This is the third in a series of nine discussions on 8 Key Elements for Creating a Culture of Accessibility with Jeff Kline. We’re delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Jeff today about how organizational leadership influences the culture of accessibility.
In this interview, Jeff discusses getting leadership buy-in, why a bottom-up approach to accessibility doesn’t work, driving accountability with metrics, and using the organization’s structure and process to drive accessibility.
Sanjay Nasta: In our last interview, we talked about the role of policy in creating a culture of accessibility. Can you share more about the importance of getting organizational leadership buy-in at the early stages of adopting accessibility policies?
Jeff Kline: In my experience, an accessibility culture cannot be driven from the bottom up.
You can’t expect to have a few developers, or a project manager squirreled away in some section of the organization, doing wonderful things in accessibility, and expect them to transform the entire organization and culture to ensure that everything that the organization creates, buys, sells and uses is accessible for people with disabilities.
In the previous interview, we discussed how to get executive buy-in once the policy has been put in place and everyone has signed up. It’s important to try to build a culture of accessibility in whatever way makes sense for the organization and its culture.
One way to start that is to look at the organizational structure to make sure that you’ve got the right touchpoints in all the different departments, and that the department leadership is committed to accessibility.
Even if the head of an organization rises up and says, “Thou shalt have accessibility,” without having individuals or teams in place to interpret that, know what it means, and help the rest of the company figure out what it needs to do, the accessibility initiative won’t go anywhere.
Because no one is there to take the reins, it will be lost in a black hole. Global obligations must be converted into concrete actions and incorporated into an entity’s structure.
Challenges of a Bottom-Up Approach to Accessibility
Sanjay Nasta: What are some of the challenges of driving accessibility programs from the bottom up?
Jeff Kline: Senior management has a lot of demands on them and never enough resources to fulfill every demand. If there’s nothing in place mandating accessibility from the head of an organization, management will undertake this work out of goodwill. This isn’t sustainable.
If you are trying to drive an accessibility program from the bottom up, that implies upper management doesn’t have an accessibility mandate or accessibility awareness. Without upper management support, accessibility initiatives will get quashed by middle management, and sometimes even at the project management level, because they don’t want to invest additional resources on an initiative with no support from their boss.
You can have pockets of passionate people in different projects but once they leave, your accessibility program is gone because you don’t have anybody who’s carrying the torch. You don’t have anybody who’s doing the coding. You’re not going to be able to get somebody down at a project level to be able to set policy or procedure in most cases. Driving accessibility from the bottom up is a very long, slow slog.
Leadership Buy-In for Accessibility Programs
Sanjay Nasta: How do you go about getting leadership buy-in? How many levels of leadership are you do you have to involve?
Jeff Kline: To be truly effective, an accessibility policy must flow through all levels of your organization.
If you have been successful in getting an accessibility policy published, it is already indicative of leadership buy-in. The real question is, as you said, how does it flow down the organization from there. Senior executives are going to be busy with a million things and they can’t get into the details of accessibility policy implementation. They must delegate implementation to one of their leaders.
An Accessibility Leader needs to be named for the overall organization–the titles vary depending on the organization. The Accessibility Leader must be somebody who is knowledgeable about accessibility, both at the technical level, but mostly at the policy and strategic level with lots of broad experience.
Individual department heads must take the reins in terms of what the accessibility policy means to each of their departments. Having people in place, hopefully with knowledge of accessibility, across the organization is critical to accessibility policy success. It’s difficult to drive an accessibility initiative without expertise in accessibility, resulting in slow accessibility implementation.
The Accessibility Leader must drive the elements of the accessibility policy to bring about policy adoption across the company. That’s the most effective way to do it. If you don’t have An Accessibility Leader, and your accessibility initiative is being driven at the department level each department will attempt to accomplish things separately from one another. That’s a little bit like headless chickens because without the leader at the top who is the subject matter expert in accessibility and has the authority, accountability, and the knowledge to impart in all those areas it’s a very slow go.
Sanjay Nasta: The Accessibility Leader position is a hard one to fill these days. Finding individuals with technical and strategic levels of understanding of accessibility is difficult.
Jeff Kline: Well, there are not that many people that have the strategic and technical understanding of accessibility. That’s part of the problem. Most of the people in the accessibility world today are still technically focused–the developers and the content creators. It’s difficult to place someone with technical accessibility skills in a strategic role without any policy or operational experience.
Finding a person who can do both is difficult. I would submit that the strategic aspects are more essential than the technical, but you must be able to speak the language of the development community when you need to do so.
An Effective Organizational Structure to Drive Accessibility
Sanjay Nasta: You had real-world experience driving accessibility policy implementation successfully at the State of Texas, how did you go about solving the problem in such a complicated organization?
Jeff Kline: Well at the State of Texas and at IBM, I faced similar issues. I think IBM was a little bit more complex.
I was fortunate when I got into the State of Texas in that they had already established a good set of administrative rules. The state also had an Accessibility Leader, which they called a Statewide Accessibility Coordinator.
I was fortunate that the position was already there, although it had not ever been codified. I did that later because I felt it was important. I was able to step into that position, recognize the level of influence and utilize my knowledge from years at IBM in both management and accessibility development to start driving the program much faster rate than it had previously been progressing.
The State also had an accessibility coordinator as a focal point in each of the 145 or so agencies, although a lot of those positions had not been filled. Unfortunately, often that coordinator had very little knowledge of accessibility when they were named in that position. The people within the accessibility community within the State of Texas, who were the accessibility, technical team, etc., provided the named accessibility coordinator with the education and training needed for the job.
Sanjay Nasta: We’ve established the importance of an Accessibility Leader – somebody who truly owns accessibility and is responsible and accountable for accessibility and organization.
How does that position multiply their effectiveness? How do they grow accessibility and drive accessibility at the departmental level and down to the individual level?
Jeff Kline: There are several ways for the Accessibility Leader to multiply effectiveness. It is important for that person to have close coordination with focal points for accessibility in each department so you can understand their pain points and address questions. Establishing open communication with them is vital so that they can are free to ask questions and understand that you are available to help them including strategic work, policy work, work process improvement, and accessibility metrics. Carrying all these elements across the entire organization is valuable because there is value in consistency. Having the same strategy, policy, processes, tools, and training allows a community to form across a large organization.
Other than each of those separate silo departments doing their own thing again, everyone will get there at some point, but how fast? And the successes and the failures are going to be within those silos. So not everybody gets to learn from everybody else in the way that I think facilitates more expedient accessibility work.
The Value of Digital Accessibility Training
Sanjay Nasta: A regular set of workgroup meetings, and providing a cadence of training and knowledge sharing seem important.
Jeff Kline: Yes, but not every organization has that luxury. I was lucky at the State of Texas, and I was able to implement some government-wide programs and tools that really are making a huge difference and are driving a lot of the progress at the State of Texas. The online free learning systems that I made available to anybody with a Texas state government ID and the web scanning program where different departments within the State of Texas could sign up and get a subset of their website scanned for accessibility issues drove accessibility forward. We hoped that agencies will start to be more comfortable with the service and then invest in their own scanning services to scan their entire website.
Sanjay Nasta: Training seems to be a common theme across all our conversations. Is it because a lot of folks are starting with low knowledge of accessibility? They might have the will but need to bring up their skills. Training seems to be an important facet of creating a culture of accessibility.
Jeff Kline: Absolutely. Modern scanning services today and tools really, really do a great job with that because they not only identify what the errors are and where they are, they also provide direction on how to fix issues, including providing code examples. Training is required to interpret the results from scanning services–to prioritize the serious issues and eliminate the false positives.
However, you can never lose sight of the fact that while these scan services are very valuable and they do hit a lot of the low-hanging fruit, they can only check for about 35% of WCAG success criteria. Training is also required to find the other 65% of issues by testing manually.
While you can broadly go out and scan your entire website or big chunks of your website, it still requires manual testing of some smaller subset of pages so that you truly know how somebody who is trying to use those pages or use that application within assistive technology can do that and where the gotchas are.
Sanjay Nasta: One of the things that I’ve noticed is that accessibility is not a fixed goal. It evolves over time as we learn more about the needs of the people using our products. We must keep our skills up and so that calls for consistent training too.
Jeff Kline: Yes, it does. One of the things that I talk about in my book is that consistent training needs to be woven into individual performance plans to develop and update relevant accessibility skills. Developers, content producers, document creators, and even project managers need to ensure that they understand accessibility and can use that knowledge in their daily work and keep their skills current because nothing is static in the IT world.
Accessibility Accountability Metrics
Sanjay Nasta: What are some of the metrics that you use to measure the success of your programs as somebody who is managing and is accountable for accessibility?
Jeff Kline: Understand that the metrics that use to measure accessibility progress change over time. There are several very important metrics that you can use.
When you’re first starting to build an accessibility program you need to get people trained and understand accessibility. Thus, an important metric is what percentage of your staff has been trained on accessibility and how much of your development community is trained in accessibility. Also, consider the global accessibility 101 training, so every employee has an appreciation for accessibility. You can track how many team members get trained or retrained every month or year.
In addition, you need to come up with accessibility metrics and goals for your websites. I recommend you set an initial baseline of how many errors you have on your website. Then set goals for fixing the errors. For example, set a goal that you want to fix 25% of errors a month or 30%. That is a goal that’s easy to measure and most of the scanning tools provide dashboards for website errors.
You can track how many applications that you’re running in your environment are accessible or need to be accessible,
You can even metric procurement. How many contracts do we have with the correct accessibility language or solid accessibility language? How many solicitations have correct accessibility requirements? How many newly purchased applications are accessible?
I would argue that’s really one of the responsibilities of the Accessibility Leader is to work with his teams to try to establish a set of metrics that can go measure progress across the whole organization.
One of the things I did in my last go-round with the Texas Administrative Rules is I codified that all the agencies should establish their own accessibility metrics and track them.
Sanjay Nasta: It’d be interesting to see what the different agencies picked.
Jeff Kline: I created a set of checkboxes in a Biannual Accessibility Survey, which is deployed every 2 years to all the different agencies and higher ed. The survey asked them which of those were being measured and they were able to select from a set of metrics from the checkboxes and an additional box for write-ins. Once they did the survey assessment, the agencies that didn’t have metrics or enough of them were able to look at that and say “oh these must be the things that we need to be measuring” and would start to measure those.
Sustaining Leadership Involvement
Sanjay Nasta: What strategies did you use to keep leadership involved on a consistent basis?
Jeff Kline: In my state time, my leadership was extremely supportive of accessibility I was able to make a lot of progress and a lot of it involved, making proposals in terms of what needed to be done and why it needed to be done, and of course, the cost. Even though the programs that I developed were very broad the cost to the State of Texas and for the Department of Information Resources to actually fund those programs was small and so I didn’t get a lot of pushback.
I also got a lot of support because of my external work with, the federal government and some of the federal NGO’s (non-governmental organizations), the General Services Administration, and the Department of Justice. The State recognized my influence in the industry and made it a lot easier to be able to make things happen as opposed to somebody who got put into that position, who had very little knowledge and was an unknown quantity.
Sanjay Nasta: Did you have a cadence of meetings, or did you have a steering committee that helped guide accessibility in such a large organization?
There was one for a while when I, came in. Over time the scope of everything for that organization changed and we just decided it’s at some point that it was no longer needed and dissolved it.
However, there were many times we would have meetings and webinars. Also, when I would conduct rule reviews to plan and propose modifications to the accessibility administrative rules. For such rule reviews, there was a formal procedure in place, and we would bring individuals from a select group of government agencies and colleges for input. Accessibility subject matter experts and department accessibility coordinators were involved in that process.
We even had CIOs from different agencies and universities who participated in the process. This was great because it really signified the level of importance of those administrative rules.
Other times, I just looked at everything that was going on and I knew what the strategy was, and I was able to do those things on my own without a lot of external, communications or involvement.
Sanjay Nasta: One of the things I have noticed in working accessibility for as long as we have is accessibility is driven by a passionate set of people in an organization at all levels of the organization. What drives that passion in a group of people to drive accessibility?
Jeff Kline: It’s different things for different people.
There are a lot of people within the community that have a disability and so, their passion. It’s more than just a passion for them. It has to do with their ability to function and be equivalent in the digital world which consumes so much of daily life today. There are some people that have somebody close to them, family, or friends, that has a disability and so they are very passionate about that because they want to do whatever they can to improve the lives of those who are dear to them.
Then there are some people, like me, and others who just get it. I don’t really have anybody with any disabilities in my life, although, in my management career, I’ve had the privilege of managing and working with many people with disabilities. When I take on anything in life, that is important, I tend to be pretty passionate about it. And that passion burns in a lot of other individuals involved in accessibility as well.
Sanjay Nasta: Jeff, thank you for taking the time to share information on the role of organizational leadership in driving a culture of accessibility. I look forward to continuing our discussions in the next interview.
Jeff Kline Bio
Jeff Kline is the author of Strategic IT Accessibility: Enabling the Organization and is a recognized subject matter expert in key areas of IT accessibility that includes policy, rulemaking, process integration, procurement, and risk mitigation. He formerly served as Program Director of Statewide Electronic and Information Resources (EIR) Accessibility at the Texas Department of Information Resources. Jeff consults on IT accessibility policy matters for federal and state agencies, educational institutions, NGOs, and accessibility certification bodies. We are excited to have Jeff work with Microassist on consulting engagements with our clients.
Before his recent position in public service, Mr. Kline managed IBM’s Worldwide Accessibility Consulting and Business Transformation initiatives. He held other management positions in research and product development during his 26-year IBM career, including industrial design, operating system UI development, and system usability.
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