Organizations, accessibility, and change

In the past years I’ve often found myself in the role of change agent — someone responsible for advancing new ways of doing things. It’s the most challenging role I’ve ever held, and I’ve reflected quite a bit on what works and what doesn’t. More recently I’ve been in the role of assisting other change agents. I have had to move beyond reflection to being able to articulate beliefs, approaches, and methods.

The expression “herding cats” had to have been coined by a change agent. It’s hard work, advancing a new program or belief — particularly one that is not widely valued within the community. Getting a group of freethinking individuals headed in the same direction can require coaxing, cajoling, and treats.

Not everyone is inclined to cat herding. I’m more of a dog person, myself, and believe effective change management needs more of a pack approach, with clearly defined roles and strong leadership.

Here I outline some key factors that influence success in leading and governing change to integrate accessibility into culture and practice within an organization.

Define and observe roles and responsibilities

For the Harvard Web Publishing Initiative we started each new project with a project charter. One of the key components of the charter was a section on project governance, where we identified roles. To create the governance matrix we asked questions like, Who has the authority to initiate the project? Who has the authority to approve the design? Who is responsible for defining the strategic direction? Who is responsible for the quality of the content? Who is accountable for misinformation? We required that they identify one person in answer to each question.

Projects worked best when these three attributes came together — when the person responsible for taking action also had the authority to make decisions and was accountable for the result — for example, when the person responsible for developing content also had authority to make decisions about content strategy and was accountable for misinformation. Projects that were more difficult to bring to fruition were those where the roles were divided among team members, or where the understanding of defined roles was not clear, or the roles were not universally accepted and heeded. All the projects in the initiative were successful in the end, but in some cases, progress was more challenging.

For accessibility to be successfully integrated into an organization, everyone involved in making decisions that affect accessibility needs to understand their role and responsibilities, and appreciate how their decisions affect the ability of others in meeting their responsibilities. Starting from a governance structure that everyone understands — and believes in — is a key step in advancing toward a practice of accessibility.

Confer authority along with responsibility

At The Paciello Group, or TPG, we help organizations achieve and sustain accessibility in their digital product and service offerings. I would characterize many of these efforts as “disruptive” in the sense that accessibility is not always universally valued, within the organization or in the market it serves.

That said, in many cases accessibility is a requirement, and there is a growing understanding within product development that, while retrofitting for accessibility may meet obligations, it is costly and the result is not satisfying for anyone — the equivalent of putting a wooden ramp on the side of a building to provide access. Instead of waiting until QA to consider accessibility, product development teams are taking a more mature approach to accessibility, and are looking to increase their knowledge and skills, and embed accessibility into their processes from the start.

Because this shift in approach requires organizational change, one person typically leads the activity. The role is often characterized as an “accessibility evangelist” — a person responsible for organizing the effort, raising awareness, providing training and resources, reviewing products and identifying accessibility issues for repair. This is usually not a senior role within the organization. It is often someone in an existing role within the organization who has an interest in supporting people with disabilities.

I remember one of my good friends, Professor Mark Williams, commenting to me at some point when I was at Dartmouth, “So you have been given lots of responsibility and no authority.” I don’t recall the specific project he was referencing. Many of my projects relied on my ability to persuade people of the validity of taking a certain path, and the strength of the commitment of the community. But his observation helped me understand at least one reason why the work was so difficult.

Now that I am advising organizations on how to advance accessibility, I believe one key is to move away from roles that have responsibility but no authority, and that rely on persuasion and good will to be successful. Accessibility means changing values and culture. To successfully shepherd a community through fundamental changes, we need to give the people with responsibility for making things happen the authority to make decisions.

Assign accountability for accessibility

With authority and responsibility come accountability. Accessibility in practice requires significant change to processes and skillsets. It also involves making accessibility a “non-negotiable” requirement, on par with security and privacy. Those responsible for implementing accessibility in practice must also be given the authority to make decisions that influence its success, and must be held accountable when products are released with features that do not comply with accessibility standards, and are found to be inaccessible.

Moving from assigning an “accessibility evangelist” to making someone accountable for inaccessible products is quite a leap. Very few organizations have raised their accessibility program to such a stature. A search for “Chief Accessibility Officer” on LinkedIn returned seven (7) results. But organizations that are truly committed to building accessible products would be wise to make the leap.

Because what’s the likelihood of getting a herd of cats to go in the same direction? By identifying a person who can lead the initiative — someone who has the authority to define roles and responsibilities and who is responsible for ensuring accessibility obligations are met — organizations can take long strides verses short, incremental steps toward building a culture and practice that supports accessibility.

In the meantime, back in the real world…

As noted, not many organizations have made accessibility a “chief” concern. I think we will see more of this level of commitment in the coming years. In my opinion we should be appointing Chief Experience Officers with accountability for accessibility as part of providing a quality user experience. But that’s a topic for another day.

In the meantime, how do we make organizational progress toward building capacity and support for accessibility, without leadership and governance?

BJ Fogg has a “flip book” that I love called Designing for Lasting Change. It’s a great source of insight and inspiration, confirming the value of “baby steps” and providing encouragement to hold fast in advocating for radical change. I highly recommend giving it a read, and keeping it close at hand.

Here are some thoughts for baby steps:

  • Look for projects and initiatives where accessibility can hitch a ride, such as quality initiatives, responsive web design, or website or app redesigns. If people are looking at some aspect of a product or practice with an eye toward improvement, accessibility fits in perfectly, as an improvement that benefits people with disabilities — and everyone else.
  • Find places where accessibility fits into existing resources. Do you have a style guide? Weave accessibility best practices in with other styles and conventions. How about training materials? Integrate accessibility guidance as just another competency.
  • If you are involved in any way in hiring decisions, push to make accessibility part of position responsibilities, and evaluate candidates on their accessibility knowledge and experience.

As BJ Fogg notes, “Don’t underestimate the concept of small changes.” Incremental steps put people on the path to bigger changes. Making accessibility easy and part of existing practice will build momentum and lead to more significant changes.

2 thoughts on “Organizations, accessibility, and change

  1. We were interested in reusing the project charter. I contacted hwp, but never heard back. Is this document owned by you or Harvard? Do you know who I could contact regarding using for our websites? Thanks, Michele

    1. Michele, I created the “Cosmic University’s Department of Rocket Science Project Charter” while I worked at Harvard so they own the document. However, the conceptual framework is something you can use. I use it regularly in projects because it works really well! Hope you find it helpful, too!

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