Section 508: Try another swim lane?
By Chris Law, Ph.D., Senior Accessibility Analyst
Want to know how to make a website accessible? Google the answers. Want a mainstream phone with built-in speech output for using it without vision? Go to an electronics store. Want to know how to make an ATM accessible? Put your headphone jack in pretty much any ATM. Want to know how to change your organization so that accessibility becomes an integral part of everyone's job? Um... As time goes by more and more of the technological challenges around accessibility are being solved, written about, and widely implemented. However, let's face it, the ideal of everyone in an agency viewing accessibility as a shared responsibility seems like a long way off.
The way I put it to developers is this: Would you consider software security only at the end of the project? How about software quality? No. These are things that the software development community has learned to integrate at every stage of development. So why do we still get software coming to our 508 office for testing, and it's immediately apparent that accessibility never even entered the developers' minds? For sure it's not every product, but we do still hear, "No one told us it was supposed to be accessible" (add high pitched voice of your comedic choice).
It has been over a decade since Section 508 was incorporated into the Federal Acquisition Regulations, and yet we still have much to do to elevate the role of accessibility throughout our organizations. We can have a large accessibility group doing testing for other developers, but the goal of such a department should be an ever-decreasing number of defects because there is an ever-increasing awareness of accessibility among development teams. This will partly happen by osmosis, as developers learn what-not-to-do-next-time. However, getting developers to consider accessibility from the beginning, as naturally as they do security, requires us to start thinking outside of our traditional swim lanes.
It does not work to hand over the technology manual (e.g., a copy of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)), and say "Here's how you do accessibility. Please do it." In two months you'll go back and find the manual gathering dust. Here's the thing: If people have an option to make an excuse as to why they shouldn't do more work, then they'll make an excuse. They'll tell their supervisor, "We looked, and it's just impossible this time round with our schedule; maybe next time (wink)." It requires more than providing technical information.
In our 508 offices, we swim in lanes marked "testing," "governance," "accommodations," "procurement," etc. However, there are other swim lanes marked "organizational behavior," "change management," "corporate social responsibility" and "psychology." To succeed in the long run, we need to start swimming in those other lanes. These lanes are where the biggest problems currently exist. The technology problems aren't keeping us from getting widespread adoption of accessibility in practice.
You wouldn't jump into the pool and try doing the butterfly without any training, would you? Butterfly is a lot of splashing about even when it's done right. If you are thinking of taking the plunge, read up on these subjects so you won't just be splashing around, you'll actually be getting somewhere. There are tons of books on organizational behavior. Almost none of them mention changing an organization to incorporate accessibility practices. There's an opportunity here.