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Category: commentary

Are assistive technology vendors becoming extinct?

It wasn’t that long ago that commercial Assistive Technology (AT) vendors were viewed as an essential bridge for people with disabilities in gaining access to consumer technologies. While the price for products was high, their role was of vital importance due to mainstream organisations showing little interest in including quality AT products in their operating systems. The vendor space was highly competitive in trying to secure the prime spots for their stands at events and I remember several conferences where the debate over JAWS V WindowEyes or ZoomText V MAGic could become quite animated as each person argued why their choice of product was the best.

These days, however the industry has changed significantly. In recent years many vendors have either been swallowed up through a variety of mergers and takeovers or disappeared entirely. Many of the products that used to be rivals are now owned by the same company such as VFO which has the Freedom Scientific, Enhanced Vision and The Paciello Group (TPG) under their banner. While there may be concern over competition, the power of one company owning several brands has seen great products like Fusion emerge which takes what is arguably the worlds’ best screen reader in JAWS and pairs it with what is generally considered the best screen magnifier in ZoomText and makes them seamlessly work together which is ultimately a great thing for the people that need it.

Yet the acquisition of so many commercial assistive technology providers is no accident. Smaller specialist vendors are feeling the squeeze from fierce competition, and it’s not from each other. Instead, the competition comes from the provision of free AT products built into our everyday devices such as computers, smartphones and tablets. When competition comes from products that have features already built-in, it’s worth asking the question: do I really need to buy something else if something similar already came with my device, and does this mean that the reign of the assistive technology specialist provider is almost over?

Product differentiation

It’s worth noting that just because an AT product arrives built-in doesn’t necessarily mean its better or that people aren’t interested in buying something else. A classic example is the popularity of the Google Chrome web browser. Both Windows and Mac have their own browsers in Edge and Safari respectively, yet people continue to install Chrome due to the perception it provides a better experience and more useful features such as extensions. Likewise, the mere presence of Narrator on Windows or Voiceover on iOS is not enough n its own right to prevent the sale of alternatives.

Yet there is evidence that the existence of assistive technologies being built into popular products is a big factor in damaging the business model of vendors. A great example is the mobile-based screen readers of Voiceover on iOS and TalkBack on Android. While there’s nothing to stop these platforms from having alternative screen readers, the reality is that they are effective tools meaning that there’s no real need to look elsewhere. It’s this step up in quality that has really made the difference. It wasn’t that long ago that third-party screen readers were being purchased and installed on our mobile device but the need for these products has largely disappeared.

To address this, companies like VFO are working to create product differentiation. In addition to Fusion mentioned above which brings a great product to Windows users that differentiates by combining several tools into one, the acquiring of The Paciello Group also opens the doors to new markets such as web accessibility professionals with products such as JAWS Inspect. To quote a recent TPG marketing e-mail:

“JAWS for Windows is a life-changing assistive technology solution that has enabled millions of users to lead more fulfilling lives in the classroom, workplace, and throughout their communities.  but using it to conduct screen reader compatibility testing can be time consuming and inefficient, yielding inconsistent results for testers not familiar with JAWS Commands. TPG’s one of a kind testing tool, JAWS Inspect takes all the complexities out of manual testing. It provides text output of JAWS audio to enable you to quickly identify UX issues for JAWS users, along with additional testing functionalities. The best part is that you don’t have to be a JAWS expert or know any JAWS keystrokes to use it, so you can start testing immediately.”

This means that even in a climate where the already small market share of JAWS has dropped off substantially to free competitors such as built-in assistive technologies and the excellent open-source screen reader NVDA, there is still the potential to sell the product in some form to a new audience by turning its smarts into a gold standard testing tool. It’s a clever repositioning as the tester doesn’t have to learn the complexities associated with learning a screen reader, and yet the results are provided for web accessibility auditing work. This approach highlights the benefits of having several companies merge into one and supporters argue it continues to breathe life into the need for specialist vendors.

Price differentiation

However, before we all start rushing out to buy Fusion and JAWS Inspect, it’s worth noting that there is a significant difference in price and this difference is not in favour of the specialist vendor. The cost of purchasing Fusion Home in Australia is $AUD1,715.00 ($USD1240.00). If you are a web accessibility professional and think that JAWS Inspect would naturally be cheaper as you’re getting a testing tool rather than the actual product, you may be surprised to learn that the cost of JAWS Inspect is $USD10,000 for five licenses.

With those prices in mind, let’s consider what free or more affordable options there may be to help counter the costs of such tools. Sticking with Windows for the moment, instead of Fusion you could potentially enable the Narrator screen reader and Magnifier which are free. You could also enable the high contrast themes to make it easier on the eyes and adjust the mouse pointer size, similar to the features found in Fusion. These are all available for free as part of the operating system and all work well together.

When these type of suggestions are mentioned in disability circles, the question that inevitably comes up is one of quality. It’s a fair point that Narrator is not the most polished of screen readers, but it has just improved significantly as discussed in my hands-on review of Narrator in the recent Windows 10 October update. The usual counterargument to commercial screen readers though is NVDA which is a screen reader of high quality and similar functionality to JAWS. If you’re able to look outside Windows there are many choices including the built-in VoiceOver for Mac, VoiceOver for iOS and TalkBack for Android.

In terms of web accessibility professionals, it’s fair to say there’s not many products like JAWS Inspect. However, if you’re a web accessibility specialist you really should in my view learn how to use at least one screen reader so you have an understanding of the target audience you’re supporting. If the issue is ease of use, the latest Narrator update provides a great tutorial on first use for desktop users and TalkBack on Android has a great first use tutorial for users of touchscreen devices.

Such excellent tutorials suggest to me there’s no reason a screen reader can’t be learnt quickly and in turn used for accessibility testing. Furthermore, there are many automated testing tools that assess websites against the WCAG 2.x standard of which there are free options and other great products priced much lower than JAWS Inspect.

The end of an era – or is it?

The upshot is that the business model of the 1990s and early 2000s which relied heavily on high prices for AT software at a time when there were few other options is no longer viable. To quote the tagline on the NVDA website:

“We believe that every Blind + Vision Impaired person Deserves the right to freely & easily access a computer!”

This is the current expectation of AT users and a view I personally share. In this era of hot-desking, always-on connectivity and the expectation that people with disabilities can walk up to any device and use it, the idea that an accessible experience has to be tied to one license on one device seems antiquated and unnecessary.

That said, I still believe that AT vendors have an important place but the business model has to change. The creator of the Dragon products, for example, has demonstrated in recent years that it is possible to provide quality AT software at a reasonable price point and as a result it continues to be popular. AT vendors also have an important role to play in the innovation space, especially  in hardware-based specialist products that continue to meet a need currently unsupported by mainstream devices. The biggest difference in the market now is that accessibility is no longer seen as a luxury, but rather a right to participation. While companies understandably need to profit from their inventions, the expectation now is that vendors will ensure that the first priority for any new product is that people will benefit from it rather than companies profiting from it. It’s my hope that this will be the focus of the future so that people with disabilities can get the access they need while the vendors continue to innovate in this space.

An open letter to Australian digital access providers: let’s grow the industry together

To the Australian digital access community,

It’s hard to believe that two years have passed since I left my full-time position at Media Access Australia and began the journey as a solo Digital Access Specialist. For the most part the journey has been an exciting one: highlights to date include active participation in the W3C Research Questions Taskforce (RQTF), the recent creation of the Centre for Accessibility initiative in partnership with DADAA and Media on Mars, running workshops in Vietnam and meeting so many great people along the way.

However, in recent times I’ve received a steady flow of phone calls, e-mails and requests for a ‘chat’ about the state of the industry. This has included demands to take sides in supporting one company or event over another and several requests for me to back off from digital access work altogether. While I understand that there are the normal ebbs and flows of competition in any sector, and perhaps I was somewhat shielded from all this before I became an independent consultant, it’s still been disappointing to see the industry changing from respectful competition between providers to a desire to tear down the great work being done by others. As such I’d like to speak to you about the importance of all the work being done in the industry as both a person with a lived experience of disability and as an access specialist.     

When I first completed my PhD, I had gained significant knowledge about the world of digital access and its implications for people with disability. However, as a fresh graduate with a speciality in the field I had little awareness or support on what to do with that information. My boss at the Association for the Blind of WA, now VisAbility, saw that I was isolated as a digital access specialist and sent me to my first OZeWAI national conference. This was the first time I realised there was a supportive community of digital access professionals who provided vital guidance and mentorship as I started my work in the area. It’s fair to say that my experience is not an isolated one and I suspect that pretty much every digital access professional in Australia has benefitted from this supportive community. While OZeWAI is a niche conference, it’s the only place that specifically supports the ability of digital access specialists to come together and share knowledge about the sector. I’m looking forward to coming this year and sharing information about my role as lead Editor for the CATPCHA Advisory note and again showing my appreciation as a legally blind person to everyone that has dedicated their careers to working in this space.  

In addition, the past decade or so has seen a separate but equally important series of events pop up which also play a vital role in the digital access journey in the form of meetup groups and Camp events. While OZeWAI is fantastic in supporting people working in the sector, there’s not much need for digital access providers if the broader community doesn’t want to make its content accessible. As such, its important that organisations everywhere understand what accessibility is and how it is embedded into their work practices. This is where local events are so important and it’s been exciting to see the popularity of these groups and events growing. For example, our meetup group remains strong despite its oh-so-early start time of 7:30am and our Perth Web Accessibility Camp had 140 attendees which has been steadily growing for the past five years. The A11y Camp held over east for a few years also appears to be popular, as is the A11y Bytes events held on Global Accessibility Awareness Day. These are all great initiatives in getting the accessibility message out to people. Again, as a person with a disability it’s wonderful to see so many people actively putting on these events and the level of engagement they are having with the community.

However, the calls, e-mails and chats I’ve received recently suggest that there’s increasing competition between these events and I’m a bit puzzled as to why this needs to be the case. All these events are held at different times in different places with the aim of supporting different communities. For example, I doubt many organisations would want to send their staff to both the Perth Camp and the A11y Camp as they meet a similar local audience, cover similar content and are located 4,000kms apart from each other. In my view it makes sense to have these types of events locally so that organisations can easily send along their staff at a low cost and bring that accessibility knowledge back with them. By contrast, the relatively small number of digital access specialists means a national conference like OZeWAI makes sense as a place where we can upskill our own knowledge.  

The issue that’s been raised with me many times recently, especially by members of my meetup group, is that there seems to be a strong push to support one approach or organisation’s work at the expense of all others. Recent complaints raised with me centred on some people joining our meetup list with the sole purpose of spamming our list with commercial products and services which were not only ignored as spam, but also demonstrated a lack of interest and respect in the important accessibility work that our members are doing here. While our group welcomes anyone that would like to come along and speak to us, the point was made that it’s hard to hear the message coming through the front door when it seems like someone is trying to break in through the back.

Speaking to other digital access professionals it seems these issues run far deeper than just those raised by my meetup group with concerns raised across the country ranging from claims of jealousy by some and conspiracy by others. The upshot is that all events are important and there’s plenty of room for more. Given that Perth can consistently draw a crowd, attract quality keynotes and work effectively with competing providers to achieve a great outcome, there’s no reason why great standalone events couldn’t happen in every capital city as we have the population to support them and the passion to host them. It’s my hope that we’ll see more events supported by more collaboration across providers in the future.

While I don’t see a need to compete in the events space, I fully appreciate that there is competition between providers of digital access services and this is a normal part of any sector. Yet recently this seems to have spilled over from respectful competition to a need for some providers to contact me with a request to remove myself from particular types of work. I’m not sure if this is common practice in the industry but given I’ve been asked about my work processes and where I stand, I thought it best to share it with you here.

Firstly, and most importantly, if anyone knocks on my door and asks for help with digital access, I’m going to help them. Sometimes that’s voluntary work and currently that makes up about two days a week of my time. Sometimes that may be commercial work. If the work is not in my skillset such as a phone call I received a few weeks ago about wheelchair brackets in cars, I’ll endeavour to connect that request with someone that can help. Sometimes I’ve knocked back work because it wanders into dodgy territory, but basically if the work helps people and is ethically sound then I’ll usually take it on. I’m also interested in working on things that can help promote the industry more broadly, and for this reason I’ve really enjoyed my work with the Centre for Accessibility initiative as we look to create projects that can strengthen community engagement. Sometimes the work I do may be in competition with other providers, and sometimes it will be something new, but the one thing it will always be is my passion. As such, if you call me with the aim of discouraging me from doing this work, I’m willing to listen but I can assure you it won’t’ change my commitment to the field. 

The final point I’d like to make relates to all people with a lived experience of disability wanting to undertake digital access work. One of the topics that I keep hearing about time and time again this year is debate over which service provider is the largest in Australia. What I’d prefer to hear debated is which digital access provider has the most people with disability employed on a living wage as a part-time or full-time employee. Currently there are lots of talented people with disability available but most are either on a casual contract waiting for the phone to ring or have no work at all. In other countries organisations that work in this space are able to employ people with disability at a decent wage for decent work, so I’m sure the business models here can be adjusted to do the same. The reality is that while people with disability will take casual work if that’s the only thing on offer, the employment situation wont’ get better if businesses are unwilling to bring staff with disability on permanently. The next time I see a newsletter sent out highlighting new staff brought into an access provider it’s my hope I’ll see it feature a person with disability in a permanent position.

To close, I think it’s worth reflecting on two possible futures for our industry in 2019. Do we want a sector where we try to rebrand all our events to gain prominence over others, adversely influence each other’s work  and try to block new initiatives? Or alternatively, do we want to grow the industry together by competing respectfully with each other and supporting everyone’s endeavours – including people with disability – in making a difference? Ultimately we will all decide this question soon, but it’s my hope we can look to 2019 as a time to refocus on what’s important and grow the industry together.  

Yours sincerely

Dr Scott Hollier

Digital Access Specialist

Accessible gaming: the calls for improvement grow louder every Fortnite

As a child of the 1980s, I find the evolution of video games a fascinating topic. With early creations such as Pong recently celebrating its 45th anniversary and games such as Pac-Man continuing to be an immediately recognisable character in popular culture 35 years after its launch, it’s clear that the popularity of video games has endured over time. It therefore comes as no surprise that once again one game in particular is currently sweeping the world and this time around it’s Fortnite Battle Royale by EpicGames. As such, I thought it was timely to have a look at the current state of game accessibility and identify why accessible gaming is so important yet remains so elusive.

Big games mean big business

Before looking specifically at accessibility, it’s important to acknowledge the sheer size and scope of the video game industry. Fortnite Battle Royale is a particularly good example of how a popular global release can lead to significant revenue for game companies. While the game is free, add-on features such as dance moves and skins have seen the game generate $USD300 million just in the month of April 2018. Incredibly, it seems that there is no end in sight to the industry continuing to generate large amounts of money; the last time a downturn occurred was the video game crash of 1983, meaning there has been about 35 years of sustained growth for the industry. To put this into context, the estimated global revenue of video games in 2016 was approximately $USD100 billion which includes approximately $AUD2.8 billion ($USD2.1 billion) being attributed to Australian sales alone.

While the growth of the video games industry remains the envy of many, it is its projected growth that continues to amaze. This is due in part to the large number of devices that we use and our desire to play video games on all of them. From the more traditional video game console connected to our television through to our computer workstation, mobile phone and the emerging wearable market, it’s become clear that if we have an electronic device, we strive to figure out a way to put a game on it. As the popularity of virtual reality and augmented reality continues to filter into the mainstream, it too is becoming a gaming platform that continues to grow in popularity. Even the relatively new category of digital assistant smartspeakers in the home such as the Amazon Echo now have audio-based games available on demand.

Yet it is perhaps with some irony that for people with disabilities, the classic video games I enjoyed as a child with a vision impairment -with their high contrast colour scheme, primitive sound effects, large blocky pixel graphics and predictable gameplay strategies – may have unintentionally represented a time of gameplay accessibility that has seemingly declined since the classic video game era. While there are notable exceptions where developers have worked hard to include accessibility, it is generally deemed to be an exception rather than the rule.   

Fortnite and Minecraft: easy to play, hard to find accessibility information

With that in mind, let’s consider what accessibility features are included in the current worldwide smash Fortnite Battle Royale, and one of the games that previously held the title of world gaming dominance, Minecraft. For this I’ve enlisted my 10-year-old son who is a master of both along with a bit of online research.

One of the first things I discovered is how difficult it is to find a simple overview of the accessibility features in these games despite their popularity. While the information is out there, it is surprisingly challenging to locate a concise summary, especially when trying to get a comparison across different platforms. This is arguably an issue in itself. However, with perseverance comes reward, and in Fortnite Battle Royale my son and I were able to track down its accessibility features which included colour correction options, some control mapping and captions for the introductory video.

Fortnite Battle Royale accessibility screen

Minecraft was a bit easier in terms of finding information possibly due to the game having been around much longer. There also appear to be ongoing updates to its accessibility such as a recent text-to-speech option being added for in-game chat.

Minecraft accessibility screenHowever, reviews on Minecraft’s accessibility are mixed: While the game caters effectively for people with a hearing impairment and mobility impairment, there are limited accessibility features for other disability groups.  

There are good news stories though – enter Microsoft

Although the implementation of accessibility features in popular games is ad-hoc at best, there are many examples of big gaming companies trying to improve this space. In addition to a number of accessible gaming titles, the spotlight on best practice turned to Microsoft recently with its announcement of its Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC).  Developed by Microsoft in collaboration with AbleGamers, Warfighter Engaged, SpecialEffect, Craig Hospital and the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, the controller was designed to include two oversized programmable buttons, 19 3.5mm input jacks and two USB ports, allowing disabled gamers to easily connect special joysticks, switches, and any other tools they may need.

While the initiative of the XAC is a great one, an accessible controller is only as good as what the software allows it to do and in this regard there’s still no guarantee that the Xbox or PC games released will be compatible with it or provide any accessibility features at all.

The need for standards

To ensure that games are accessible, there are essentially two critical things that need to occur: firstly, people with disabilities need to have accessibility features provided in the gaming platform. Secondly, games need to be designed in a way that supports such features. To provide dependable guidance on this, it is necessary for game developers to have an internationally recognised standard.

However, despite the popularity of gaming across a range of electronic devices, there has not been the same desire to develop internationally-recognised standards in this space as there has been for web content more broadly. With the third iteration of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) celebrating its recent 2.1 release, the lack of gaming support is becoming more notable by comparison.  

As such, the not-for-profit organisation AbleGamers has created a resource titled Includification which highlights how developers can ensure that their games meet basic accessibility requirements with broad categories of mobility, hearing, vision and cognitive guidance.

Structured in a similar way to WCAG with three implementation levels, the mobility-related guidance focuses on the need for alternative configurations, camera controls, and remappable keys. Additional requirements focus on the provision of customisable user interface elements, save points, adjustments to input settings and speed settings.

In regards to hearing, the core focus is on the provision of closed captions and the ability to adjust the font and size of such captions, along with the removal of ambient game noise. For vision the focus is primarily on the ability to adjust the colour font, with a specific reference to the inclusion of a high contrast marker for in-game enemy tracking. There is also consideration for the provision of text-to-speech output such as compatibility with screen readers.

In regards to addressing cognitive issues, AbleGamers recommends that game tutorials are clearly provided, speed adjustment settings are provided, training modes are available and there should be a clear indication of in-game enemies.  

In addition to the AbleGamers Includification, a second separate initiative by industry professionals has created guidelines simply known as the Game Accessibility Guidelines living document. Featuring a similar structure to the Includification guidelines there are three implementation levels with a focus on general, motor, cognitive, vision, hearing and speech requirements. While many of the points are similar to the Includification guidelines, there are some important additional recommendations such as the need to label packaging and online materials at point of sale with information on the game’s accessibility features.

We have the guidance but not the solution

Given there’s two comprehensive documents that explain how to make games accessible, let’s look again at how Fortnite Battle Royale and Minecraft stack up. Both games do contain some accessibility features so at least we can see that thought has been given to the issue. Yet in both cases the games fall way short of the recommendations and there’s no easy way to determine in-store if a game is accessible or not. The problem is that despite the best intentions of Able Gamers and the merit of their guidance on accessible gaming, the Includification guidelines are not a standard, and as a result there is no specific legislative or policy framework that requires their implementation. Until an official international standard is released, it will continue to be up to the industry to decide how accessibility is implemented, and to what degree that process occurs.

Let’s make the next gaming hit an accessible one

To achieve a genuine and ongoing solution, I’d like to join in the chorus of calls to gaming companies and standards bodies to engage with organisations such as AbleGamers to find ways to make their guidelines an enforceable standard. The XAC has demonstrated that such a collaboration is possible and what it can yield so there’s no reason this can’t take place.

As a legally blind person it would be awesome if I could team up with my son in Fortnite Battel Royale but due to my vision our ability to play games together remains firmly locked in the 8-bit era. It’s a shame as it wouldn’t take much customisation to make the modern gaming experience accessible to me. The time has come for accessibility in gaming to be as comprehensive and predictable as the likelihood of a new game sweeping the world. Hopefully on that occasion I and everyone else that would like to play can join in too.

Yanny V Laurel and the death of the audio CAPTCHA

If you’ve recently been travelling through a part of the world without any form of internet, television or radio then you may have been one of the few to miss the recent Yanny versus Laurel debate. The premise is an audio sample in which some people distinctly hear the word ‘Yanny’ while others clearly identify the word as ‘Laurel’.

In my case, I hear ‘Yanny’ most of the time but recently I listened to it through a bad quality mobile phone speaker and heard Laurel, so it seems I’m in a good position to get into an argument with myself and represent both sides.  

Yet while the online community has been in meltdown over the past week or so arguing about which word our ears should hear, I found that the cleverly designed sound sample brilliantly highlights an accessibility issue that is very close to my heart – how distorted electronic audio can be interpreted differently depending on a variety of factors, and a well-known example of this in action is the audio CAPTCHA.

CATPCHA is an acronym that stands for a Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. The purpose of a CAPTCHA is ultimately to prevent personal data from being harvested by clever computer code known as bots or scripts. While it is important to identify whether there is a real person entering in information, the issue for people with disabilities is that CAPTCHAs not only tell humans and computers apart but also tend to put people with disabilities on the ‘computer’ side of the fence blocking access to processes such as buying tickets online or signing up to an online service.

The journey in fighting the use of CATPCHAs has been a long one for people with disabilities. The traditional CAPTCHA which features a bitmapped graphical image of distorted text is impossible for people who are blind or low vision to complete, so people started looking at the possibility of audio CATPCHAs.

 

As noted in the video above, the idea of an audio CATPCHA is that humans can pick out the ‘real’ audio information from the garbled background noise, while a computer trying to decipher it would get tripped up by the extra sounds.

However, what the Yanny and Laurel debate highlights beautifully is that how people interpret a combination of sounds will vary significantly from person to person, especially for people with a hearing impairment. It may be the case that you can hear the numbers read out in the video clip clearly, but for many identifying the information required and then typing it into a form to pass the CAPTCHA would be impossible. Furthermore, many audio CATPCHAs mix words and numbers together, making it difficult to know if a number should be entered as a numerical value like ‘9’ or typed out in full such as ‘nine’. For people with a hearing impairment, an audio CATPCHA is the equivalent of saying ‘because you can’t hear Laurel, you’re not allowed to buy a ticket to the football’ or ‘because you can’t hear Yanny, you can’t join our new social media platform.’ Thinking about audio CATPCHAs in this way really helps, in my view, to highlight the challenges such technologies pose.

In my work with the W3C Research Questions Task Force we’ve been looking at the issues of CATPCHAs closely as we have been working on an update to the W3C CATPCHA advisory note. The upshot is that CAPTCHAs such as those that depend on audio are not as secure as they used to be in the age of digital assistants that can understand a greater amount of spoken words than ever before. With ever-improving ways to tell humans and computers apart such as federated identities, multiple devices and biometrics such as fingerprint and facial recognition being built into our everyday devices, it is likely that more traditional CAPTCHAs will soon disappear and people with disabilities will once again be counted as human when completing an online task.

So next time you’re having a friendly debate over Yanny and Laurel, consider that for many people, how they hear things could actually be preventing access to critical online content. It’s exciting though to consider that in the not-too-distant future traditional CAPTCHAs will be gone,  putting the focus back on our choices – not ears – that determine our online participation.

Escaping the web accessibility island

Back by popular demand – this is an updated version of my original article which is no longer available from the original source. 

It’s a common story – you are a passionate accessibility advocate, trying to do your bit in an organisation that doesn’t seem to care. Or perhaps that’s a bit harsh – they do care, but it seems it’s only when a tender comes up that requires WCAG compliance, a complaint is made about the website, or it’s just been discovered that the app your company relies on so much is notably impossible to use with a screen reader. When a situation like this occurs, you know what’s coming next –a flustered colleague runs to your desk, screaming your name, saying, “You’re the accessibility person around here, tell me how to fix this!”

In most intakes of the Professional Certificate in Web Accessibility course that I teach, there are students who indicate they are the only person in their organisation who knows about accessibility. It often feels like they are a one-person accessibility island – the ‘goto’ person who puts out the fires relating to web accessibility, and trying to get a whole-of-organisation push is likened to banging your head on a brick wall. One student even suggested that they are more like Hawaii as there were so many people in their organisation needing the person’s help that they were effectively broken up into little pieces across different departments – either really important to everyone or not needed by anyone depending on what project was the priority at the time.

If this sounds like you, common questions you may want answered include “What can I do to share the accessibility load?”, “Should there even be a go-to person for accessibility?” and “What can I do to get organisational buy-in for digital accessibility issues?” Let’s break this down into a few key suggestions I’ve heard over the years from people who have been in this situation.

An island can be a good starting point – especially if you upskill

It may not seem like a good situation to have people running to you for accessibility advice all the time, but as a starting point it’s not such a bad thing to have a resident expert. Organisations that have no knowledge about accessibility are unlikely to support it, and probably don’t realise they need to know about it. If there’s at least one person who knows about accessibility, and others in the organisation know that you are the ‘go-to’ person, then at least you have a starting point. It’s interesting how many students come to the course I teach after becoming this person unintentionally, having picked up their knowledge originally through being self-taught, or attending a one-day workshop or an event like a meetup group or conference. If you find that you have the passion then getting some sort of formalised training can help, especially if accessibility is not your everyday role but rather something bolted on to your current work.

Specialise if you can

If you have had the opportunity to upskill and really enjoy accessibility work, see if it is possible to have accessibility become a formalised major part of your role rather than just the ‘extra thing you do’. If your manager acknowledges that accessibility is part of your skillset and not just something that people ask you about, it’s likely to help long-term being in the right place for organisational change and an authority within the organisation. Again, formalised training can help with this as it will let management know that you have the skills needed to provide appropriate accessibility advice.

Never underestimate the power of internal training and train-the-trainer

Whether your organisation is large or small, if you are the designated accessibility person either intentionally or by accident, run with it by offering to train others in your area. There’s no shortage of resources and courses available to draw on, and if you start by training up the people around you, it will cement your role as the person who can help others to incorporate accessibility techniques into their work practices, provide you with the opportunity to delegate if the accessibility requests become overwhelming. Even better, see if you can train up a select group of people who may be able to train others in different areas of the organisation.

WCAG is not just about the website

A common barrier in terms of getting accessibility taken seriously, particularly in large organisations, is an assumption that web accessibility standards such as WCAG are only relevant to an organisation’s website and the ICT professionals that look after it. Yet if accessibility is going to be truly organisation-wide, you’ll need to help explain it beyond designers and developers. For example, most people in your organisation will write documents, so which part of WCAG applies to them? Is the marketing team you work with sending out accessible emails and tweets? Ultimately, accessible content will overlap into the roles of most people, and you can help to spread the accessibility message by helping others to do the bit of accessibility that’s relevant to their role.

Ground-up is good, top-down is better

No matter how much of a groundswell of support you manage to generate for accessibility, its success will ultimately depend on how it’s perceived by senior management. Perhaps your organisation already has a strategic plan relating to disability issues that web accessibility can be added to. Perhaps such a plan does not currently exist and needs to be created. Consider what approaches or conversations need to be had with management around policy as once there’s something from senior management that you can hang the accessibity message on, it’s much easier to promote it through your organisation.

Your island is part of a continent

It may seem like you are alone in your organisation when it comes to accessibility, but it’s important to remember that your accessibility initiatives are actually part of a global community. Groups such as the WAI-IG mailing list, meetup groups, conferences and webinars arejust some of the ways you can meet people and talk through issues. I run the local accessibility meetup group in Perth and most people who attend acknowledge that it’s useful for two reasons: one is to get information on how to deal with particular situations, the other is that it’s very therapeutic to vent in company about organisational accessibility frustrations. Remember that you’re not alone in making accessibility happen, even if it feels like it is. You may be an island, but there’s a continent of resources and support close by.

So next time someone stands at your desk looking flushed due to the accessibility crises that just occurred, think of it as a teaching moment for your organisation as to why accessibility is important. While you may not directly see the outcomes of your actions, people with disabilities will.