
- Real-life case studies that people can learn from will carry more weight than directives.
- There will inevitably be resistance to change, and resources to help readers handle and counter resistance must be provided.
- Building accessibility into mainstream development processes is the aim, and the message must include emphasis that the earlier in the process, the less expensive it is to accomplish.
- This is an information resource site containing pointers to new and existing content; it is not intended as a civil rights or legal website.
Industry-Focused Guidance Resources
Industry is a broad audience for the project, ranging from small businesses and startups all the way up to multinational corporations. Five guides have been created:
- A roadmap for organizational accessibility for large ICT vendors.
- How to provide an accessible work environment.
- Beyond offering employees a complaint process: proactive measures to tackle accessibility issues.
- Introducing organization-wide accessibility approaches: a guide to making a successful pitch.
- An introductory guide for small businesses and startups.
Consumer-Focused Guidance Resources
We aimed to provide guidance tailored for consumer audiences on the following three topics:
- Documenting a day in your life: demonstrating the level of accessibility of the technologies you interact with, and those you cannot interact with.
- Best practices in organizational commitments to accessibility.
- How to approach change makers: what are the pros and cons of various options?
In addition to the main guides, we authored nine shorter “question and answer” articles that gave background information, and also pointed to existing resources providing further information:
- Why would I want to address accessibility in my organization?
- Does accessibility have to be expensive?
- I’ve been told to make sure the things I procure are accessible. How do I do this?
- I have a job applicant who has notified me they have a disability. What should I do now?
- How do I find a knowledgeable consultant?
- How do I ensure my products work for people with disabilities?
- What procedures should I use to test my ICT for accessibility?
- Where do I get good/accurate information on ICT (web, software, mobile, electronic document) accessibility?
- What are the steps I can take to reduce the likelihood of getting sued over the accessibility of my ICT?
For consumers, we developed a contact form for seeking help from the National Federation of the Blind, and we developed resources to help them contact vendors directly.
For all users, we provided a means to provide feedback to the authors for future updates to articles, and links to new resources and case study information as it is generated.
The above resources were integrated into a website that was developed in tandem with the written resources, and was evaluated by the community of practice members.
The Nineteen new resources in the form of short guides and “Q&A” articles were developed by the project lead. The resources were then reviewed by the community members over a three month period. Reviewers would evaluate the new guidance and the linked resources, and provide case study input and general feedback for revision and enhancement.
After the community of practice review edits are done, a wider beta-style review is planned, opening up the draft review to a wider group of consultants and other subject matter experts, as well as industry and consumers. Following this second three-month review processes the resources will be published on the Accessibility Switchboard web portal.
Future Developments and Continued Engagement
The long term aim is to sustain this dynamic web portal by continuing the growth of contemporary content through the active engagement of subject matter experts as well as consumers.
The content was necessarily tailored to US audiences in the pilot. In future years more international content may be facilitated.
In the pilot, the primary audience for the guides has been necessarily limited to industry and consumers. In future years, government, higher education, and other audiences may be added to the Switchboard.
As we progress with future Accessibility Switchboard projects, we welcome engagement in terms of participation, content generation, review, and support. Please contact the authors for more information.
The Accessibility Switchboard is being developed by the NFB as a one-year pilot project under the NFB Center of Excellence in Nonvisual Access (CENA) with Non-Visual Accessibility Initiative grant funds from the State of Maryland.
The authors wish to express their sincere thanks to the members of the Community Of Practice for their insights and support in the conduct of this project. (For a list of members, visit the “Accessibility Switchboard web portal” at http://switchboard.nfb.org/.)
Citation for this article
Law, C.M. & Lewis, A. (2016) “The Accessibility Switchboard: A new web portal resource and community of practice for tackling accessibility at the organizational level”. Proceedings of the 2016 ICT Accessibility Testing Symposium: Section 508, WCAG, and beyond. Baltimore, Maryland, USA, November 2 & 3, 2016. pp105-111
Reprinted with permission under the Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).