The First Steps to Breaking into Digital Accessibility Careers

Image Description: "The first steps to break into digital accessibility careers. Meetup.com/A11yNYC" with Louise Clark who is a white female with long dark hair

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.

Resources

Here are fantastic resources to learn about people with disabilities and digital accessibility.

Highlights

Speaker bio

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.

2 comments:

  1. Hello, Louise! I wear hearing aids and have for all of my life. I was diagnosed with impaired hearing, sensorineural hearing loss, in 1st grade. I am a music teacher, pianist, and avid reader. Initially, in looking for a job to pay the bills, I wanted to write, edit, proofread, and generally improve the quality of reading material I encounter every day.

    I am at a crossroads at the moment. I am teaching a few piano lessons—love that one-on-one interaction with each student! But, I am searching for something more. In scouring the “help wanted” sites and spending much time on Indeed, I have come across personally interesting posts from various disabled people. The topic is always inclusion, accessibility, and representation.

    I find myself very passionate as I respond to these articles. It made me wonder if there might be another path forward for me.

    It feels very presumptuous to ask. Do you have any advice for me? I don’t have the marketing background or business or communication credentials for a corporate job involving accessibility. But I know how inclusion—its presence or lack of it—has impacted my life. And I am excited about the possibility of improving accessibility for everyone. I will definitely bookmark your article with its list of resources. I look forward to reading them!

    Thank you,

    Tina Harrison

    1. Tina,

      It’s not presumptuous to ask – you are the exact person I am trying to connect with and help find a career path! Here are a few thoughts:

      * Regarding your love for writing, editing, proofreading — one career path in the technology / accessibility space is a content author. What does a content author do for digital products like a website or a mobile app? They help write and organize text-based content! Their goals are similar to other writers in that they want to make the text clear, concise, and easily understandable. Websites and applications need their content to guide a person to a service or to assist a person in finding important information. So content writers pay attention to the text, and how it is structured on a webpage.

      Content authors are also responsible for writing what I’ll call “offscreen text”. This is text that is not seen by people with sight, but is very important for people who are blind and rely on screen readers to receive their content. I consider it an art for a content person to be able to incorporate well written off-screen content. You can google terms such as “alternative text” to learn more about what I’m talking about here.

      As I mentioned previously, all writers hope to write clearly and concisely. It is especially important for people with cognitive disabilities, such as people with traumatic brain injuries or those with attention deficit disorder. Here is a quick video on the importance of content: https://www.w3.org/WAI/perspective-videos/understandable/

      An interesting fun fact is that I just recently learned that the United States federal government enacted the Plain Language Act in 2010. It states that federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use. I’m sure you’ll find these guidelines very familiar. Many content authors in the federal government spend a lot of time thinking about how to make writing accessible for everyone. You can read more about these guidelines here: https://www.plainlanguage.gov/guidelines/

      Lastly, in terms of trying to figure out what’s out there I would look at job ads. Make a note of terms you don’t understand and research them. One place to look for jobs is on the social networking site LinkedIn. You can create an account and look at their job ads. Type in search words like: accessibility, content writer, accessibility content writer, ux writer. (UX means user experience. How a person using your site experiences your site.) I also want to share another link from a wonderful organization called Teach Access. This page specifically discusses what an accessibility content writer does and what they should be informed about for the position. It’s actually guidance for people hiring, but I think it’s invaluable to see what hiring managers are looking for in a particular job role. Here is the link: https://teachaccess.github.io/accessibility-skills-hiring-toolkit/roles/content-author-producer

      Finally, please feel free to reach out to my email! I’ve really only discussed one possible option for you to explore. There are so many possibilities! I’ll leave you with one last link for exploration – it’s the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative site. This particular link is an accessibility fundamentals overview. Check it out and good luck! https://www.w3.org/WAI/fundamentals/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.