The greatest tool for us as accessibility professionals is diplomacy, the quiet art of stating your case and pushing just enough to encourage change but not so much to upset people and ruin professional relationships.
When checking the accessibility of a website its very easy to be critical, our very role is to be critical. It's to spot issues, identify barriers and mark according to a severity scale of how bad the issue is.
But often this ability to expertly identify barriers and problems can mean our message becomes lost. Moving from identifying and recording issues to encouraging development teams and business areas to fix those errors.
The web accessibility industry is filled with good people who become advocates for making sure digital services being created are inclusive.
We know when something isn’t working right, and we can spot the familiar catchcry of "accessibility is important to us", which is then followed by accessibility not being acted upon when we identify issues.
This, in turn can make us become more stubborn and adept at raising the accessibility flag at every opportunity. But is this helpful, or can it become counterproductive?
Become a diplomat
Being a diplomat is the hardest and most challenging part of the accessibility practitioner's toolkit.
Finding technical issues is easy. We use a variety of tools and techniques combined with a deep technical understanding to find problems.
But human emotions are hard, its difficult to understand people's motivations and get buy in with accessibility. Sure, it may be mandated in your organisation that accessibility is important.
But when there are time constraints, technology constraints or staffing issues, loudly identifying accessibility issues when there are plenty of other challenges, will serve to isolate you, make your job harder and can create a perception amongst your colleagues of you being "difficult".
It’s a common challenge at times that whilst accessibility is important there are times when its not that important to be acted upon. How do we get past that, and make the problems we find actionable?
What are THEIR motivations?
Understanding people's motivations and how they perceive accessibility can go a long way towards making accessibility a real and tangible thing to be acted upon.
The motivations of developers, and the motivations for senior management may overlap but aren’t always the same. There's the end goal of being accessible but speaking to management about in-the-weeds technical issues won't achieve much other than to confuse them, same with speaking in strategic ways about accessibility to developers.
When tailoring your message, know your audience and understand their challenges and how you can help them with accessibility.
Your developers may be fantastic coders, but they may not be up to speed with the latest accessibility techniques, so show them.
Explain concepts and challenges and sketch it out on a whiteboard. Appeal to their sense of wanting to do a good job, their professional pride of making a site which is error free.
Besides, no one likes to hear an endlessly negative list of problems, and how they've not produced great code. Its insulting, and ultimately its counter productive and doesn’t help anyone.
Reframe the message
You've identified a problem but why is it a problem and what has the developer done right? Instead of blaming, emphasise what has worked and what's good and follow up with what can be improved.
Discuss why the issue is challenging for people with impairments. Until you've made accessibility relatable, it's just another standard which must be addressed. It’s a challenge that I've had to learn over time.
Build a relationship
Follow up with friendly emails and share occasional articles and blogs posts of hints and tips with accessibility. Sure, many people won't read them, but some will.
Email, whilst being convenient is also emotionless and easy to be ignored, especially with time poor developers. Speaking to people helps begin to build a relationship and identifies you as the accessibility person, not a faceless individual emailing problems.
Prioritise problems found
Draw people's attention to accessibility issues that require prioritising straight away.
Are there any issues which are show stoppers and will expose your organisation to risk?
Risk is often the biggest motivator for people to act on accessibility problems. Unfortunately, until something is deemed to be a risk which may result in a financial penalty or adverse publicity nothing will happen.
Severity is an art
Identifying and classifying an accessibility issue is itself an art. But every issue is not a barrier which will affect a person's ability to use your website. A poor colour contrast may have a lesser effect on someone than, say, no keyboard support throughout the whole site.
Assigning a severity rating to issues identified will help development teams to begin addressing issues.
In an ideal world every issue would be addressed, fixed, tested comprehensively and deployed to the production website, but this seldom happens so fluidly. A severity rating encourages the most important issues to be addressed first.
The remaining issues will be addressed as part of the normal cycle of fixing defects. It may not be the ideal which we are striving for, but it’s a start and it helps.
Know when to hold and when to fold
Will letting several accessibility issues pass and enter production mean the knowledge within the organisation improves overtime?
Is it better to accept a few minor accessibility problems, whilst fixing major problems?
Or even turning it on its head and fixing the easy issues whilst leaving the difficult problems into a temporary too hard basket? This is something you need to work out. Becoming a subtle negotiator means over time you're more skilled in understanding how to motivate people to fix accessibility problems.
People don’t want to do a bad job, but there are numerous external factors which affect people's ability to deliver good accessible websites.
By understanding those factors, we can begin to make our job easier and persuade people to do the right thing, the correct thing, which results in a better inclusive website for everyone.
Diplomacy IS the hard-learned skill toward being successful in web accessibility