PRACTICE Q&A: How can I ease the accessibility journey from organizational policy to practical implementation?
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 ease the accessibility journey from organizational policy to practical implementation?
Reduce ambiguity. Anticipate transition traps. Apply consequences for accountable failures.
In-Depth answer: How can I ease the accessibility journey from organizational policy to practical implementation?
The journey is the fun part
“The key to effective change is to help the client through the ambiguity [..]. The current state is perfectly clear—people have been living it—and the future state is usually desirable—it’s not hard to paint a positive picture of the future. But it’s the journey that can be intimidating. If you have a change process, you can provide a lantern to light the way.”—Alan Weiss, Process Consulting, 2002, p.74
Movies are about the journey. It would be a short, uninteresting film that introduced the main character’s goal, showed the resolution, and then rolled the credits. The most fun, the hardest, and therefore most dramatic part is the journey.
Most of us get paid in our work to undertake the journey. The goal-setting meeting and the post-release party might amount to a fraction of one percent of the time we spend on a project. (For guidance on goal setting with regard to organizational accessibility initiatives, see the various Guides in the Accessibility Switchboard, under the Related Sections heading, below.) Like most journeys, there are unanticipated pitfalls and hazards that, while making the story interesting, can seriously derail any project, and may even lead to a complete failure (in movie terms, a ‘tragedy’). Then there’s the uninformed main character who is going about their business blissfully unaware of what the audience knows. In this case she may be bumbling about and embarrassing herself (a ‘comedy’).
What would our cover image represent, a tragedy, a comedy, or both? If other priorities such as integration testing were dutifully carried out prior to the sign-off, and accessibility work was begun only when the team had spare time again (i.e., after the sign-off), then is it really going to get done. Especially if the date marked on the calendar is a national holiday? Maybe it’s both a tragedy and a comedy in this case.
Like many a good movie, this fictional scenario is actually based on real-life experiences. This article is aimed at helping change the way accessibility programs are implemented to be more effective.
Note: This article assumes that the reader has been introduced to change management principles (see our companion article on Change). This article also assumes that policy has already been decided upon within the organization, and decisions about responsibility and accountability have made and the relevant staff have been instructed in the new ways of working. For more information, see the other related sections of the Switchboard, below.
“…eschew the myth that people are reluctant to change. In fact, they change every day that there is a traffic blockage, a new customer request, a failed computer system, or a personal crisis. People are quite resilient and actually quite adept at change. ¶ What people do tend to resist is ambiguity. One of the most elemental aspects of change management is to remove ambiguity effectively. That applies to managers and executives more than to anyone else.—Alan Weiss, Process Consulting, 2002, p.72
People aren’t reluctant to change if it helps them see their grandkids or their older family members get on Facetime. If it is perceived as good, useful, and helpful, people willingly learn accessibility.
However, Rome wasn’t built in a day. When introducing new concepts (accessibility may be new to the organization as a whole, or to parts of the organization) there may be an initial need for ‘baby steps’ and prioritizing to create initial ‘wins’ that can be celebrated. If you’ve conducted a maturity assessment (see related sections, below) and seven departments were only just beginning in their accessibility initiatives, it would be impractical to expect them to all reach a highly mature level of fidelity within a year. Maybe stepping up incrementally to the next level in six months might be a more reasonable objective. In either case, the goals must be made clear and must be agreed upon in advance that they are, in fact, achievable. This needs to happen at the beginning of the project. It is also necessary that those who will be involved in the execution of the project are involved in forming the objectives that are being agreed upon. Having agreements in writing and shared by all participants (as plans) helps with performance reviews later on.
Process Consulting: How to Launch, Implement, and Conclude Successful Consulting Projects is a book by Alan Weiss. The text is targeted at consultants as a guide to helping them help others in their implementation of change. The book is useful for anyone implementing a new program in an organization, addressing possible pitfalls and tackling barriers that may arise in the course of bringing new ideas and ways of working into a company.
“People are more miscalibrated when they face difficult tasks, ones for which they fail to possess the requisite knowledge, than they are for easy tasks, ones for which they do possess that knowledge”
—Lichtenstein & Fischhoff, Unskilled and unaware of it, 1977
When implementing a new concept, the companion of goal-setting is training. A prevailing problem is that accessibility is rarely taught as part of mainstream education. (For example, it is easy to go through a four year degree on computing, and never hear the word ‘accessibility’ spoken by a professor.) So, we have to assume that many staff members will come to the endeavor untrained. The resulting situation can be that a programmer might assume to himself in advance of the training that either (a) accessibility is bound to be complicated and difficult (otherwise why didn’t they cover it in school?); or (b) accessibility is bound to be ridiculously easy and beneath me (otherwise why didn’t they cover it in school?). As Lichtenstein and Fischhoff (quote, above) wrote four decades ago, a lack of training means mis-calibration in the minds of many potential trainees. At the start of introducing a new accessibility program, this can result in problems with those either willfully skipping or ignoring training programs. This problem can be exacerbated if there is a collective belief or perception that there are no consequences to oneself, as a trainee, and/or no consequences to the lives of people who could benefit from the outcomes (i.e., people with disabilities).
These problems need to be actively countered by the combination of training and inclusion in the setting of goals.
Note: A number of institutions now offer certification training in accessibility. Where there are critical paths, certification courses that include examinations on knowledge can counter the problems of trainees skipping or tuning-out required training.
Anticipate ‘transition traps’
“Falling prey to the ‘action imperative.’ You feel as if you need to take action, and you try too hard, too early to put your own stamp on the organization. You are too busy to learn, and you make bad decisions and catalyze resistance to your initiatives.”
—Michael Watkins, The First 90 Days, p.5
For anyone trying to implement a new organization-wide accessibility program, this will be a transition (journey) from one state to another. One of our common mis-calibrations is the amount of time it will take to learn a new skill versus the perceived amount of time available to do the work. There can be a feeling of urgency that translates as ‘we must get started right now’. In other words, if we think it will take too long to read about how to achieve accessibility, and we mistakenly assume that our other skills will adequately compensate for our lack of direct experience with accessibility, then we’ll just start, and we’ll fumble through it and hope it turns out well. (In 1959, Charles Lindblom coined a term for this sort of practice: “The Science of ‘muddling through’”.)
With this approach, it rarely turns out well.
In addition to the ‘action imperative’, Watkins lists a number of other transition traps to be aware of, such as sticking with what you know, setting unrealistic expectations, attempting to do too much, and neglecting horizontal relationships. The key point here is that knowing that this will be a transition (journey) and knowing that there are potential traps that can be learned about (and thus, hopefully, avoided), gives you a more solid foundation on which to start implementing change in your organization.
The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter is a book by Michael Watkins. The text is targeted at leaders making a transition from one department to another, or one company to another. The lessons are also useful for anyone participating in the design and implementation of new programs and initiatives.
Regular monitoring of progress (and applying consequences for accountable failures)
The goal in any business venture is to ship: We need to ship a new product; We need to develop and deliver a new service improvement; We need to have our trained customer service agents online.
If accessibility has been defined and agreed upon as a new (or updated) goal in your organization, then that means you have to ship with accessibility baked in. If progress towards accessibility goals isn’t monitored at a macro (departmental) and a micro (individual) level, then ambiguity factors can creep in, and the transition traps can become hard to escape from.
In the past, people working in the accessibility field heard stories from people working in accessibility program offices in mainstream companies. These stories could be turned into very interesting tragedy movies, with terminology like ineffective, futile, demoralizing, and depressing used to describe the work. But, it was common for people to enter the accessibility field—and then go to work in accessibility program offices—without any grounding in organizational change. Such knowledge was ‘out of their swim lane’. However, the legal and moral imperatives around accessibility are gaining greater traction all the time, and now we know that accessibility program managers need to understand and learn from those who have gone before and published on organizational change. The same strategies and tactics for process improvement apply equally to process improvement in accessibility. Applying these lessons, generating a change process, makes for better illuminated journey, and a much better story, especially from the perspective of the beneficiaries of this ‘feature presentation’: consumers and employees who have disabilities.
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. PRACTICE Q&A: How can I ease the accessibility journey from organizational policy to practical implementation?. June 2018, Version 1.0. National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Available: https://accessibilityswitchboard.org/
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‘Accessibility work begins on the 12th of Never’ by Chris M. Law & The Accessibility Switchboard Project. CC BY-SA 4.0.