Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Tactical Communication in Accessibility

Image Description: Speaking Up and Speaking Out. Cam Beaudoin. Meetup.com/A11yNYC/. Photo of Cam, a white person with short light hair.

In 1945, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) had a big problem. Too many crashes. The USAF had no idea why this happened. They built these cockpits with unmovable chairs and no straps on the pilots’ flight suits. Their helmets were leather things more like a hat.

In building the plane, they thought if they built it based on the average male body, they will have a flyable airplane. It sounds much like how technology gets built these days. The people at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base remeasured 3,000 men at the base. They took 10 metrics, such as arm length, leg length, and chest size.

What they found was that zero men met the definition of average. If they reduced the 10 metrics to three, fewer than 5% of men were average. They built airplanes that could fit no one.

The next iteration of the plane allowed the pilot to adjust their environment, including the seat, pedals, throttle, etc. Because of this change, pilot performance soared. Adaptability made a big difference and it was the birth of the study of ergonomics. Like these airplanes, the world needs to build a lot the technology to be adaptable and flexible.

What’s important about this story is that they didn’t change the plane because of laws and regulations. They changed it because they had too many crashes because they were designed for the average male. They didn’t design it for what the real world reflects. In talking about accessibility, people who listen want to know the human connections and how it relates to people’s experiences.

The accessibility community needs to make it relevant to the people who are listening to the message. Business goals and processes don’t convince them to make a change. It’s more about action such as turning off the monitor and asking someone to figure out what the app is doing with help from a screen reader.

Obviously, this does not reflect the lived experience of someone who uses a screen reader every day. Businesses know they need accessibility specialists and consultants. A Wall Street Journal article shows the number of job listings with “accessibility” in the title grew 78% in one year.

However, accessibility peers continue to feel frustrated, burned out, or unheard. Companies reply to these efforts claiming there’s no time, no money.

Accessibility advocates and professionals all entered the industry in different ways. Maybe someone said go figure out how to make this accessible, got thrown into Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), or check the website with a screen reader. Throughout it all, there’s nothing about communication and interpersonal skills. It’s all focused on the how of accessibility. There’s nothing about how to sell accessibility to convince people it’s important. The why is missing.

What we need is a new way of approaching accessibility. A way that will change the minds of leaders, bosses, stakeholders, clients, or team members. You don’t need a sales background. Start with empathy. Most accessibility advocates already have that because they’re working in accessibility for a reason.

It’s Not About You

Imagine a team. Now, think about the design lead. They have standard professional responsibilities such as KPIs, hiring, mentoring, strategy, budget, and collaboration.

But don’t forget the design lead also has personal responsibilities such as parenting, family issues, long commute, volunteering, buying a house, and dealing with insomnia. They’re obviously tired, stressed, and overloaded.

Notice something missing? Accessibility isn’t part of the team lead’s responsibilities. So, if someone tells them to make the product accessible, they won’t listen. They already have all these other priorities and responsibilities.

Before doing anything, accessibility advocates need to remember everyone has the curse of knowledge. Everyone has knowledge in their heads. But what they say does not share that knowledge. They share something about accessibility and the others don’t understand it because they don’t have access to the knowledge in the person’s head.

When engaging with someone, there’s a path in the engagement journey. Imagine a little girl who walks with a little limp because of juvenile arthritis. One of her knees didn’t get enough blood, so one leg is shorter than the other. Her parents take her to the park and another adult notices her.

Someone in the ignorance category will say the limp is the parents’ fault. They’re not letting her run outside or maybe she’s been eating too much sugar. Then, they move on the path from ignorance to pity. Poor kid, she’ll never get better. The next step is sympathy like saying they know someone who had a limp and outgrew it.

But when people move to the last two items on the engagement journey, people show empathy and compassion. They change their mindset. They say things like “Thank you for sharing.”

Cam showed compassion when his friend told him about his daughter’s arthritis. “That’s really big news. I’m thankful you told me about it. By the way, if you ever need a babysitter, I’ll watch her.”

Many accessibility advocates may have empathy and compassion. But bosses, clients, and team members have not made it past pity and sympathy. Some are stuck on ignorance. It takes time to move them from the earlier stages of the engagement journey to the later phases. In communicating with them, their journey is what matters. To effect change, accessibility advocates help guide others on their journey to find their way to empathy and compassion.

The VIEW Way to Better Communication

Too often, advocates skip steps. It’s like a doctor writing a prescription without asking questions. You need a conversation before you get the prescription. So, how do you make that happen with accessibility? By thinking about VIEW, the four aspects of calibrated communication:

  • Voice
  • Inquiries
  • Engagement
  • Words

This can be used in any conversation, not just accessibility.

Voice

Voice is about being heard. How do you deliver what you need to say to ensure someone listens? It helps to know that sometimes people won’t hear the message the first time. There’s a marketer’s rule of seven, which means it takes an average of seeing their message seven times before a prospect takes action.

Back to the design team lead. After bringing up accessibility, she’ll respond that they don’t have time for it right now and it’s not on the road map. Instead, you might go talk to someone else on her team in quality assurance (QA). Ask the QA person if they’re struggling with accessibility.

QA reveals something that will help. QA said that when doing demos, clients keep asking about accessibility. This gives you an opportunity to go back to the design lead with something like you heard the clients have asked about accessibility and how can you help.

She replies that it’s in the backlog. The priority is to release the product first and add accessibility later. You could respond by offering to address the backlog and one hour of their time to look at the accessibility issues in the backlog. Maybe have a lunch and learn to do a quick triage.

It may take multiple times before they listen. Try different methods, such as emails and videos. Be politely annoying. Find other ways to talk about accessibility that are not doom and gloom or lawsuits.

Inquiries

The next item in VIEW is inquiries. Think about the people you care about. Did they care about you first? Inquiries mean asking open-ended questions about them and learning about them. What’s important to them? What do they care about? What’s happening at home? At work? What are their goals?

Asking questions can help a person change their perspective. How can you make accessibility relevant to their priorities? Most importantly, who owns the accessibility in this project? Sometimes your boss or team lead is not the owner.

If you’re trying to convince someone to care about accessibility and they’re not the owner, it’s going to be harder to do that. Their plates are already full with all their responsibilities. Keep encouraging conversation by asking open-ended questions.

Engagement

The third item is engagement. People’s distractions are at an all-time high that they’re multitasking in meetings while folding laundry. So, how can you weave accessibility requirements into their goals? Apply the rule of three. How can you align with goals in three days, three months, and three years?

Three days could be the end of a sprint, maybe you can add an accessibility ticket and fix a label. Three months would be the end of a release or project. Releases go out without accessibility fixes and with bugs all the time. And finally, what could you weave accessibility requirements into their long-term goals? The earlier you have these conversations, the better.

Words

And the last item is words, which means communicating clearly. They’ll get lost if you give them a complex problem without a solution. A complex problem needs to be simplified. A great book on this topic is Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. The book discusses talking with clarity and simplicity in everything makes a problem more approachable and easier to communicate.

It’s possible the decision-maker needs to talk to other people. Maybe the person cares about this and they want to bring in accessibility. But if the boss doesn’t know how to communicate this to convince leadership to put accessibility in the leadership plan, then it will get lost.

An example of this is talking about specific things in WCAG, such as success criteria 1.1.1 for non-text content in WCAG 2.1 Level AA. The boss has no idea what this means. How can you simplify it? State that it is alternative text for graphics in the accessibility guidelines.

Take it a step further by giving a business reason by sharing it’s required text that helps improve search engine optimization (SEO). Another example is transcripts for podcasts, which are a gold mine for SEO.

You don’t have to talk WCAG. Just talk in general terms. You could mention POUR: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. The key is to remember your boss may speak to a decision maker. And that person may not know anything about WCAG. In fact, refer to them as “accessibility guidelines” and you’ll have a greater chance of buy-in.

One of the challenges with accessibility is time. “I don’t have time for that” comes up a lot in conversations around accessibility. Remember that accessibility isn’t a race. Diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t a race. Diet and exercise take time to see the change you want. The same goes for accessibility. It’s about using time effectively. Patience + persistence = progress.

Bringing It All Together

In 2020, there were 10,982 lawsuits filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A little math reveals this is an average of 30 lawsuits a day. How many businesses are covered by the ADA? The answer is that 32.5 million businesses are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

If there are 30 lawsuits a day, it will take almost 3,000 years to sue everyone. Threatening lawsuits aren’t the solution to convincing people to add accessibility. It’s not effective.

Accessibility supporters often quote that 1 billion people in the world have a disability. You could say this is three times the population of the U.S. But this number is too big to connect with it.

Recall the design lead and all of their professional and personal responsibilities. The long commute doesn’t help matters. Try using the VIEW method on them. For Voice, share a fun video or podcast about accessibility. They’re a mom and might like the accessibility videos involving kids.

For Inquiries, ask things like:

  • When was the last time our team learned about accessibility personas?
  • What are our team targets for this quarter?
  • What do you think the team struggles with around accessibility?

For Engagement, say something about the CEO talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at the last all-hands meeting and mention how accessibility fits in with that. Maybe someone posted stuff about diversity and inclusion month.

How do you tie in what you already know about the organization and its pillars of success? Maybe they’re already communicating outwards such as changing the company’s logo to a rainbow one to celebrate Pride Month. Use it as an opportunity to have a conversation.

And for Words, when talking to a lead or boss, use words like goals and collaboration. Keep communication simple and clear. Once you’ve worked through VIEW, you may have created a new accessibility champion. Even if it’s a small thing of being less resistant the next time you talk about accessibility. That will have made a difference.

Be prepared that accessibility champion may move on and you’re back at square one with the new person replacing them. The good news is that there’s less resistance now than almost a decade ago.

You also have a great opportunity here with the new employee. Set aside 30 minutes to talk to them. Use the time to drum up the message that the organization cares about accessibility. Show them how a screen reader works. Do this as soon as the person starts the job, not three months later. This is an important conversation to have and it needs to happen in the beginning.

A medium-sized screen appears to the left of Cam who is talking while wearing a blue jacket over a white V-neck shirt and green wall behind

Accessibility Activist Interview with Cam Beaudoin

How did you get your start in accessibility?

I started in this industry like many others: by mistake! I had a boss who demanded that I read the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to get ready to work on their accessibility backlog that was over 3,000 issues long!

I spent the next 9 months burning through that list, training a team to help, and learning a lot of things along the way. The struggle was real though, this was back in the days when we had to support IE9 and JAWS had a really hard time with it. By the end of the project, we handed back the defect list with a negligible number of issues, so all that work paid off.

What prompted you to speak about communication?

Communication is one of those things that everybody thinks they already do well because we do it all the time. Because of that, we don’t often take a moment to analyze how those words are actually coming out.

I believe that any news, good, bad, or neutral, has ideal states in which it can be delivered. For example: how do you convince your boss to care about digital accessibility? Priming that conversation and putting it in an ideal state is the key to a fruitful outcome.

What is an accessibility barrier you would like to see solved?

I would like to see one of the biggest barriers eliminated: stigma.

There is a perception in the world that is that persons with disabilities are less-than and that needs to go away. I believe that speaking about it helps reduce and eliminate that stigma by shining a light on our biases, which were most likely formed in our childhood.

Our parents, teachers, educators, and human resources departments don’t talk about disabilities, be it how to serve a client with a disability or how to work with someone who has a disability. I’m trying to change that and make speaking about this topic approachable.

About Cam Beaudoin

Using his experience in program management, software development, and technical consulting, Cam Beaudoin brings a unique and refreshing perspective on how teams can tackle digital accessibility within their organization. People appreciate his hands-on knowledge of planning, executing, and delivering accessible results with practical, real-world solutions.

Cam sticks to down-to-earth stories and engages groups from the moment he meets them, leaving them with cool confidence in their ability to handle the ambiguities of digital accessibility. Audiences often appreciate that he can speak the same language as their technical teams or senior business leads.

Cam speaks on recalibrating communication techniques for technical teams and accessibility consultants, ensuring that cross-functional teams include everyone in the conversation.

Connect with Cam on LinkedIn.

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