Stress and adversity are standard for people who have chosen accessibility careers. When you add in being disabled, that is a double whammy.
This is the first of a two-part article.
I have seen zero articles on coping with being a disabled accessibility professional, despite the many parallels between accessibility and other demanding careers including counseling, health care, and social work that have a standardized self-care approach for its practitioners.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article called “Radical Candor about Accessibility Day-to-Day Job Responsibilities.” That article focused on the tasks someone who runs a large accessibility program frequently executes. This article focuses on the emotional aftermath of those tasks, especially when there are setbacks. What has 2020 been if not one great big setback for everyone?
This article will start by defining what I think are some of the specific sources of the problem. Part 2 will offer my opinion on what I think business leaders should be doing to support their disabled staff, and what accessibility professionals should do themselves to cope with the stress, adversity, and frustration their career choices sometimes create.
Why is this issue important?
- Professional burnout is on the rise across the board, and has accelerated since March due to the pandemic.
- Organizations frequently underestimate the cost of turnover, because it doesn’t show up as a line item or have a cost center.Specialized employees cost up to 400 percent of their annual salary to replace. I would argue that accessibility personnel clearly fall into this category.
- Burnout is largely preventable. Organizations that pay attention to feedback, career opportunities, team dynamics, and organizational culture have much lower rates of burnout than organizations that don’t.
What makes accessibility stressful, exhausting, and frustrating?
Problem #1: Accessibility professionals experience vicarious discrimination.
Vicarious discrimination is the emotional residue of being exposed to working with people and hearing their discrimination stories. Accessibility professionals effectively become witnesses to the pain and frustration that discrimination survivors have endured, and sometimes feel powerless to help.
Years ago when I was new to accessibility, I was not prepared for the gut-punch that vicarious discrimination caused when I did user research with people with vision loss the first time. It was heartbreaking to hear people with vision loss talk about being intentionally excluded from activities and events as if it were commonplace. It was equally terrible to listen to their internalized lowered expectations, which seemed to factor into overall feelings of lower self-worth and low self-confidence that resulted from this discrimination. There are so many activities that people who can see are regularly excluded from that people without disabilities take for granted:
- Being unable to get a ride: People with vision loss sometimes have to call 4 or 5 taxis/rideshares because the first few take off as soon as they see the customer was blind or had a service dog. I have experienced similar discrimination (especially in NYC and Chicago) trying to hail a taxi from a wheelchair. I have been much more successful when ordering a rideshare from an app, though that didn’t prevent Lyft drivers from trying to refuse to take me.
- Being unable to apply for a job without assistance. People who use assistive technology frequently never receive a reply after contacting employers for accommodations because the job applications were inaccessible.
- Being unable to participate equally in e-commerce. Every focus group I have ever moderated involving on-line purchasing has been attended by at least one participant with a disability who expressed fear of allowing their hopes to be raised that they would ever see improvements in website accessibility because they wanted to protect themselves from disappointment when it didn’t happen. That is what years with a continuous stream of discrimination does to people’s self-confidence.
Problem #2: Disabled accessibility professionals can experience first-hand discrimination.
Most people choose accessibility as a career option for a specific reason having to do with their personal connection to disability — either they or someone close to them has a disability. These individuals understand at a personal level what a discriminatory barrier inaccessible technology represents.
Frequently, accessibility managers need accommodations. If for some reason, they don’t, many testers who report to them will. If an organization has a convoluted accommodations process, it sends the message that people who need accommodations are “less than” someone without a disability.
Working when you have a disability requires understanding leadership. Most accessibility managers do not enjoy reporting to leadership that complains publicly about accessibility team members’ medical appointments, “strange” food, or the nuisance caused by arranging for meetings to be captioned. Do you know what a bigger pain is than the impact those things have on leadership? Being the one who needs those things and repeatedly asking for them, only to be treated publicly like those requests are a joke. Note, I have not experienced these issues with my current leadership, though I have had some issues with accessibility outside of the business unit that I report into.
Our identities as people with disabilities are inextricably intertwined with our work. Trust me; if we could have separated them, we would have. Disability is highly intersectional. It is the one dimension of diversity and inclusion that can impact ALL other dimensions (gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.). The longer an individual has been disabled, the stronger this identity is. This is one of the factors in making people with disabilities outstanding accessibility managers. Having a disability isn’t required to be an accessibility professional, but it also doesn’t hurt.
We are expected to participate in events outside of our day jobs with no additional compensation. I don’t think this is unique to people with disabilities; I believe this is an expectation of every underrepresented minority. If you work at a company large enough to have an employee resource group representing some aspect of your identity, you are expected to participate in not only the events you identify with but other events in solidarity of other underrepresented minority groups. Although Twitter recently announced a compensation plan for its Employee Resource Group leaders, that approach is the exception rather than the rule. The fact that it warranted a mention in a news article is proof of that.
In many cases, accessibility professionals expected to *drive* improvements related to disability and the other underrepresented minority groups they may identify with.
This basically represents putting the requirements for the solution on the people being discriminated against.
This makes us tired; very, VERY tired, which is a primary cause of burnout.
Being disabled is stressful all on its own. Most of the above does not factor in personal disability-related stress. People with disabilities in accessibility frequently carrying the weight and baggage of facing almost constant disability microaggressions and may be facing personal disability burnout (finances, having to rely continually on others, and under-challenge being the most common sources) in addition to the stress that being in an accessibility-related job causes.
Problem #3: Accessibility professionals may develop mental health issues or quit if their employer downplays the value of accessibility.
I quit an accessibility contract once within a month of the following event:
A VP sat next to me (I was in my wheelchair, of course ) and stated in a large stakeholder setting one October that it was more important to be able to sell wine by Thanksgiving than it was to fix a bug where people’s iPhone’s were crashing when Voiceover was turned on and running the organization’s native app.
This was the last in a series of “accessibility doesn’t matter” decisions and statements by this particular individual.
This is what #ableism looks like. I would have quit on the spot if I wasn’t supporting three kids in college at that time. I put out feelers that night, had an offer within two weeks, and was gone within four. Don’t expect to keep your accessibility talent if your “leaders” behave like this!
Accessibility managers need to be able to spend at least some money to make a difference. Hearing leadership state, “there isn’t enough money for accessibility” or “go ask this other group to give you money” may be perceived as code for “people with disabilities are not worth spending money on.” Sure, it’s easy to say “don’t take it personally.” That type of statement usually comes from people who are not disabled, and it is incredibly hard to actually live that truth when you have faced that attitude your entire life. People with disabilities in general hate relying on charity, and this smells a little too much like that. People with both visible and invisible disabilities may represent half, if not more, of your accessibility team. This is a real morale killer, and I hope every leader accepts this statement at face value.
The next part of this article will focus on what can leadership do to make accessibility manager’s jobs easier, and what accessibility managers need to do for themselves.