Why I wrote “Giving a Damn About Accessibility” and why you should read it

Yellow and black book cover “Giving a Damn about Accessibility a Candid and Practical Handbook for Designers by Sheri Byrne-Haber”

I wrote the accessibility book I needed 17 years ago when I made my career shift to focus on disability and accessibility.

In 2004, I was struggling with a miserable career. I finished law school in 1997. I spent a year working for a large law firm in the technology division. It was me and 17 white guys continually taking the credit for my work — I don’t know why this surprised me, but it did. I ended up going back to working in software which gave me more flexibility to get my deaf daughter the treatment she needed. Back in tech, I largely had the same responsibilities I had before I went to law school. My expensive law degree was going to waste.

The only thing that made me happy was my pro bono work which was suing insurance companies and school districts discriminating against people with hearing loss. More than 95% of my cases involved children. I made a deal with my own children to take no more than four cases per month, so it didn’t eat too much into my free time with them. My deaf daughter, especially, understood how important it was for other children to get what she had — a chance to be equal in a hearing world. I was communications modality agnostic. Sometimes my fights were for cochlear implants and hearing aids. Other times they were for CART and competent sign language services.

I ended up convincing a non-profit to fund the costs and a small salary to do this work part-time, which eventually led to a full-time effort. My team and I won almost 2000 cases in 7 years, and we lost (I think) 12. I remember every single one of those losses. I took the losses as a personal affront, knowing that my clients weren’t going to get what my daughter needed and got to have a chance at equal access. I am still in contact today with many of the people I won cases for, taking a small amount of pride in every college graduation announcement.

There was no handbook.

There were no best practices.

I made it up as I went along. Case after case, I found myself making the same argument repeatedly, sometimes even using the same words.

This is why d/Deaf people are entitled to be treated equally. By denying (whatever it was I was fighting for) you are trampling on their civil rights.

My appeals always opened with “why this is important” and then went on to the specifics of the case from there. When you convince people why something is important, they are personally vested in the solution when the important thing is not being provided, or is substandard, or broken.

I put myself out of business by winning a class action lawsuit against Blue Cross. Every other insurance company changed their policies — if Blue Cross can’t win, they figured, why should we continue fighting this?

It was then that I transitioned from advocacy for the deaf to digital accessibility. I found myself using the same approach in digital accessibility as in my appeals work — convincing people first why it was important and then moving on to the how.

There were plenty of books on the how.

There were no books on the why.

In late 2018, I started recording my thoughts on accessibility and started a blog. My first article was about how furious I was that a friend of mine, one of the best accessibility testers I know, didn’t get a job because he didn’t know enough about one very particular accessibility tool. It got 32 reads, and I’m pretty sure 6 of them were family members. I vowed to write different articles about accessibility. Now, I am averaging over 15,000 readers per month My articles explain “the why” in great and gory detail with actionable steps at the end on my perspective on implementing the why. Some examples include:

  1. Your first attempt at making anything accessible will be awful;
  2. You will run into people who will make your life as an accessibility leader difficult;
  3. Accessibility isn’t an add-on;
  4. You can’t stop at good practices. Accessibility needs you to be great to provide an equal experience to your users with disabilities.

If you work in accessibility, this book will help you make your arguments for accessibility more effective.

If you don’t work in accessibility, this book will help you understand why accessibility and disability inclusion are so important.

Inaccessible products are broken products. The first step in fixing this problem is to give a damn.

  • Read (or listen to) the book.
  • Ask the questions.
  • Build the program.

Become an accessibility believer, and preach the gospel of accessibility everywhere you go.

Huge shout out to Fabricio Teixeira and Caio Braga for handling the graphics and logistics in getting this book out.

Link:Giving a damn about accessibilityDigital accessibility is the inclusive practice of ensuring that everyone has equal access to information…accessibility.uxdesign.cc