In a few months, I begin my 15th year doing accessibility work and my first year 100% self-employed. As I reflect on the path that brought me here, I’m reminded of so many people who work at accessibility consulting firms that had similar experiences.
In 2003-2004 I worked as E-Commerce Manager for NASA Federal Credit Union and became introduced to accessibility in rapid fashion. Prior to that time, I had cursory exposure to it hearing people like Patrick Lauke, David Dorward, and Mike Davies talk about accessibility on Usenet newsgroups. While accessibility was definitely something that made sense to me, I didn’t have any real exposure to users with disabilities until starting at NASA Federal Credit Union.
The credit union had two blind engineers who were members of the credit union. They were very assertive about contacting the credit union to discuss problems on the website and, as E-Commerce Manager, those calls went to me. Talking to real people impacted by accessibility problems solidified the importance of ensuring our online services were accessible. My existing interest in usability and accessibility intensified and I began evangelizing accessibility internally. For the most part I received mostly lip service.
My place in the org chart actually placed me within marketing (an interesting topic for another blog post) and my immediate superiors didn’t give a shit about accessibility. The people in IT didn’t really give a shit. The CEO didn’t give a shit. When I tried making accessibility a factor in purchasing 3rd party software, I was blown off. All of the accessibility “wins” were gained subversively. For instance, when someone complained that the HTML tables for loan rates were ugly, I took the opportunity to redesign them to not only be better looking but accessible. The same goes for forms, global template & navigation, etc. A microsite I designed for them won the CUES Diamond Award for E-Marketing. Still, online banking, statements, and many more things were still off limits.
One day, the CEO discovered an article about Usability in Credit Union Magazine by CUNA and asked the VP of Marketing “Why aren’t we doing this?”. And with that, the VP of marketing suddenly decided he gave a shit. After a short research project, I started seeking proposals from usability consultants to work with us to improve the site and our online services.
Along the way, I got to know Bill Killam of User-Centered Design. I was really drawn to his No BS sales approach and actual desire to help. Somehow, during our conversations, he communicated that he needed some web development help – part time, something I could do on the side. Very quickly, however, he had enough work come in for web development that he needed full-time help. Here was a guy who cared about users, had cool work to do, and wouldn’t argue about accessibility. My situation was the exact opposite at the credit union. I jumped at the chance and my life was changed forever.
Though the details will differ, the story is largely the same for a ton of people at accessibility consulting firms. People like Glenda Sims, Elle Waters, Marcy Sutton, Dennis Deacon, Billy Gregory, John Foliot, and many more who are at the big accessibility consulting firms were first working in accessibility elsewhere. While I can’t speak for the above list, I can say that there’s a definite theme to why they chose to work for an accessibility consulting firm.
Avoid losing valuable expertise
Turnover in professional environments is costly – ” the cost of employee turnover to for-profit organizations has been estimated to be between 30% (the figure used by the American Management Association) to upwards of 150% of the employees’ remuneration package”. For this reason alone you should seek to retain your accessibility resources. But there’s so much more.
Accessibility is a niche field. Expertise in accessibility is hard to find. Nobody teaches it in school and virtually all professional development efforts in this area are relatively recent. Mentorship programs don’t exist, and almost everyone involved in accessibility are self-taught. The challenges that these factors pose are a discussion for another time, but what this means is that if you have someone on staff who cares about and is already knowledgeable about accessibility, you need to keep them.
You need this person. There was once a time where there was a predictable way to determine your risk of a lawsuit oriented around your industry and your organization’s size. Since 2015 however, the discussion is no longer about “if” you get sued, but “when”. Whether or not you agree with it, advocates for the disabled are tired of waiting for organizations to make their websites accessible and are now sending out legal demand letters en masse and filing tons of lawsuits to all sorts of organizations, large and small. Your internal accessibility advocate can help you avoid getting sued (if you listen to them) and will definitely be important if you do. A number of the reasons people get sued, and several requirements called for in settlements are directly related to the type of work performed by your internal accessibility SME. If your existing accessibility SME leaves, you’ll need to hire one.
There’s really only one logical choice you can make when it comes to any internal accessibility advocates you may have: keep them happy. Foster their personal and professional growth. Support them. Give them a real voice and listen to them. Take them seriously. Let them mentor others who also care about accessibility. You will need them someday.