Recently I was in Minneapolis and had the opportunity to visit The Nerdery to talk about our shared interest in web and digital accessibility. For those of you not familiar with The Nerdery, they are a custom software design and development company. They are headquartered in Minneapolis and also have offices in Chicago, Kansas City and Phoenix. Their core services include digital transformation consulting, mobile applications, web applications, websites and systems integration.
I was very impressed with everything I saw and everyone I met at The Nerdery. Their approach to their work resonated with me on many levels, especially the emphasis on digital transformation and the constant focus on their core values. They also have one of the best office spaces I have seen. Of course my opinion was swayed by the number of dogs I encountered! They were recently named as one of America’s most pet-friendly companies and the honor is well deserved. My only regret about this trip is that I didn’t bring Kohl along!
My day included giving a company-wide talk on “The State of Web Accessibility Consulting – 2017”. Key themes included:
- There is too much focus on compliance and not enough focus on the user experience. You can comply with standards and still have a site that is inaccessible. Fueling this problem is an over-reliance on automated testing. Don’t get me wrong, automated tools are a must. But they can’t replace manual testing. Remember, it’s not about checking off the box for a particular standard, it’s about the user experience and the only way to reliably test this is by using a website the way someone with a disability would use it.
- My love/hate relationship with the legal aspect of web accessibility. My reasons for being an accessibility advocate are not because of the threat of litigation. My approach to my work as a web professional is to make the web a better place and to improve the user experience for everyone. Accessibility is a natural part of this. That being said, the recent Winn-Dixie case has brought web accessibility to the main stream media and created an increased awareness about the importance of accessibility and inclusive design. The more awareness about accessibility the better.
- The mistake of thinking about web accessibility as a project. Projects by definition have an end. Too many companies focus on correcting problems with the current site and then give no thought to the long term. Websites constantly evolve.The best approach to accessibility isn’t just about fixing today’s problems, it’s about providing training that will minimize issues down the road. The project mentality addresses only the symptoms. The long term approach addresses the underlying causes and provides a path to sustained accessibility.
- The importance of building a comprehensive web accessibility program. While identifying and remediating issues are central, this is not the only aspect of accessibility that an organization needs to address. Creating and promulgating a web accessibility policy, identifying someone to be the web accessibility officer, creating a web accessibility statement that directs people to get help when needed, and ongoing training are all part of a true web accessibility program.
- The need to be pragmatic. Addressing accessibility can be overwhelming, especially if it has been neglected. My advice is to take it one step at a time and ask yourself “Is our site more accessible today than it was yesterday?”
In addition to my talk, I participated in a series of meetings with a wide range of people including senior leadership, marketing, developers, and members of the UX and QA teams. I was very impressed with the technical skills and passion about accessibility of everyone I met. They bring a level of sophistication and expertise that was very impressive. Many web designers and developers I have met over the years are naive about accessibility. This is not the case at The Nerdery where accessibility is a core principle. It was also refreshing to be around dedicated UX and QA professionals. The lack of focus on user experience is something that continues to plague way too many websites.
This was a great group to talk with about the future of technology and accessibility. One of my favorite books to this day is Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte which was written in 1995. I have two main takeaways from this seminal work. First, the change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable. Secondly, everything that can become digital will become digital. Follow these thoughts through to their logical conclusion and you will quickly see that in the future web and digital accessibility will become more important than ever.
At the end of my day, I found myself reenergized about web accessibility. Too often designers and developers look at accessibility and think that it stifles their creativity and just creates more work. At The Nerdery I found a group of dedicated professionals who have shifted the conversation from fear to motivation, a group who are thinking creatively about new solutions to accessibility challenges. This is the approach we need as we move from atoms to bits.