ALLOCATION Q&A: How can I distribute the responsibility and accountability for accessibility?
This article was developed as part of
The Accessibility Switchboard Project
National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute
June 2018, Version 1.0
Creative Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0
How can I distribute the responsibility and accountability for accessibility?
Have executives allocate and distribute the responsibility and accountability for accessibility, as they do for other business and operational requriements.
Why we train
“There’s an important job to do. Everybody thought Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it. Nobody did it.”
There are hundreds of variations of the above aphorism. It gets printed out and put on break room refrigerators under the humorous heading ‘Cleaning’. It is also introduced in serious training sessions to illustrate that there’s a real problem that is intended to be a shared responsibility, but isn’t getting done:
Deborah: “Hank, did you notice there’s a tripod that fell on the floor next to your desk? Someone could easily trip on that!”
Hank: “I did notice it, but I didn’t put it there. I think it belongs to Chris. He isn’t in today. Just step around it, what’s the problem? It’s not my job to clean up Chris’s stuff!”
We can take a guess what to do if a computer catches fire in an office, but we’re bound to respond better after some prior training: What do you do first? Tackle the fire? Pull the alarm? Pull out the electrical plug? Panic? Do you even know where the closest fire exit is?
Safety. Security. Quality. We all have an instinctive understanding of what these terms mean, but until we’re trained to address them, we’re either taking guesses, or we’re not addressing them at all. Failures in safety can cost lives. Failures in quality can cost customer loyalty. Failures in security increases risk to the organization and to the customers, and we all know that’s not good business.
Addressing accessibility in mainstream business organizations has in the past been promoted as something that’s nice for you to do. Later, it was something that you were urged to do. Later still, it was something enshrined in law (because few were doing it). Recently, it is something that many organizations have been litigated to do (because many were flouting the law). Now, many consider it just good business practice to be part of an ever increasingly inclusive society). This trajectory has followed a similar path to vehicle safety. There was a time when there were no seat belts. Now cars are being sold on their ability to detect hazards and avoid them in real time (e.g., automatic braking).
‘Safety doesn’t happen by accident.’ (There’s a reason we have fire marshals)
Throughout the history of safety people have had to make decisions about priorities, about training, and about who to make responsible and accountable for these factors.
Does everyone in the company need to know what are the most appropriate types and number of fire extinguishers to place in the cubicles, in the break room, or in the loading dock? No, but the fire marshal needs to. In safety we rely on some point persons to be the source of expertise (i.e., marshals). We train everyone else to know the basics (Don’t Panic!), and to recognize when they are out of their depth and need to pull in additional expertise.
Traditionally, computer security was primarily a specialist job. Specialist consultants. Specialist conferences. Now, it is considered much more cost effective to train all programmers on security, and have just a few specialists to help when needed to provide expert evaluation when needed.
Traditionally, accessibility was primarily a specialist job. Specialist consultants. Specialist conferences. Now, it can be implemented such that everyone gets a basic training on what accessibility issues are, and how to incorporate accessibility into their work, and how to spot obvious problems that need fixing. The role of the accessibility specialists in organizations should be to support the accessibility work that is being done by staff as part of their regular day-to-day work.
Note: For the various aspects of how various job roles can and should incorporate accessibility, see other related sections of the Accessibility Switchboard website (links below).
Note: Raising awareness of and tackling attitudinal biases that affect inclusion across the board is the goal of diversity training. While diversity awareness training is relevant and important, it is important to noter that disability/accessibility training uniquely differs from race, religion, gender: achieving disability access requires actual physical changes to buildings (universal design), and actual programming changes to digital interfaces and other technologies.
Executives assign responsibility and accountability
Anyone who has worked in the accessibility field for a long time will be able to tell you about ‘accessibility evangelists’. These are the people in large organizations who become passionate about fixing accessibility issues, who raise the issue wherever possible, and try to convince everyone else that they should be doing the same. The problem regularly encountered by evangelists working near the bottom of the organizational pyramid is that everybody agrees that somebody should do it, but there are competing priorities. There is no allocation of time, of staff resources, of training or money from the ‘higher ups’. As a result, beyond the evangelist there’s usually nobody doing accessibility tasks that anybody could be doing.
The term evangelism invokes the need for belief. But, in business, belief isn’t enough. People are more likely to work on something when they have been (a) told to do it by their boss; and (b) measured on what they’ve been doing as part of periodic performance reviews.
If a programmer at your institution released half of his or her applications last year with serious security flaws, they’d be fired. If they set off the fire extinguisher in the break room as a prank, they’d be fired. If they consistently showed that they didn’t care that end users had to do twenty steps in an online form when they could have done two steps if only they’d put in more effort, they’d be fired. If they deliberately released every application without any tags for accessibility on headings or images, and every function had to be carried out with a mouse, they’d be fired.
We’re kidding on the last one, of course. We’re not there yet. The programmer isn’t likely to get fired for this. Currently, it would be common to find someone like them who was not even aware of the need for accessibility, or even that there was such a thing in the IT field. They may have never encountered accessibility needs in their undergraduate computing degree. They may never have had exposure to accessibility in any of their mainstream programmer online forums. But, once they receive training and the tools to make their interfaces accessible, and they are held accountable in their reviews, only then should they be fired for deliberately ignoring accessibility needs in their work.
The formal manager of an accessibility program probably doesn’t have the power to hold programmers accountable (let alone any ‘Lone Accessibility Evangelist’). Executives assign responsibility and accountability, and then it is up to the management and staff to act on supporting policy. Perhaps after raising a groundswell of interest within the ranks, the aim of the accessibility program manager (or our Lone Evangelist), must be to convince an executive sponsor to undertake the task of updating old, ineffective (or even non-existent) policies.
Note: We have produced a guide focusing on the task of convincing executives of the need, by making the right pitch. See the related sections, below.
Treat accessibility in the same way as other requriements
What are the current systems for holding people accountable for security, for safety, for quality? It is best to emulate those existing factors and use the same tracking systems, bonus incentives, career promotion considerations, etc. Usually the key ingredients of such programs and systems will comprise executive oversight, policy, training, monitoring and reporting, and periodic review and improvement.
It’s unlikely that there are no systems in place for these other factors. (If there are none, then accessibility may not be your first priority… preventing the building from burning down should be.) Once those systems are well established, identifying ‘accessibility fires’ can become everybody’s responsibility.
For accessibility program managers, we advise maintaining a list of the people who are the primary responsible / accountable persons in each department. Inquiries may come into the central accessibility program office from one department and addressing issues may need to involve multiple departments. A central list helps with this.
The list can and should ideally be used to monitor progress through periodic organizational maturity assessments.
Responsibility without proactive effort is an ineffective and risky strategy
It is not enough to have people who are responsible only when issues arise (i.e., reactive). It is necessary to take an active part in ensuring that accessibility is addressed on a continuous basis throughout the organization (i.e., proactive).
Reactive persons talk to lawyers after the fire has been put out:
“It wasn’t my job to make sure the sprinkler system was tested. Nobody was assigned to check the valves. I didn’t close them, don’t look at me. I’m not responsible for losing the data wing!”
“No, we didn’t have time to make the website accessible. We had too many other things going on. We had to implement the new look and feel. Marketing were all over us. I’m sorry that blind user didn’t get her resume uploaded on the system. It wasn’t my fault! We had a deadline! No, we didn’t fix it after the complaint… we had to work on the new time and attendance system. Human Resources were all over us…”
The bottom line is that assigning responsibility and accountability, along with proactive work to measurably improve accessibility, reduces risks.
About this article
This article is published as part of The Accessibility Switchboard Project, an initiative of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute with support from the members of the Accessibility Switchboard Project Community Of Practice, and from the Maryland Department of Disabilities.
The Accessibility Switchboard Project. ALLOCATION Q&A: How can I distribute the responsibility and accountability for accessibility? June 2018, Version 1.0. National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Available: https://accessibilityswitchboard.org/
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‘Everybody thought somebody would do it’ by Chris M. Law & The Accessibility Switchboard Project. CC BY-SA 4.0.