Accessibility must be a permanent program within organizations, much like security. In this article, Kate Kalcevich shares tips on which skills and questions to keep in mind when hiring for digital accessibility roles.
I’m currently the Head of Services at Fable, a company that connects organizations to people with disabilities to make user research, design, and development more inclusive. Because of the nature of the work we do, we have many accessibility roles within our company and we also work directly with people in accessibility roles at companies that use Fable for accessibility research.
I’ve heard from people who don’t have accessibility expertise that it can be challenging to figure out how to hire for accessibility roles. I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned over the last decade of hiring while working at Fable and other organizations.
First, there are a number of reasons why accessibility is important:
Ensuring everyone can access digital products is the right thing to do.
In most places around the world there is either a direct legislative requirement to be accessible and/or a risk of being sued for human rights violations if your products and services aren’t accessible.
People with disabilities are a huge global market (15% of the population) with disposable income that you can’t tap into if you’re not accessible.
Diversity within your team and inclusive design lead to better, more creative digital products.
Accessible products are more user-friendly for everyone.
Accessible products are more robust.
Inclusive organizations develop better customer loyalty and attract more positive press coverage.
I could go on, but I’ll stop here. I’m going to assume if you’re reading an article about hiring for digital accessibility roles, you’re already on board with accessibility being important.
Now, you likely want to know what you have to do within your organization to staff up. What roles are critical to hire for? Which one should you start with? Where can you find people who know about accessibility and how do you evaluate their skills while hiring? These are the questions I will address in this article.
There are several ways to increase digital accessibility capacity in an organization:
All three types of roles are critical for a robust and sustainable accessibility practice. Let’s explore each option in detail.
An accessibility specialist is someone who deeply understands how to create accessible websites, mobile apps, and/or documents. They may be certified as a Web Accessibility Specialist through International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP), have extensive work experience or have lived experience as a person with a disability and/or as an assistive technology user. The IAAP is a non-profit organization that works to promote accessibility as a profession globally through networking, education and certification.
The benefit of hiring this type of specialist early is the ability to understand deeply what is needed at a technical level to make digital products and documents accessible. The downside is that it’s easy to fall into a trap of relying too heavily on your accessibility specialist (or team) and they can become a bottleneck to making progress in accessibility across your organization.
Another downside is they can become frustrated if there is no executive support and therefore no budget and mandate for accessibility. It may be difficult for someone who isn’t a senior employee to get teams to make the changes required in order to create accessible products. Imagine someone highly skilled, who knows what needs to be done, but doesn’t have the support to do it. They can quickly become disillusioned and may leave the company.
Hiring an accessibility specialist first, can work well in a smaller organization with a digital team of less than 50 people. In larger organizations, it makes sense to have an executive champion for accessibility in place before you hire a specialist.
Upskilling Your Existing Team
Upskilling your existing team in accessibility through training is a fantastic way to decentralize accessibility and enable many people to learn accessibility skills. Accessibility is a team sport and the more decentralized it is, the more likely it is to be integrated into all projects and processes.
To upskill your team, you’ll need to provide accessibility training to all digital team members and to new hires. If you don’t have an accessibility team or specialist setting standards, you may end up with differing approaches to accessibility across parts of your organization.
You can more consistently approach accessibility by creating a network of champions that work across all functions.
Make sure that your training and onboarding program helps the team to understand various approaches to accessibility that should be used by researchers, designers, writers, developers, and testers. For example, if you wish to ensure that a percentage of all research participants have a disability, that’s a very different approach than doing accessibility-specific research studies. You may even want to do a mix of both, but it helps to have an organization-wide understanding of when to engage disabled people in user research, i.e. for what types of projects, how often and for what types of studies (generative research, evaluative research, surveys, and so on).
If you design an accessibility training program that covers those kinds of details and also make it part of onboarding new team members, you’ll get better consistency. There are organizations who can help create custom accessibility training programs.
Another great way to ensure consistency in design and code is to bake accessibility into your design system. For just buttons alone, you can standardize the following things that will impact their accessibility:
- What colours to use for primary, secondary and ghost buttons;
- What the default, disabled, focused, hover, and active states look like;
- How labels should be handled if a button has text, just an icon, or both;
- Minimum target sizes across large, medium, and small screens;
- When to use ARIA states like aria-expanded and aria-pressed;
- How to create a buttons that doesn’t use button semantics by using
tabindex=”0”and keyboard event handlers to listen for the spacebar and enter key press.
(Note: You really should use real HTML buttons, but if you don’t it’s critical that thes or the tags that you use are coded with accessibility in mind).
Finally, consider a chat channel dedicated to sharing accessibility approaches and feedback so that questions are answered in the open and are searchable. Accessibility documentation can help, but only if it’s done really well (in context, bite-sized, searchable, up-to-date, easy to find, and available exactly when people need it). In many organizations, documentation isn’t useful or well used, so definitely consider whether your existing digital documentation is effective before deciding to create more documentation.
Decentralizing accessibility throughout the team is one of the most sustainable and impactful ways to increase accessibility in your digital products.
It’s quite difficult to secure the budget and prioritize the time for training a whole digital team without an executive champion in place. It can also be difficult to know what training to purchase if you’re buying paid training or who to hire if you’re doing in-house training without an accessibility specialist on the team. For larger organizations (50+ digital team members), it is best to make this the third thing you do, after securing a champion and a specialist.
Upskilling your team first works really well on smaller digital teams of less than 20 people. At that size, your team is more likely to pursue self-guided training using free online resources or taking online courses that aren’t as expensive as the custom training a larger team will often purchase. Since the team is so small, you may not have the budget to hire an accessibility specialist so it makes sense to increase your existing digital team’s accessibility knowledge first.
A small team often has direct access to leadership making it less important to have an identified executive champion for accessibility. Teams can have conversations as needed to prioritize accessibility. They are also likely to be more agile and won’t need to secure an accessibility budget in advance for a full year, but can tackle needs on a project-by-project basis.
Executive Champion For Accessibility
An executive champion for accessibility (or several) can pave the way for an effective accessibility program. They can bring accessibility considerations into all key conversations around budgeting, planning, and execution of projects. Accessibility is never effective as an afterthought. “We’ll audit the site after we build it” just doesn’t work unless you are willing to make major changes and even rebuild parts of it to make it accessible.
Shawn Lawton Henry explains it well in his book, “Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Through Design”:
“When accessibility is considered early and throughout design, it can be seamlessly and elegantly integrated with overall product design. Incorporating accessibility early decreases the time and money to design accessible products and increases the positive impact that accessibility can have on design overall.
If accessibility is only addressed late in product design, it can be very costly to make required design changes. Furthermore, accessibility ‘tacked on’ at the end is usually much less effective for people with disabilities and less beneficial for others.
As an example, consider a building that is architecturally planned for accessibility from the beginning and has a wheelchair-accessible entrance that fits with the building design aesthetically and practically.
Compare that to a building with a ramp added on after the building was already designed and the ramp looks awkward and is less useful to all. Incorporating accessibility from the beginning of a design project is significantly easier, more effective, and less expensive than waiting until later in the project.”
The downside of starting with an executive champion is that they may not have the specialized knowledge to know:
- How to integrate accessibility into processes;
- What training is most effective for the team;
- How to advise on procurement of accessible products and services that are used to create digital products.
On a large digital team (50+ members) it’s often impossible to get the momentum to start an accessibility program without an executive champion in place. It’s usually necessary to have that person identified before you can get the budget and support to hire a specialist and effectively upskill your digital team.
To summarize where I think you should start:
- Digital teams of < 20 people should focus on upskilling the team;
- Digital teams of 20 to 50 people can start with hiring an accessibility specialist;
- Digital teams of > 50 people should identify an executive champion first, then hire an accessibility specialist and then upskill the team.
Regardless of which approach to building accessibility capacity you start with, I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to fill roles with people who have disabilities. They may be visible disabilities like blindness or physical limitations, or invisible disabilities like neurodiversity, hearing loss, non-verbal communicators, or many more. Ideally, you have users of assistive technology (like screen readers, screen magnifiers, or alternative navigation) on your digital team to test products or hire a company to connect you with users of assistive technology for feedback and testing.
People with lived experience with disability will bring diversity, creativity, innovation, and unique perspectives on how to integrate accessibility within your organization as well as being valuable members of your digital team even if they aren’t in accessibility-specific roles.
Hiring An Accessibility Company
Sometimes it makes sense to find a company and not a person to support your accessibility journey. If you have a large organization with a digital team of more than 100 people, you’ll likely need an accessibility team of about 5 people (I’ll explain why later on) unless you invest in upskilling the entire team.
You could hire a company that specializes in accessibility consulting to create a strategy, provide training and coaching, and recommend accessibility tools and processes that your digital team can use.
Be wary of settling for a “quick fix” on accessibility. Quick fixes that don’t involve changing how you design and build will not help you build a more inclusive design practice and can actually make accessibility worse for website visitors who use assistive technology.
Also be wary of companies that heavily focus on accessibility auditing. An audit will give you a snapshot of the accessibility of your website at a particular point in time, but without additional support, your team won’t know how to address the issues found in the audit and without changing how they work, they’ll continue to create new accessibility issues over time.
An audit is useful if you’ve already created an accessibility practice and you know your digital products are accessible. An audit can provide documentation to demonstrate compliance with accessibility laws. You want to find an accessibility company that works closely with your team, understands your processes and products, and helps to build accessibility capacity internally.
What Skills Are Needed
You’ll want the following skills on your team:
Skilled In.. Why? Product Accessibility To understand how to resource and plan for accessibility in the product development lifecycle, understand how accessibility impacts product sales and users, and to account for legislative requirements. Research Accessibility To facilitate user interviews and accessibility testing with disabled people. Design Accessibility To review prototypes and design patterns to identify where accessibility needs to be included and provide guidance on annotating designs and writing alternative descriptions for images. Development Accessibility To review code and suggest changes for accessibility, identify how and when to use ARIA and choose accessibility testing tools to integrate into the development lifecycle. Content Accessibility To review written content for plain language, logical heading structure and accessible instructions and error messages. Multimedia Accessibility To understand how and when to use described audio, captions, transcripts, sign language, and other supports for audio and video content. Q&A Testing Accessibility To use automated accessibility testing tools and do manual accessibility checks and/or coordinate testing with assistive technology users.
You likely won’t find all these skills in one person, so you’ll probably need to build an accessibility team of 3 to 5 people. If that’s not feasible, consider hiring an accessibility consulting company instead.
Note: For more details on role-based accessibility skills, check out the Teach Access accessibility skills hiring toolkit. The toolkit includes a description of responsibilities, qualifications, resume screening guidance, and interview questions related to web accessibility for more than 10 different digital team roles. It can be used to write job descriptions, screen resumes, and create interview questions. However, it is missing guidance around expected answers to interview questions. You’ll have to compare the answers of different candidates to understand which answers show the most expertise and relevance to your organization’s needs.
What An Accessibility Specialist Does
Accessibility specialists should primarily serve as enablers for others to practice accessibility. This starts with teaching people (or recommending training), identifying processes to change, tools to use, and ways to measure progress.
Some of the key activities of an accessibility team will be:
- Ensuring user research involves diverse groups of people and helping researchers get comfortable interviewing people with disabilities and accommodating their needs;
- Teaching designers how to include accessibility annotations in their design deliverables and helping to add accessibility to design system components;
- Helping developers to determine how to build accessible components;
- Identifying accessibility testing tools suitable for your organization’s development workflow and teaching people the best ways to use the tools;
- Accessibility UAT: A final check pre-release to ensure researchers, designers, developers, and QA testers are integrating accessibility practices into their work and identifying ways to change processes if digital products aren’t accessible enough;
- Measuring the progress of an accessibility program.
I don’t believe accessibility specialists should “do accessibility.” The exception would be in a very small organization with a small digital team and products that aren’t frequently updated. You don’t want your accessibility team to be the ones researching, designing, and coding for accessibility — it’s inefficient, leads to burn out, and doesn’t scale.
“What we have are a few people who know a lot about Accessibility. What we need are a lot of people to know a little about it.”
— Matt May, Adobe
Accessibility specialists should build an accessibility program, be advocates within the organization, coach people on the harder parts of accessibility, create resources, provide training, facilitate process change, select accessibility tools, and help measure the success of the accessibility program.
Where To Find People
Now that you have an idea of the types of roles you need to fill, how do you go about finding people? Start within your own organization. Try recruiting volunteers to be in an accessibility champions network and you might be surprised to find that you already have a wealth of accessibility knowledge on your team.
In addition to the standard hiring channels, you might consider posting job ads on a11yjobs.com and in the international accessibility Slack #jobs channel (ask for an invitation to join web-a11y Slack). Try posting on job boards for people with disabilities like Disabled Person in Canada and abilityJOBS in the U.S. Most importantly, make sure you are clearly calling out accessibility skills in all your job postings — even if they aren’t for dedicated accessibility roles.
For example, when hiring designers, make sure you list requirements (e.g. selecting colors with accessible contrast ratios, specifying keyboard interactions in design deliverables, considering optimal touch target sizing, and so on) under “job responsibilities”. These details can be hard to figure out if you don’t already have an accessibility specialist to provide advice. Consider working with an accessibility consultant or leverage Scott O’Hara’s accessibility interview questions.
When hiring for accessibility — whether for dedicated roles or not — consider that this is a specialized skill set and will likely require a higher salary to attract and retain knowledgeable and experienced job candidates. Salaries vary by location, but you can get an idea of accessibility salaries in your area on ZipRecruiter or glassdoor.
The other thing to consider is what are the accessibility leadership roles you need. Accessibility specialists often work across an organization — a type of collaboration suited to a director role. Consider who your accessibility team is interacting with regularly. If you have a manager of accessibility who is regularly in conversation with directors, you may need to hire at a higher level. Similarly, if you want an executive champion for accessibility, that needs an executive title, consider hiring a Chief Accessibility Officer.
When hiring for digital team roles, using a salary range can help you to provide better compensation to candidates with accessibility knowledge. This will help you to attract and retain the best talent and can also be used as an incentive for existing team members to learn new skills. Rewarding accessibility skills and the application of those skills to work should be considered when doing employee development planning.
When hiring for accessibility roles, your hiring process must also be accessible. Using a consultant to review your hiring process for accessibility can be helpful if you don’t have the knowledge to do this internally.
If you want to be able to hire people with disabilities, you really don’t want the job application process to be a barrier.
If you can’t budget for a consultant to ensure your hiring is inclusive, make sure you have an accessible means of contacting HR or the hiring manager. For example, use a Google or Microsoft form to collect requests for accessibility accommodations and provide a link to that form on all job-related materials — the job posting, emails sent to candidates, and interview invitations.
When a job applicant asks for an accessibility accommodation, make sure you have processes in place to facilitate that. It’s the worst experience to be hard of hearing and show up to a video-based job interview and not have captions. It’s terrible for your brand reputation if you offer to make accommodations and then fail to provide them.
There are many ways to increase your team’s capacity for accessibility and it’s less important where you start than it is that you do start. Accessibility must be a permanent program within organizations, much like security. You wouldn’t just do one round of security testing and consider it taken care of.
Accessibility is an ongoing journey, one with many rewards — a more diverse and creative team, more robust digital products, more market share, and more meaningful work for everyone involved.
Further Reading On Smashing Magazine
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