There is no such thing as “perfect” accessibility

Blackboard with wooden rim with “If you wait for perfect, you’ll never get anything done” written in white chalk
Accessibility is a really bad place for perfectionists. Here’s why.

You know, perfectionism. That “humble brag” that you throw out there when in an interview setting you are asked to identify your biggest fault?

Oh, yeah, biggest fault. I’m a perfectionist.

Always trying to make things better

But that isn’t really what perfectionism is about. Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by:

a person’s striving for flawlessness and

setting excessively high performance standards,

accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and

concerns regarding others’ evaluations

Some traits that are common in perfectionists include:

  • intolerance for error, including the process by which things get accomplished and not just the end result.
  • self-destructive behaviors including being extremely hard on one’s self, procrastination, and depression when things don’t achieve your unachievable goals.
  • Perfectionists see gray in two shades: black and white.
  • Perfectionism is linked with performance anxiety. The inner voice that says “you aren’t good enough” may trigger feelings of imposter syndrome compounded by stereotype threat.

Perfectionism isn’t just about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards. Perfectionists don’t let things go, and never don’t stop at “good enough” unless forced to.

I’ve been doing a lot of interviewing lately to fill testing positions for the expansion of the VMware accessibility team.

  • It’s important that accessibility testers know what they are doing. That can be demonstrated in a number of ways, such as certifications or answering questions about ARIA live-region attributes or how to use the rotor in voiceover.
  • But it’s more important that the candidate understand the kind of environment they would be coming in to, and it is of critical importance to me that they thrive in that environment. Going back to the very first article I wrote almost a year-and-a-half ago, I always prioritize soft skills over tech skills. So I make it clear by conveying the following sentiments in exactly these words at the end of every interview:

If you are the kind of person who needs to know Friday night what you are doing Monday morning, this might not be the right job for you, and;

If you insist on perfection in everything you do, this might not be the right job for you.

Here is why both of those are incredibly important to me as a hiring manager.

  1. I need employees who are flexible, because life happens. People break bones, need emergency surgery, get divorced, move, and go on maternity leave. Older relatives get ill, and sadly, leave us. That means the highest value employees, like in baseball, are the ones that can play several positions. Employees who lack flexibility are not automatically out of consideration, but I can teach you ARIA faster than I can teach you to be flexible.
  2. Contrary to initial instincts, perfectionists make terrible co-workers, which drags the entire team morale down. You might think “yay, someone who is always going to get it right,” when in reality, perfectionists:
  • make life difficult for the people around them;
  • have difficulty with collaboration and relationships.
  • don’t have the best time management skills — they run late on one project (because it has to be perfect) and then do not have time to stop to celebrate small victories before moving onto the next.
  • tend to respond more harshly in terms of emotions. Perfectionists experience more guilt, more shame, and two studies have clearly demonstrated that perfectionists experience more anger.
  • Not surprisingly, perfectionists have more mental health issues and higher rates of burnout.

One of the insidious side effects of perfectionism is complacency. The voice inside your head, in an attempt to avoid the crushing effort of being perfect might whisper to you “if I can’t be perfect, why even bother?” — and that’s where the failure to your users with disabilities comes in. Even the most minimal amount of user research will tell you:

Users with disabilities don’t want perfect !!!

  • They want the software to work, preferably without them having to ask for help.
  • They want to apply for a job (again, without help) where they know how to use the tools, because the tools are accessible.
  • They want to be treated the same as all the other humans without disabilities. Equal access. Small phrase, big impact.

WCAG standards are not set up for perfectionists to succeed. If everything in accessibility were black or white, the Pause, Stop, Hide guideline, for example, would talk about a *button* being required, not a mechanism. The heading and alt-text guidelines would say more than the header/description need to have “purpose”. WCAG is not prescriptive, therefore, it is impossible to be perfect at implementing it. You can only make the best recommendations you can think of that comply with the guidelines.

Accessibility is frequently a place for compromise. Fix all the Level A bugs now, and get the AAs in a maintenance release is a frequent remediation compromise. Get to minimal compliance now, and we’ll talk about best practices and user research in the future. Perfectionists hate compromise, because, by definition compromise is NOT perfection. My favorite law school professor defined a successful compromise in a class I attended 25 years ago and remember to this day as something where “no one is happy with what they got, but everyone can live with it”. There is always going to be more work than time, and a successful accessibility tester will decide when something has received enough attention (even though it isn’t perfect) and move on to something else that needs more review.

There is no black and white in WCAG. There are all kinds of shades of accessibility gray, that that’s before you get into things like “Why doesn’t WCAG have guidelines pertaining to font families or italic styling” that have to be covered as best practices, if you want to try and include them at all.

When you are building any team, each individual is like a piece jigsaw puzzle and you are trying to find the best fit amongst the pieces. It’s OK for one person to have weaknesses, as long as that weakness is another team member’s strength. The ultimate goal is for people to be happy in their jobs, because happy people do the best work and are the most committed to their craft. It’s hard for perfectionists to be happy, and I’m making that statement as a recovered perfectionist. Do the best you can. It’s what people with disabilities want. And check your perfectionism at the door.

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