Beginning a career focused on digital accessibility can be intimidating as technologists new to this professional field struggle to define the specific role that aligns with their skills and interests. Perusing job ads can certainly shed some light on the variety of accessibility professions that exist.
For example, in software development, there are many product roles that require individuals to be accessibility-focused such as product managers, designers, developers, content authors, researchers, or testers.
To support these product teams, there are also accessibility consultants, coaches, or trainers. In addition, there are digital accessibility roles that include learning content designers, procurement officers, lawyers, and those who provide counsel in the realm of compliance, as well as roles in multimedia.
The question remains, however, “How do I get started in accessibility?” There are a lot of things you can do. These three should give you a strong start.
1. Center on People with Disabilities
This focuses on what I believe is the most important part of becoming an accessibility specialist — expanding your awareness by centering on people with disabilities. One way to generate a level of understanding is through reading books and watching documentaries and films that are about people with disabilities, disability advocacy and activism, and disability initiatives.
Another important aspect of this professional work is also educating yourself on topics such as ableism, inspiration porn, as well as intersectionality and disability justice. These deeply affect the disability community.
In a recent conversation with Samantha Evans, accessibility advocate and Certification Manager for the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP), she supported this approach by arguing that “Getting at the why means understanding the who, so that we can put together the how to deliver the what. We have to start with the people.”
In many cases, technologists stumble into accessibility-focused work versus choosing accessibility-focused work. For example, a developer may not have thought about the appropriate use of ARIA until they are actually working on JIRA tickets with a Definition of Done (DOD) that requires testing for accessibility compliance. They may also have a directive to follow semantic coding practices. However, they might lack a real understanding of the barriers that good semantic code provides for people with disabilities relying on assistive technology.
In my personal experience, I went through a twelve-week frontend boot camp without a single discussion of the importance of accessibility in development practices. Digital accessibility awareness isn’t very visible in the university experience either.
It’s of vital importance that people connect their role-specific accessibility practices with the people they are helping. Technologists need to center the needs of people with disabilities so that websites and applications are built without barriers to access.
In order to understand disabled people’s needs and the barriers that they face, we must work on improving our awareness of disabilities. As well as the ways in which these disabilities affect how users interact with our digital products and services.
For those new to both technology and accessibility, I highly recommend the Web Accessibility Perspectives Videos produced by W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative. Each of these videos demonstrates how “web accessibility is essential for people with disabilities and useful for all.” I also recommend reading the Stories of Web Users in order to get a grasp of the accessibility barriers people with disabilities face on a regular basis in the digital space.
2. Gain Awareness through Literature
In addition to understanding the digital barriers faced by people with disabilities, I suggest developing a better understanding of disability itself. One fantastic way to do this is through reading.
I’ve put together a digital accessibility resource guide personally recommended books, movies, and other resources that center disability from a variety of genres including fiction, poetry, children’s literature, documentaries, and non-fiction. It’s my belief that product teams and those working in the digital space, should integrate reading as a means to develop individual awareness about disability and disability communities.
For example, the book Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally by disability rights activist Emily Ladau, does a fantastic job highlighting how important it is to listen and learn from people with disabilities when considering how to talk about disability, how to understand and avoid ableism, how to develop an awareness of disability history, and how to incorporate accessibility in your daily practice.
I also love Alice Wong’s edited volume Disability Visibility, because each chapter represents an individual’s story. One story that really affected me was about a deaf gentleman who was sent to jail without any accommodations made for him. I had never imagined how having a disability would amplify the tragedy of this terrifying experience due to a general unwillingness by those in authority to actually care about his basic needs.
I emphatically encourage people to seek out events that center on disability or people with disabilities. My list of resource recommendations also includes several from a panel I attended at the Greensboro Bound literary festival. The panel titled “The Truth about Disability: What We Don’t Talk About” exposed how disability is too often considered a taboo experience. Through the discussion of their writing, each of the authors in this panel discussed the complex reality of being a person with disabilities and how that intersects with other aspects of their personal identity.
Finally, I am a big fan of reading children’s books that either center on disability or integrates characters with disabilities into the storyline. As a parent, I believe I have an opportunity to normalize disability through reading stories such as the ones I’ve recommended.
My 11-year-old son loved reading each of these books and discussing, not only issues related to disability but also issues related to just being a kid navigating the world. There is a great article titled “How to Talk to Kids About Disability” that I recommend. While this is important for children, it also offers great advice about disability understanding and etiquette that many of us were never taught. Basically, teach your children and yourselves at the same time!
3. Grow Your Accessibility Community Network
A great way to start building your accessibility community is by searching for the #A11y hashtag. A11y means there are 11 letters between A and y in accessibility. The people most familiar with accessibility use this hashtag. #Accessibility can also be filled with valuable resources.
Yes, you want to connect with other people who are accessibility practitioners who can help you solve technical bugbears. But it’s also equally important to listen to disability advocates and activists who have lived experiences. They are in the best position to tell you whether something is a barrier or helpful.
Whether you prefer Twitter, Slack, or Facebook groups, you’ll find something in all of them. Find and follow people on your favorite networks.
Check out accessibility conferences, such as Axe-Con, CSUN, Knowbility’s John Slatin AccessU, and Inclusive Design 24. One of the largest and most active groups is A11y Slack. Join accessibility Meetups like A11yNYC (obvi!) and A11yVR, focusing on accessibility in XR and virtual reality.
These resources should be more than enough to keep you busy for a while.
Here are fantastic resources to learn about people with disabilities and digital accessibility.
- Louise Clark introduction
- Why and how to expand your awareness
- The importance of learning about ableism
- What are intersectionality and disability justice?
- What is inspiration porn?
- How to expand your community
- Q&A with Louise
Louise Clark transitioned to a career in technology after spending a decade teaching Latin American history at universities in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region. In her current role at US Bank, Louise is a User Experience Digital Consultant who assists design teams with techniques and strategies to create in a manner that is inclusive and centers around the needs of people with disabilities.
Louise also serves as a co-founder of Queen City Bytes, a grassroots organization, which works in partnership with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, to provide technical training to underserved populations.