Since I started posting these articles on Medium, I’ve had several people reach out to me and say “Hey, I think Accessibility looks really awesome as a career choice. How do I get there?” Rather than answering each query individually, I realized that I do have some thoughts on this, and not being shy in my opinions, I am sharing them.
(Author’s Note: I am trying to write articles on topics that haven’t been talked about to death. If I see another article on writing good alt-text or headers copied largely from WebAIM or W3C, I’m going to scream. If there is a topic that you are interested in, please let me know)
Accessibility is a great career. It is not taught well in college, so it is something that is largely expected that will be picked up through self-education and experience. A strong background in programming, software testing, or program management certainly helps with the transition. If you don’t have that type of background, you may want to augment the suggestions below with additional courses in those areas. Having some experience in dispute resolution doesn’t hurt either. While that last comment is slightly in jest, Accessibility Managers spend a lot of time trying to influence people and resolve conflict. It’s a good soft skill to have.
Things that only cost time and not large amounts of money
Being sensitive to cost (your current employer may not pick up the tab, and I was once a single mother and pulled off a pretty big career change on a shoestring) I have divided my recommendations up into “things that are free or not expensive” and “things that cost money I think are well worth the investment.”
Find an accessibility meetup
Accessibility meetups are generally awesome. Meetups near large cities attract lots of people, and there you will get the most exposure to diversity in both disabilities and thoughts on accessibility in a larger group. They are also great networking opportunities since most meetups allow people to talk about job openings. Don’t restrict yourself specifically to accessibility meetups, meetups on universal design or user experience can be just as valuable.
Go to an accessibility camp
Some accessibility bootcamps are free, some have fees associated with them. Think of an accessibility camp as a meetup on steroids.
Attend accessibility consulting company webinars
Of course, you must view consulting company webinars through the lens of “these companies are really trying to sell services.” But once you discount that, accessibility consulting companies run frequent webinars ranging from basics to future trends to technical reviews. Webinars from Level Access, Deque, and 3PlayMedia are a good way to spend an hour periodically and are completely free. IAAP webinars are relatively inexpensive ($39 for members, $79 for non-members) and are not sales oriented, except for pushing you to join which is a good idea anyways. IAAP Webinars tend to be more like college lectures — they are usually intense, focused on a very detailed subject, sometimes fairly advanced, longer, and no fluff.
Sign up for accessibility-related newsletters
If you are going into accessibility, you need to be up to date on the legal trends. If I have a new newsletter from Lainey Feingold or Seyfarth Shaw, it is always at the top of my reading list. Comment below on your favorite newsletter, if you have one.
Learn to use free tools
First of all, you have a bunch of free screen readers. NVDA (Windows), Voiceover (iOS) and TalkBack (Android) are all free. Of course, the hardware to run them on is not. The JAWS (Windows) demo is free, with the understanding that you will be rebooting your computer every 45 minutes. The NVDA training program is something like $35 USD, which is not expensive for an “everything you want to know” self-taught class. There is a great game-based VoiceOver training class on the AppStore (it’s called Looktel) and TalkBack has tutorials built into the phone on-newer devices.
In addition, there are several browser add ons and free tools that you can use to learn about automated testing. My personal favorites are WAVE and aXe. Don’t focus so much about how the tools operate but:
- What they are capable of reporting on;
- How to interpret the results; and
- How to plow through lots of data quickly to spot accessibility trends in the code
Volunteering is a great way to get exposure to different types of disabilities and how people with disabilities use assistive technology. It is not enough to understand the 50 guidelines that compose WCAG 2.1 Level AA, you MUST understand how native assistive technology users think, behave, and process information. Also having a disability or being close with someone who does is not sufficient. There are all kinds of disabilities, and even two people with the exact same disability may use assistive technology very differently. Some places to consider are local chapters of Lighthouse for the Blind, Center for Independent Living, or March of Dimes. Museums that provide assistive technology to their guests are also great places to volunteer.
Do the 508 Trusted Tester Program
Now that 508 and WCAG are harmonized, the 508 Trusted Tester Programwhich has been recently updated is a good way to learn everything you need to know from the government’s perspective about hands-on accessibility testing. This is not a fast one, and there is always a waiting list. The time investment is about 80 hours. There are reasonable accommodations available. This is not a program that allows dawdling, if you are silent for more than 10 days, they kick you off and you are forced to start over, so don’t start this program unless you are committed to knocking it out in the 90 days allowed.
Things that cost both time and money
If you have the luxury of an employer who is willing to invest in training, some DOR money available, or personal funds, the following items below in addition to the suggestions above are a great way to augment your accessibility experience.
The International Association of Accessibility Professionals which is now a division of G3ICT is a good place to meet like-minded people. They also have a board for members where you can ask questions, and an annual conference.
Buy a device on Ebay
If your dominant device is an iPhone, get an old Moto 6 (I bought one that was almost brand new for under $100). If your dominant device is an Android, get an iPhone. If you are a Mac user, get a cheap windows machine. Windows users don’t have to do the reverse because VoiceOver is the effectively the same on the iPhone and the Mac. Good accessibility testers/managers must be able to use Assistive Technology on all major manufacturer’s platforms.
Attend a conference
CSUN, IAAP, Higher Ground, and Regional ADA conferences can all be great places to pick up accessibility experience, learn about new things going on in accessibility (AI and virtual reality for the blind are my two favorite topics), and make accessibility contacts. However, they can be expensive. If you are paying for the conference yourself, the hotels can be kind of pricey even with group rates. The first time I went to CSUN I stayed at an AirBnB 6 blocks away for ¼ the cost. And it can’t hurt to reach out to the organizer and ask if they will give you the student rate if you are paying for it yourself.
IAAP currently has two accessibility certifications available — CPACC for accessibility managers and WAS for hands on testers/coders. Deque has some excellent training geared specifically towards taking the certification exam — $35 for CPACC and $150 for WAS. Adding in the cost of the certification exams, you are looking at under $1000 to get some very important letters you can put after your name on your business card.
Another good program is the three 2-unit classes on accessibility which leads to a professional certificate in accessibility offered by the University of Illinois Champlain. This one is about $3000.
Becoming a top-notch accessibility manager takes an investment in time and initiative, but you can do it on your own without investing a ton of money. It’s not one of those things where you can attend a single class/ seminar/ conference and be ready to make the transition immediately. Take your learning style into account — some people do better in lecture settings, some people do better with self-paced or experiential learning. There are a lot of good resources out there that can help you make the leap into an exciting career helping make technology accessible to everyone.