I speak with companies weekly about the growing importance of digital accessibility, and prior to 2020, those conversations almost always started with this question: “How do we make our sites and apps accessible so we don’t get sued?” It’s a fair question — after all, the number of web and mobile accessibility lawsuits has increased in recent years.

But I’ve observed a shift toward a bigger-picture question in my research, which was confirmed by the content of an event I attended this month with my colleague Kelsey Callahan. The event was axe-con, hosted by Deque. The shift is driven by 1) the pandemic, 2) the rise in global attention to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), especially in the US, and 3) a desire by employees — particularly those entering the workforce now — to work for companies that reflect these values in their customer experience (CX). These three factors have shifted the focus of the digital accessibility conversation from being compliance-focused to being grounded in creating great CX for all. Here are two concrete signals of this surge in interest in digital accessibility:

  • Over 17,000 people from 88 countries tuned in to this inaugural event, a number that’s particularly impressive for an accessibility conference in its first edition.
  • I received over 100 LinkedIn messages after my talk at the event, many from designers and developers getting introduced to accessibility for the first time and already enthusiastic and eager to learn what resources they should use to further educate themselves.

One of the keynoters, Haben Girma, said, “It’s easier to choose inclusion, to invest in accessibility, rather than dealing with lawyers” — so in that sense, avoiding legal risk was partly the point. But the bigger prevailing theme was the importance of recognizing who the laws and guidelines are intended to help and including them in your company’s accessibility efforts. In Haben’s keynote, she pointed out that the biggest mistake companies make with accessibility is treating it like a checklist and forgetting how critical it is to have disabled people involved in creating and testing products.

Here are our three top takeaways from the event, centered around the need to take a people-focused, not merely compliance-focused, approach to accessibility.

Takeaway No. 1: Despite Designers’ Good Intentions, Companies Still Overlook Accessibility In Many Aspects Of The Design Process

There was an entire track at the conference focused on design, and that’s good because it was clear from the talks that this is an area where there are lots of good intentions but also a lot of work to be done.

  • Verizon’s senior manager of design, Brandy Bora, pointed to personas as an example of this, pointing out that most personas she encounters are generalized and “typically-abled” — not reflecting that many people in the persona are likely to have a disability.
  • Alicia Jarvis, senior digital accessibility specialist at Scotiabank, pointed to the need for teams to be more intentional about how they conduct research, including people with various abilities in testing everything from content to prototypes to visual design choices. She shared her personal experience of growing up wearing prosthetics after being born with short arms and never meeting a prosthetist who was an amputee themselves. Her story should prompt a design team to ask, “How are we seeking out input from people who don’t look and sound like us?”

I’ve written about how to build inclusive practices into the design process in my report “The Inclusive Design Imperative: Win And Retain More Customers.” And it starts with:

  • Recruiting more people — including people with different abilities — in the design process.
  • Going beyond compliance-focused approaches to accessibility that emphasize meeting guidelines and standards as the endgame.

Here’s how Andrew Hayward, accessibility engineer at Twitter, summed up what needs to happen in his “Accidental Advocacy” talk: “Guidelines and checklists are useful as a starting point, but they are the baseline, not the end goal. We have to remember that people are the end goal. Remember who you are advocating for. Focus on them, not the process.”

Takeaway No. 2: Educate Employees By Connecting Them Directly With People Affected By Lack Of Accessibility

Deque’s Greg Williams gave a talk on the ROI of accessibility, which is much needed. Why? Because showing how accessibility helps to manage risk, increase market share, and lower operational costs is key to gaining executive support for digital accessibility work. But when it comes to the employees doing the work, you need to focus on the human impact to get accessibility to take hold and spread. How? By showing real people impacted by accessibility or the lack of it. Speakers approached this in several ways:

  • Intuit’s Global Accessibility Leader Ted Drake advises, “You can teach accessibility, but you can’t teach empathy; you have to develop empathy.” Accessibility didn’t make sense to him, he admitted, until he met a person who was blind and saw them use a screen reader. One way his team develops empathy is using video. For example, anytime there is a bug for an image without alternative text, they share a powerful video of a screen reader user they interviewed who, while setting up his business in the company’s software, encountered an image that, because it lacked alt text, resulted in his screen reader software spewing out a ridiculously long and nonsensical stream of numbers and characters — the image file name. The result: Employees witness the human impact of the problem.
  • Ally Bank’s Director of Accessibility Sabrena Foxx recommends bringing in guest speakers with disabilities to speak and facilitate discussions with team members. Her team recruits speakers for the internal awareness building events they hold to celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day, International Persons With Disabilities Day, and others. Last year Coach Tharon Drake, the first blind coach in US swimming history, was their featured speaker, speaking to employees about how he listens to the sounds of swimmers’ hands to coach his athletes. Sabrena collects and shares quotes from employees who attend these events with executives, emphasizing the power of “voice of the associate” in demonstrating to leadership that accessibility is important.
  • Andrew Hayward shared that at Etsy, a company new to accessibility when he joined, it took just one lunchtime presentation showing people what the company’s website sounds like with a screen reader to create change. While these demos are helpful, he stressed that even better is to invite someone with a disability to come into your workplace and share their experiences and story.

Takeaway No. 3: Create “Local Instagram Influencers” For Accessibility

In a panel on “The Landscape of Digital Accessibility in Higher Education,” Michigan State University’s digital accessibility leader Nate Evans described how he helped create a culture of digital inclusion by building a network of 125 liaisons between the accessibility team and the university departments. These liaisons serve as the experts on accessibility and as points of contact for their areas but also act as evangelists, building awareness and enthusiasm — very similar to an Instagram influencer!

How can you build a similar network? In addition to igniting in employees a passion to do better (as I mentioned in takeaway no. 2), many speakers pointed to the impact of spotlighting and celebrating the employees making accessibility happen on motivating employees to get out there and spread the word. This recognition is also key because creating accessible experiences requires new ways of working — and getting started can feel daunting. Keep employees motivated by recognizing the progress they’re helping the organization make, even when that progress feels like baby steps.

As Adobe’s Head of Inclusive Design Matt May reminded us, “Being recognized by your peers is one of the most powerful things.” We heard different approaches to recognition throughout the two days:

  • Adobe’s design team gives capes to “superheroes” for the design org — an example of how recognition doesn’t require a lot of money to do.
  • Intuit’s Global Accessibility Leader Ted Drake spotlights employees doing great work and copies their manager to ensure they know it too.
  • Ally’s Director of Accessibility Sabrena Foxx created awards to recognize both teams and individuals and explained how celebrating these wins has helped ignite in teams a passion for this work and elevated awareness at a grassroots level.

Help Your Company Get Started With Digital Accessibility

Judging by the tweets and LinkedIn posts I saw, attendees left axe-con feeling inspired, determined, and fired up to do further digital accessibility work in their organizations. But I’ve found in my own experience that championing accessibility in a company can quickly begin to feel daunting, like pushing a boulder up a hill. So I’ve got some resources to help:

And whether you’re just getting started with accessibility or are well on your way with a good story to tell, I’d love to hear about your successes and challenges! If you’re a Forrester client, feel free to connect with me for an inquiry or to participate in future research on this topic.