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January 2022
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Convincing stakeholders by warning of accessibility litigation is not the way to go.

Photo by javier kober on Unsplash

If you’re trying to convince stakeholders they need to prioritize accessibility, it’s best not to make an enemy in the process.

There is no shortage of very costly accessibility lawsuits against companies large and small.

Here are just a few:

It’s scary out there for stakeholders. Even if the litigation results in a “win” for the company, they’ve had to spend untold sums of money in litigation costs. It’s a real danger and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

If you’re an accessibility specialist, how do you normally convince stakeholders to make needed changes?

No more Mr. Nice Guy

Perhaps you tried by saying people who only use a keyboard could not access certain controls or you said people who access the site with a screen reader would be unable to make orders.

Maybe your concerns were ignored or deprioritized in favor of some exciting new functionality. It may have even gotten to the point where your input appears to have no value for the rest of the team. That’s demoralizing, to say the least.

Perhaps, after trying everything you knew to politely request accessibility changes, you decided to appeal to their bottom line. You showed the stakeholders a list of accessibility lawsuits that resulted in millions lost and warned, “This can happen here!”

If this got the stakeholders’ attention and they finally relented, would you return to this tactic whenever they would resist your future suggestions of change?

Why wouldn’t you? You tried being the proverbial Mr. Nice Guy and it didn’t work. You told them a few horror stories about accessibility litigation and they finally caved. You now have your trump card.

That’s all you need to persuade the stakeholders to agree to any changes you suggest, right?

Persuasion is gradual. Whatever methods you use, you are unlikely to persuade someone to agree with you completely —David R. Henderson (If You Want to Persuade People, Stop “Winning” Arguments)

Bitterness will soon follow

How would you like to be the person known for always bringing up lawsuits in meetings? What kind of relationship can you expect to have with the rest of the team?

You may be 100% right in what changes need to be made, but the stakeholders will start to resent you. And because you’re an advocate for accessibility and they associate you with accessibility, guess what else they’ll resent?

The short-sightedness of fear tactics

Outside of causing rifts in the team, this tactic is hopelessly short-sighted. You cannot count on the current litigation landscape to uphold your arguments. For the most part, the pendulum appears swinging in favor of plaintiffs in accessibility lawsuits; but that can change.

There are predatory attorneys who go shopping for litigation opportunities and have no real interest in accessibility:

If this behavior continues, the pendulum may swing the other way with legislatures passing bills that reign in these practices— or may even overreach so that accessibility litigation becomes difficult to pursue, even if the company is clearly in the wrong.

Should that happen, what becomes of your trump card? You’ll be right back where you started. Even worse, if your stakeholders agreed to your accessibility proposals out of fear of litigation and that fear suddenly vanishes due to sweeping legislation, they may question why they still need you as part of the team.

Photo by Moose Photos from Pexels

What is the goal?

This brings us back to what you, as an accessibility specialist, are trying to achieve in your work. If your answer is accessibility, good — by what means, though?

The constant fire and brimstone approach is not sustainable. At best, you’ll get compliance, not accessibility — and yes, there is a difference.

You cannot strongarm people into accessibility — you can only do this with compliance.

To achieve a continual drive toward accessibility, you need a different approach.

How should stakeholders feel about accessibility? If they were motivated to produce a truly accessible product, wouldn’t that make convincing them easier? In fact, wouldn’t that make your job less of a drudge and more of a joy?

That’s the goal of the honey approach: Get stakeholders to produce an accessible product because they genuinely care about accessibility.

You do this by communicating the need instead of the standard (or the catalog of accessibility lawsuits). In other words, you convey the humanity of the need.

Customer acceptance testing

One very effective and practical way to do this is to set up a customer acceptance testing (CAT) session (WCAG calls this a holistic test). Here are some steps to make it a success:

  1. Ensure the testers include those who require assistive technology or would have accessibility challenges with the content.
  2. Ask the testers ahead of time to be verbose in their feedback on the content.
  3. Get the CAT session on video.
  4. Show the video to the stakeholders. Let them see the testers attempt to consume the content. Let them see the frustration of the testers.
  5. Very graciously explain why the change needs to be made.

As you explain why, remember to do so in human terms. The compliance to WCAG and the lawsuits should never be the main argument — they are supporting arguments. Humanize the need.

The need communicated in human terms

Here’s a simplified example:

“John wasn’t able to make a purchase because he only uses a keyboard. He uses the Tab key to go through the form. So, as he presses the Tab key, he’s going through the controls and filling them out.

Photo taken by Daniel Berryhill

“But after John fills out this last control, he hits Tab again. But the focus goes back to the beginning of the form. So the tab stops are in a loop and there’s no way for him to get to the Submit button.

“You and I use a mouse, but John isn’t able to do that. And because we have this issue on this form, he’ll never be able to order any of our products — nor will anyone else who is unable to use a mouse.”

Notice I never mentioned lawsuits or WCAG in this monologue. It was all about John. That’s humanizing the need.

If it doesn’t work… it may still work

If the stakeholders still resist, feel free to bring up the accessibility lawsuits. But that should always be part of a supporting argument, not the main argument.

In the meantime, though, show the video to other members of the team. Communicate the need in the same way. After all, you want everyone on the team to care about accessibility — not just the stakeholders.

It will work out in the long run because other members of the team may back you up when you advocate for accessibility. This video would provide valuable feedback for Business Analysts, UX personnel, developers, and/or management. By all means, show it to them!

At the very least, this might inspire developers to create more accessible content.

So, you win either way!

Whatever you do, don’t give up! Advocate for accessibility without coming across as coarse. Accessibility, like UX, is human-centered. Keep communicating in human terms.

Familiarize yourself with some of the high-profile accessibility cases. On Medium, Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC has many articles on past and ongoing litigation.

Just remember: you are representing accessibility itself on your team. If you want attitudes to change about accessibility, you’re not going to get there with wagging fingers and a stack of lawsuits.

You’ll have far more success showing the effects of inaccessible content on people, not just on the bottom line.

These lawsuits should serve as a warning. They should remind us to avoid providing inaccessible content; that’s different than embracing and enthusiastically pursuing accessible content.

The vinegar approach may get you a more accessible product in the short term, but you may alienate yourself from the team in the process.

Tart words make no friends; a spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar.” — Benjamin Franklin


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