Regaining your accessibility spark

All jobs have up and down cycles. Try these steps to get back on the upswing when you are on a down cycle in your accessibility journey.

Authors note: Because of Medium’s refusal to address its accessibility issues for both authors and readers, I’ve moved my last three years of blogs to Substack. Please sign up there for notices of all new articles. Thank you for your continued readership and support.

It is inevitable that somewhere along an accessibility journey, accessibility professionals hit walls. They run out of steam. They go to that well of energy one more time only to bring up an empty bucket. When (not if) this happens to you, all of the suggestions below have helped me get back on a positive track without becoming toxically positive.

Remind yourself why you do the work

Stop looking at only the trees, and focus for a little while on the forest. This bug, those negative test results, that cross-functional business struggle — that’s the stuff that gets us down. Those events are all accessibility “trees.” It is easy as an accessibility professional to allow your focus to be pulled to the immediate crisis du jour. Let’s face it; there are usually plenty of crises to chose from when you are an accessibility professional.

Everyone has a “why” for being in the field of accessibility.

  • It is rare for anyone to end up in an accessibility career accidentally.
  • Accessibility training needs to be sought out. It is rarely a topic you get exposed to in the average CS, business, or design degree.

Remember your why. When you get frustrated or lose your way, go back to it. Your feelings about your accessibility work might change over time, but your “Why” very rarely will.

Alt: trees in a forest, some of them green, many of them with changed colors

Think about how far you/your program has come.

Celebrate the small victories in addition to the large ones. This is another variation of forest/trees — if you think of the forest as your accessibility project and the trees as each step you are taking on your journey, each tree should be celebrated, not just the forest.

You likely will never reach the end of your accessibility journey because accessibility is a program, not a project. Postponing celebrations to the end of a journey that you may never complete results in you experiencing many more failures than successes. Celebrating reaching the next rung on the ladder helps you recognize the distance you have come and focus less on how far you have left.

Another step in improving the perception of “how far you’ve come” is re-framing negative events.

  • Yes, people filed accessibility bugs, but look at this through the lens of disabled users who are using your product and care enough to file tickets.
  • You may not have had a specific support function for customers with disabilities, but shifting your point of view on this to a recent influx of customers with disabilities reflects positively on accessibility efforts overall. It will provide momentum to build that support program.

Remember, you have survived worse than the current challenges.

I have an almost 20-year-old post-it note in my closet that I look at every day when picking out clothes. It was my intake notes on what turned out to be the most difficult of the 2000 medical insurance appeals I undertook in my career just before moving into the field of accessibility.

  • If I lost the case, the client was going to die.
  • If I lost even just the petition to expedite the case, you got it, probably a dead client.

I won both the petition to expedite and the case itself. The client had their life-saving surgery that the insurance company had denied (before the Affordable Care Act in the days when pre-existing conditions actually counted) 48 hours after we won, and the client did not die. I cannot remember a time when I was more stressed than those few days I focused 100 % of my emotional and physical energy on that case. I keep that post-it note up as a reminder that no matter how hard the work I am doing now seems, no one will die if I fail.

Not everyone has as dramatic of an example as that one, but everyone has experienced tough situations in their lives that they got through. Write a journal, keep post-it notes, but remind yourself that you have gotten through worse than what you are currently experiencing at work that has caused your accessibility spark to diminish. And if you haven’t experienced something worse, it may be time to consider finding another job.

Separate personal issues from work issues.

Maybe your loss of work joy isn’t caused by the work itself. Maybe personal issues are seeping into and disrupting your work life. “Lifequakes,” a term coined by Bruce Feiler, include events like marriage, divorce, death, birth, empty nesting, moving, unemployment, or life-threatening illness. While you might be able to handle one lifequake disruption at a time, if they pile up, they may consume you to the point where they may overwhelm the joy you experienced at work. Seeking to accept and get through these disruptive transitions may put you in a place where you love what you do again. Remember, all change is disruptive, even if it is a good change.

Identify what changed for the worse, and address it.

Was there a sudden or specific pivot point such as a change in management, stakeholders, or a re-organization where you lost all of the joy in your accessibility work? If things were going swimmingly, and suddenly you fell off a work-experience cliff, something caused that drop. Doing a root cause / five whys retrospective may help you understand the source of that change. Once you have identified what you think is the source of the sudden change, you can look at whether that change can be reversed or mitigated to restore your joy.

Focus on things other than work.

  • Find an accessibility volunteer/mentoring gig. Volunteering and mentoring in the field of accessibility is an excellent way to give back and an excellent way to regain your motivation.
  • Write a blog or a book. These activities are like volunteering but on a larger scale. If you have something worth sharing, then share it. If your communications are about accessibility or disability inclusion, great! If they are about something completely different, like fostering puppies, also great!
  • Learn a new language, gain a new hobby, or invest more in a hobby you already have. These things qualify as “something other than work to focus on.”

Get outside help.

  • Therapy can effectively treat depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues that result from workplace dysfunction.
  • Coaching can help you with communication skills, conflict with co-workers or bosses, adjust to pandemic-related workplace change, and workplace burnout.
  • Mentoring can help you with confidence, goal setting, and identifying and gaining skills to help you on your professional journey.

Check with your HR department and find out what is available to you. There may be an employee assistance program that you can access. However, keep in mind that some companies may try to obtain EAP records if complaints outside the organization or litigation are filed. If discrimination or illegal activities are involved with your issues, you may want to access private coaching/therapy to add an extra layer of protection to your private information.