Several months ago, I got some bad news at work. My university, nationally known for promoting and focusing on accessibility needs as a campus, was rated by the Chronicle of Higher Education for having one of the most inaccessible websites out of several hundred sites reviewed. Once word spread through campus…my phone, email, and office were buzzing with everyone from vice-presidents on down the ladder, letting me know how much of an atrocity it was that we were rated so low. Even though I had seen this coming, I was helpless at fending off the sear volume of the onslaught.
The next three months were spent defending why our website was sub-par. Truthfully, the site was a mess so it was less defending and more like explaining. I was exhausted and had reached a limit! Much like the old song lyrics, “I didn’t start the fire,” but I knew I had to put it out.
Step one was developing an accessibility plan. While I’m still working on the details of ours and will have more to write on the topic in the future, I thought I’d share some tips for other universities or corporations trying to begin the overwhelming process of developing an accessibility plan.
Here is the crash course I did to kick off our plan:
10 Tips to Begin Your Accessibility Plan
1.) Houston…we have a problem. Admit your site has a problem. Write up a list of accessibility issues you know of first hand, then compare this to your checklist of bugs to fix. You may instinctively know more then you realize about your website’s user interface, or lack there of.
2.) Get compassionate. Understand the problem. Don’t assume anything. I had many awful perceptions that have been corrected in this area (like color-blindness is just not being able to see green and red—WRONG!). Impairment Personas give descriptions of user needs while contextualizing it with user’s personal stories. These personas bring your users to life and help you understand what obstacles to expect and what goals to set. This will give you compassion and focus. If you aren’t familiar with impairment personas, check out the W3C for an excellent descriptions of user needs.
3.) Get passionate. Know the difference between 508 Complinance and WCAG A-AAA Priorities (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). Read the the entire specification, I know it seems daunting, but its worth it in the end. You don’t have to understand every intricate detail, but you should be able to explain the main specification in a nutshell. Remember, you will have to draft this for your team, so you should know it inside and out.
4.) Grab the ball. Don’t be intimidated by lawsuits others have been through, instead use these as leverage to get your executive or adminstartion’s support. The lawyers go after those without a plan, not those who are aware of the problem and trying to change. Get on the offensive, instead of being defensive.
5.) Join the pack. Attend an accessibility conference. I have attended several in the last couple of months, and each one has been very insightful. Not everything at these conferences has to exactly pertain to web. Sign up for areas that are outside of your wheel-house, diverse sessions will make you have a well-rounded understanding of user needs. After all, this is bigger than your website. If you can’t afford to go to a conference off-site, check out free webinars offered online. Many state and federal government(s) offer free webinars, these sessions are invaluable, plus they are fiscally prudent–something you’re boss will love.
6.) Ask for help! If you don’t understand how a motor impairment affects users with a disability on the web, email your Disability Services or Human Resources Director or ask to interview and/or watch someone with this impairment first-hand. If either of these options aren’t practical, read the W3C Personas listed in step 2, they will give you a vivid picture.
7.) Location, location, location. Find users and experts in your office or institution. Ask your Office of Disability Services or Human Resources division who at your institution is passionate in this area. Get them on your team, illicit their help to solve this problem together. These users will be honest and forthcoming on your implementation if it doesn’t make sense or doesn’t meet the need.
8.) Follow the little birdie. Follow some accessibility experts on Twitter. I have been following several who have been amazing to read, blog, and follow and helped me to digest the length documentation found on the W3C and WCAG. Some good recommendations are:
9.) Take a final inventory again. Grab your list from number one and your knowledge from steps 2-8 and make a final list of web accessibility issues on your campus\office. In addition, evaluate institutional guidelines that may need to either come into compliance to meet these needs or, better yet, might help you further strengthen your case for an accessible website. Now write up a formal inventory of all the areas you are failing at. This should be an exhaustive list! Rate each problem area (pass or fail), including: how long its been in or out of compliance, what specification it violates (Institutional Guidelines, 508 Federal, WCAG-W3C), and how it impacts the current website. This will be very helpful in later later discussions and planning meetings.
10.) Just keep trekking’ The tricky part about all of this is that it is up to each institution to adopt practices to encourage and reward good accessibility standards. WCAG won’t give you the code to make a better website, there is no “One-Touch Accessibility” magic button. Careful communication with developers and designers, combined with user education are the key to on-going success in web accessibility.
Stay Tuned for PART II – The Nuts and Bolts of Creating A Web Accessibility Plan. I’ll discuss, how I actually designed, wrote, and delivered our Accessibility Matrix to the development team.