Your first attempt at making anything accessible will be awful

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Don’t use this as an excuse. Even awful is better than 98 % of what other people are doing.

My primary goal in life is to convince people to make things accessible, which is defined as making products and services work for people with disabilities. But to avoid the peaks and valleys of the accessibility emotional roller coaster, people just getting started on their accessibility journey need to accept the following statement at face value: Your first effort at accessibility is unlikely to be outstanding.


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Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

1. No one starts a new skill at the expert-level

Accessibility is like speaking a foreign language or playing the violin. It takes a lot of practice before you are any good.

Fifty guidelines? How hard can it be? Harder than you would think.

  • The guidelines are currently written in dense, regulatory-like language.
  • There are several ways each guideline can be satisfied, some better than others, which the guideline does NOT specify.
  • Understanding how people with disabilities use assistive technology and process data is essential to a good result. Most beginners don’t have access to that information or don’t even know to seek it.
  • Implementing accessibility guidelines is framework, and sometimes assistive technology, specific. What works for HTML won’t work for Angular, React, or SWIFT, for example. What works for NVDA might not work for JAWS. You need a lot of experience to understand all these nuances.

2. Perfectionism is a bad approach to accessibility

This is such an important statement; I wrote an entire article about it.

TL;DR: Waiting for “perfect” increases the length of time your organization has intentionally or even actively discriminated against potential customers with disabilities, discouraging them from remaining as customers.

3. Even people with disabilities can’t represent the needs of everyone with any disability

Let’s assume you have a strong connection to disability — either you are disabled, or a close friend or family member is. That is frequently the case for people new to accessibility. Until you have a lot of experience with assistive technology and understanding how people with disabilities consume data, you will be operating under a lot of assumptions and biases. I’m using the phrase “bias” in its neutral sense here. I don’t mean intentionally discriminatory. I mean that having a limited amount of data may flavor the conclusions you draw in your work.

  • Even if you have a disability, you will be looking through your disability lens and how YOU use assistive technology.
  • Three different people with identical hearing loss levels can have three different communication modalities: one may use sign language, the second may speak and use hearing aids and an FM system, and the third may prefer to use visual captions. Until you get to that level of expertise and understanding reflected in your product accessibility, you won’t represent all of people with hearing loss.

You can’t improve the situation for people with vision loss by negatively impacting the experience of sighted, keyboard-only users.

Accessibility is not a zero-sum game.

A rising accessibility tide needs to raise ALL disabled users’ boats.

4. To be successful at accessibility requires opening yourself up to criticism

One of the most difficult challenges for many people new to accessible design and development is learning to deal with criticism from the public in general and people with disabilities, particularly as they begin to release more accessible products. Opening yourself up to criticism opens yourself up to improve — IF you do something about the criticism other than deflect.

Handling constructive criticism in a productive manner is critical for any accessibility professional’s progress — and even more so for accessibility professionals who collaborate with numerous stakeholders, including designers, developers, content managers, and others who make important contributions to the work on the path to the release. The key to learning opening yourself up to accept criticism is to keep an open mind without taking criticism too personally. Some ideas on how to do this include:

  • Read a book that teaches you how to learn from critical feedback. Potentially useful topics include coaching or performance feedback.
  • Take an online learning course on receiving feedback, improving self-esteem, or reducing the impact of imposter syndrome.
  • Take formal accessibility courses. The more people you get exposed to, the more ideas you will be able to absorb.
  • Consult with an expert. Many accessibility professionals are open to answering short questions on LinkedIn.
  • Establish some emotional distance. The feedback isn’t about you, personally. The feedback is about the product. Let go of the voice inside your head, insisting that you have to defend yourself against criticism.
  • Get so much feedback that you effectively desensitize yourself from criticism.

5. You need to keep that needle moving forward

True accessibility is about process improvement.

  • Accessibility is not a project.
  • Accessibility efforts never come to an end.
  • Even when you get accessibility right, you can always do it better.
  • Even if you think you have maximized your accessibility growth, there will be a new browser, or operating system, or piece of assistive technology, or a product feature to test the following week.

The best accessibility is done in a continuous process improvement program loop, being visited and revisited throughout the entire design and development process. This continuous accessibility reassessment will make it easier to determine the low hanging fruit that can benefit from more accessibility love in your organization. For what it’s worth, I am known to hum or sing “Just keep swimming” from Finding Nemo when I am struggling with lack of progress.

Commitment is the key. Just start.

8 % of websites are completely inaccessible. You couldn’t possibly do any worse than they are. The starting point is giving a damn. Since you got to the end of this article, clearly, there is a significant chance you do.

Lowering your internal expectations for your early accessibility projects means you won’t be disappointed.

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