VMware’s Internal Accessibility Policy

Person giving presentation in conference room with several diverse attendees with laptops
It’s not enough to make products and marketing websites accessible. Organizations need to ensure that employee-facing tools accessible as well.

How many pieces of software do you use at your job?

Seems like a simple enough question. When the VMware accessibility team started investigating the answer, the number was much higher than we anticipated.

Most larger companies have “software catalogs” of pre-approved tools that are either automatically pre-installed on IT-provided laptop images or that can be downloaded on demand.

At VMware, this catalog is known as the Intelligent Hub. The VMware Workspace ONE® Intelligent Hub app offers a single destination where users can securely access, discover, and connect with corporate resources.

Our first inventory approximately two years ago determined that VMware IT had placed 285 distinct pieces of software in the hub. However, only 15 % of the 285 tools were completely accessible.

The accessible apps and websites belonged to the usual suspects — Microsoft, Google, and SalesForce. Everything else needed work ranging from small improvements to complete rewrites. Fortunately, VMware has the staffing and mission to undertake that work, benefitting not only VMware employees but all product users.

Employee-facing accessibility

In August 2020, my job was split into two.

  • One half focused on accessibility in the tools that VMware sells, including VPATs and remediation programs.
  • The other half focused on accessibility innovation and outreach. The outreach part explicitly included working with VMware vendors.

Because my primary life goal is to make employment more attainable to people with disabilities, I chose the innovation/outreach role.

Phase One — Starting the conversation with vendors (aka “the Carrot”)

We started immediately reaching out to vendors where I knew the heads of their accessibility programs. Because this was happening at the peak of the pandemic, we initially focused on team collaboration tools, including Zoom, Slack, Saba/Hive, Workboard, and Confluence.

However, like any accessibility project, working on the stuff you know is a problem is not a recipe for success by itself. VMware simply had to stop acquiring more inaccessible software. We started by including WCAG compliance statements in every new contract that involved software or services.

The roadblock we ran into was phase one did not have a mandate behind it. It was voluntary, and not everyone at VMware (or our vendors) wanted to participate.

Phase Two — the policy (aka “the stick”)

Work on the internal accessibility policy began in September 2020. The group drafting this policy contained at least one representative (sometimes more) from each department directly impacted by the policy, including representatives from the following areas:

  • Information Technology
  • Colleague Experience
  • Procurement
  • HR
  • Employee Relations
  • Open Source
  • Accessibility

The most difficult part of drafting the policy was the exceptions process. There will always be times in every organization that some part of the organization needs a tool where accessible options are not available. One example of that today is collaborative design tools — none of the big players in this space are accessible. When this happens, under the new VMware policy, the business owner requesting the inaccessible tool purchase must submit an accommodations plan in advance. That way, if a person with a disability needs to use the inaccessible tool, the methods to accommodate them are pre-identified, which reduces the load on the employee with a disability.

The policy went through several rounds of review within the smaller accessibility policy working group, then went to the larger VMware policy working group before finally going to the executive policy committee for a vote. Several rounds of comments and adjustments later, the final policy was adopted on March 31, 2021. I personally thought seven months was quite a long time to get a fairly simple policy passed until I was told that seven months was a speed record, literally the shortest amount of time ever for such a policy to be enacted at VMware that anyone could remember on the executive policy committee could remember.

Phase Three — Remediation

JOYCE OSHITA and I are the two individuals most frequently working product vendors of inaccessible tools that VMware is already using. Occasionally, we receive additional support from our team members in India. Only two of us largely focus on this issue, and we can’t boil the ocean. Therefore, we chose to focus on 42 of the 243 inaccessible tools for this calendar year based on VMware’s reasonable accommodations metrics — where employees with disabilities already had requested accommodations. Using requested accommodations as a metric, we discovered VMware had no fewer than five different accommodations channels, creating a redundant and inconsistent process overall. Therefore, this internal accessibility policy work kicked off a second VMware project to condense the accommodations procedures down to a single overarching process that works for any global accommodation request.

In the remediation phase, VMware allows the vendors to drive how much interaction they want to have to improve their accessibility.

  • Some vendors believe they already have the resources and advice they need and don’t want any assistance from VMware.
  • Other vendors are just getting their accessibility programs started and feel like they can use all the help they can get. In those instances, we:
  1. Meet with vendors quarterly or even more frequently if requested;
  2. Provide lists of prioritized bugs;
  3. Review pre-release versions of their products;
  4. Provide insight into what new standards are coming from W3C based on my work with them.

Regardless of how much assistance the vendor wants, we always make one thing clear — WCAG language will be added when the contract comes up for renewal. If the vendor does not commit to accessibility, it is possible that their contract will not be renewed.

The result

Slowly but surely, VMware is improving the accessibility of the tools it uses. These improvements benefit not only VMware employees with disabilities but all users of the tools. Accessibility is now being discussed all over VMware and is now a significant consideration every time a new tool is bought, built, or used.

It’s an amazing feeling to see someone commenting online about improved accessibility or a new feature they’ve recently uncovered in a product and know that it was your work that resulted in that change.