How to Advocate for Accessible Design (By Maia Chapman)
Advocacy doesn’t have to be loud and constant, especially in the workplace. I’d argue that advocacy comes from consistently bringing your beliefs and experiences into your work every day. - Maia Chapman
Author's Identity Information
Before jumping into this, I think it’s important to mention that I’m not a member of the disabled community, but I focus on being an ally in my industry. I’ve included resources at the bottom of this article that link to blogs and podcasts created by people in the disabled community, and I encourage you to check them out :)
When people ask how I got involved with accessibility advocacy, I never have had a clear answer. It didn’t happen all of a sudden, it was something I just knew was important to pay attention to, especially as a designer. It's important that designers understand the importance of accessibility. Particularly in the digital world, accessibility has an impact on every single one of our users.
What do I mean when I’m talking about accessibility? According to Accessibility Services Canada, accessibility refers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people who experience disabilities. Lately there’s been a big push to consider digital accessibility issues since so much of our world is now experienced online.
I use the social model of disability; meaning I consider disability not as a property of a person, but as a mismatch between a person's capabilities and the environment which result in barriers to access. In design, we often talk about reducing barriers to help improve the accessibility of our products. Barriers can be based on external perceptions, physical barriers, technical constraints, and systemic issues/attitudes.
How to advocate?
From my experience, advocacy depends on where you are: I’ve worked in places where accessibility isn’t a huge priority and others where it’s a large part of the corporate culture. From my experience, I see benefits and drawbacks to both.
Advocating for change in any industry is a constant effort and can be especially difficult when working against established systems. In design, accessibility is often associated with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG); a series of guidelines and requirements of web accessibility. The WCAG can have a negative connotation because implementing their guidelines can be time-consuming and expensive if accessibility wasn’t considered at the beginning. These systems can make it difficult to evoke change.
When I find myself in a work environment that isn't as keen on accessibility, I come equipped with research on the value of accessibility, and how to put best practices into action. I make accessibility the default, which shows my team and those who I report to how simple it is to incorporate into our workflow. Advocacy doesn’t have to be loud and constant, especially in the workplace. I’d argue that advocacy comes from consistently bringing your beliefs and experiences into your work every day.
On the other hand, I’ve found myself in environments where accessible design is a huge part of the corporate culture. “Amazing, no work left to be done!”, you might say. However, in workplaces that prioritize accessible design it's important to constantly grow these initiatives and think of ways to improve this system of thinking. Workplaces are dynamic and always changing, so we need to think of ways to ensure they are changing for the better.
I also think it’s important to take the time to learn from people who might have different perspectives than you. In my case, this would be people who consider digital accessibility to be too expensive to implement, and not worth their time. What existing framework do they have that makes them have that perspective? How can I apply my knowledge of accessibility to show them why it's valuable to them too? Learning about these perspectives and educating myself on accessibility will only help me to advocate for its importance.
Workplaces are dynamic and always changing, so we need to think of ways to ensure they are changing for the better.
Above all, when advocating for accessibility it’s crucial to listen to diverse voices within the disabled community. A designer might be an expert at design, but they can’t be an expert on each and every user. If we’re going to truly be designing inclusively, it’s important to actively listen to voices from the community throughout the design process. As much as I know as an advocate and ally, I constantly try to create space for the voices of those with diverse experiences to come through. As much as I learn and speak about accessibility, those with lived experience are the experts, not me!
Podcast: Disability Visibility Project
Blog: Rooted in Rights
About the Author:
Maia Chapman is a Master’s student studying User Experience (UX) Design at the University of Toronto. She has experience working in design research and accessible design, notably working for her faculty during the abrupt shift to remote course delivery due to COVID-19. In this position she worked with instructors to ensure online content was accessible to all students, and continues her initiatives as an active member of her faculty’s Accessibility Interests Working Group. In the last year of her studies, she is completing a CO-OP at D2L working with the UX Development and Design Team to help to grow D2L’s existing Accessibility-first corporate culture.
Connect with Maia here.