Universal Access: 5 steps to building a sustainable accessibility program

When we think about accessibility in the context of web technologies, we often associate it with designing products and services for those with disabilities. Yet with digital interactions becoming increasingly common—and often critical to our lives—we should really be thinking of accessibility as a universal design necessity that serves everyone's best interests.

It can be hard to get accurate figures on exactly how many people have trouble accessing the web. Most studies find that about 20% of the population has some kind of disability (though not all of those disabilities would affect access to digital services.) If we look more closely at a specific disability such as vision and hearing impairment, the numbers become a little more clear: 6.8% of the population over 15 years of age climbing to over 21.3% of the population over 65 years old.

To put this in context at the end of 2014, Internet Explorer, Safari AND Opera users comprised only 13.3% of total web traffic. Most businesses would not consider releasing a website that is not compatible on those three browsers, yet universal accessibility is still something that many struggle with.

How accessibility is typically managed

Accessibility is often the responsibility of a few specific groups across the product development lifecycle. I’ve observed a single person responsible for advocating for accessible product design and development for a huge company with hundreds of developers. That person worked tirelessly to raise awareness, find tools to use, and train others—with limited resources and in addition to official job responsibilities. That is neither sustainable nor scalable.

Accessibility must become a core part of how each discipline does business. From product management to legal/compliance to design, development and QA, everybody must find ways to elevate awareness and improve outcomes specific to their discipline. These efforts should also be coordinated across your organization so that everybody is working from the same set of standards and sets similar goals.

The business benefits are clear. By improving your accessibility you:

  • Reduce the cost of development and maintenance
  • Reduce your exposure to legal risk
  • Increase your conversion/sales rates
  • Drive consistency and standardization of design patterns
  • Improve your SEO
  • Demonstrate corporate social responsibility and inclusiveness.

Beyond all this, it’s just the right thing to do. The W3C provides valuable metrics to help you build your business case.

So how can you improve the state of accessibility at your company?

Start with a plan

The path ahead may seem insurmountable, but even small steps make a huge difference. Start with the basics—arm your team with the knowledge and tools they need to improve right now. Identify and prioritize the work that needs to be done.

A typical accessibility program has four key components:

  1. Monitoring: Conducting accessibility audits ensures that the products you currently have in the market meet your company’s standards across a range of devices and user agents (software used to access the web such as a browser).
  2. Testing: Similar to monitoring, testing is ensures that all new software meets standards. While a third party may conduct auditing, testing is something that most organizations can do within their own Design, Development and QA teams.
  3. Governance: Defining standards (typically WCAG 2.0), tracking issues and holding lines of business accountable is critical to maintaining a sustainable accessibility program.
  4. Training: Training all of your employees demystifies accessibility while also building a culture committed to providing universal access.

A great place to start is to ensure all new products and features meet or exceed your standards where possible. With some basic training, designers, developers and QA can quickly build accessibility into their workflows ensuring that future code is standards compliant.

Build a culture of accessibility champions

Don’t try to be a hero in your organization. Work across functional groups to find others who are passionate and can help advance the cause. Together, you can set goals and make the changes necessary to move the bar within specific disciplines.

Start by examining your current documentation and processes. By integrating accessibility into the templates and workflows that you are currently using, you can ensure that it is included in every project.

Take stock of where you are

Conducting an accessibility audit of your site or product will give you a great sense of where you currently stand and allow you to create a plan to fix any serious issues. Use the WCAG Success Criteria levels (A, AA, AAA) to rate your compliance. Designers, developers and QA can then utilize those same tools used for your to test in real-time. This spreadsheet provides a great head start as an auditing tool.

Communicate often and train others

Make accessibility a continuous part of the conversation by communicating up, out and down. Ensure that your message is consistent and clear starting with the business case and requirements through QA test plans. Establish forums, training, events, and briefings. Webcasts and “lunch & learn” events can be effective ways to spread the word and find other advocates.

Use design principles and personas to guide design

Whitney Quesenbery and Sara Horton created the following principles and personas in their fantastic book, A Web For Everyone (Rosenfeld Media, 2014). They are an invaluable resource as you think about users with disabilities in the context of design.

Accessibility Principles

  • People First: People are the first consideration, and sites are designed with the needs of everyone in the audience in mind.
  • Clear Purpose: People enjoy products that are designed for the audience and guided by a defined purpose and goals.
  • Solid Structure: People feel confident using the design because it is stable, robust, and secure.
  • Easy Interaction: People can use the product across all modes of interaction and operating with a broad range of devices.
  • Helpful Wayfinding: People can navigate a site, feature, or page following self-explanatory signposts.
  • Clean Presentation:  People can perceive and understand elements in the design.
  • Plain Language: People can read, understand, and use the information.
  • Accessible Media: People can understand and use information contained in media, such as images, audio, video, animation, and presentations.
  • Universal Usability: People can focus on the experience and their own goals because the product anticipates their needs.
  • In Practice: People and organizations consider accessibility integral to their work and products.

Accessibility Personas

  • Trevor, a high school student with autism
  • Emily, a college student with cerebral palsy, living independently
  • Jacob, blind paralegal, a bit of a geek.
  • Lea, an editor living with fatigue and pain
  • Steven, a graphic designer who is deaf and speaks American Sign Language
  • Vishnu, an engineer and global citizen with low vision
  • Maria, a bilingual community health worker and mobile phone user
  • Carol, a grandmother with macular degeneration


Delivering on the vision of universal accessibility can seem like an insurmountable obstacle in many organizations, but through planning, advocacy, and incremental improvements to process and deliverables, huge strides can be made in even the largest companies.

Additional Resources

Header image credit: 1upLego under CC