Accessibility often gets neglected in digital workplaces. Progress has been limited and all too often, accessibility falls low on the list of priorities.
Let me declare up front that I'm neither an expert on accessibility or on usability in general — and I'm not a good citizen.
Images without alt text? Check. Accessibility as an afterthought in the digital project I’m managing? Check.
Why No Action on Accessibility?
My past lack of awareness and lack of action (which I hope to remedy going forward) are unfortunately typical of many digital teams, whether focused on customer digital experience or focused on the digital workplace experience for employees.
Why are the levels of accessibility so poor across the digital workplace? Why does it fall so low on the digital agenda? And what can we do to change this?
At the root of the problem is how many of us view accessibility. On an intellectual and emotional level, we accept accessibility as an important and absolutely right thing to do. And in a world where inclusiveness is (finally) receiving greater attention, accessibility is only growing in importance.
In practice however, accessibility is regarded as an inconvenience or an unnecessary overhead. Some view it as an enemy of creativity and impactful branding, ironically regarding accessibility as something that essentially gets in the way.
In many cases, its deprioritization comes down to the business's belief that other matters are more immediately beneficial.
So how can we change this mindset and make digital workplaces more accessible?
Ditch the All-or-Nothing Approach
Accessibility is often mistakenly regarded as a compliance issue rather than a question of user experience. Pushing accessibility into the compliance arena reduces important practices into a tick the box exercise, another target to meet. With this approach, it’s easy to lose sight of how any changes or new measures actually impact employees.
Digital agencies and vendors could do more to highlight how to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.
I've seen this in digital projects where an AA compliant site — the median accessibility rating — is promised by the digital agency and when the project is finished the company considers it done. But a delivered site isn't necessarily compliant, it only has the potential to be.
Compliance depends on ongoing content management practices, but digital teams aren't necessarily aware that this is the case.
UK digital analytics provider Sitemorse believes the focus on compliance is part of the problem. Over the years it has measured website accessibility, regularly revealing very poor levels across the board.
Sitemorse argues a more pragmatic approach is needed to move the focus from achieving compliance to constantly improving towards compliance. By ditching the all-or-nothing mindset, websites will often deliver better levels of accessibility.
Putting the Needs in Context
Working closely with employees and groups who have accessibility issues can help change this mindset in the digital workplace. Bringing their world view and their daily experiences into the design process gives a rationale, tangibility and momentum to subsequent platform improvements.
Paul Zimmerman, CEO of digital agency Invotra, gave an eye-opening presentation at last year's Intranet Now conference in London. Zimmerman invited his audience to wear blindfolds and listen to the garbled voice of a voice reader spout manic gibberish based on visits to popular websites.
It was a sobering window into what poor accessibility feels like.
Other agencies are also working closely with users facing particular challenges. Dutch intranet specialist triptic won an award for its work on a social network for social care organization Vanboeijen.
This involved a range of adults and children with intellectual and physical disabilities in the user-driven design sessions. The intranet design needed to answer to a wide range of needs as its success relied on every person's involvement.
From a Mandate to the Bottom Line
Legal requirements mandate accessibility compliance (and vary according to country), but again, this focuses on compliance only. By highlighting the benefits accessibility can bring — both explicit and commercial — we can help change the mindset of any holdouts.
In the digital workplace, improving accessibility is part of supporting diversity and inclusion. And for those who only look at the bottom line, research suggests that diverse companies are financially more successful than those that aren't.
Improving digital workplace accessibility isn't always just about supporting employees with disabilities. It can also be about supporting those who do not have the main language spoken in the workplace as their first language.
If the link between providing a more accessible digital workplace and greater profitability, higher employee retention and attracting talent can be proven, then accessibility will certainly move up the digital agenda.
Move In the Right Direction
I’m hopeful we’ll start to make progress, albeit slowly. A focus on the employee experience, a greater awareness of usability and the continuing corporate drive on inclusion and diversity suggest we are moving in the right direction. Bringing to light the impact this has on real users rather than the benefits of compliance will also help move things along.