Leadership buy in

Your accessibility team's first priority and most important asset

Why this matters

You will always be frustrated and unable to gain traction enterprise wide without buy-in.

Leveraging the legitimate authority of leaders will be crucial as you encounter obstacles to accessibility compliance.

How executives help

Short term

If a serious customer complaint arises, you may need to temporarily shift priorities from feature delivery to remediation efforts. This shift will not happen if teams don’t believe that executives care about the initiative.

Long term

Executive level participation (that goes beyond that first mass email) is required. You will need help shifting a cultural focus from deadline-oriented workflows to more thoughtful design and development cycles, which emphasize better customer experiences.

As your program evolves, leaders and managers must be willing to enforce the policies and support strategic goals. Organizations that don’t believe that accessibility compliance is a top-down enforceable initiative with consequences will not change.

Align key groups

Don’t go it alone. Find your allies.

Build a coalition of people who see the same problems and are willing to be early adopters. These connections allow you move faster and easier.

Identifying and communicating with relevant parts of your enterprise also prevents any accusations of crossing boundaries into someone else’s territory.

Common allies

These groups are linchpins to your accessibility program.

  • Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
  • Legal counsel
  • QA testers
  • Design systems
  • Marketing

Giving them the opportunity to be a part of the conversation with leadership will help gain their buy-in.

How to prepare

Make the most of this time. You need to be clear about what you need, while showing that you understand what leadership wants and how they can influence outcomes.

Respect their time

Executives are accustomed to serious deliberation and problem solving.

They want to know why their time is being set aside, what the actual ask is from your team, and how accessibility can help them meet goals.

The best way to show respect is to rehearse and edit your pitch. You want to ensure you don’t go over time and leave important points uncovered.

Create appropriate presentation materials

Don’t assume everyone wants a long slide deck presentation to make a case.

Do your research

  • Does leadership appreciate a slide deck or a one page outline?
  • Would they like to have materials to study ahead of time?
  • Will it help to have materials to leave behind for review?
  • Will they need materials to share with other leaders?

Manage decorum and emotions

Executive offices are not places where protests or unsanctioned grassroots movements are often welcome.

There may be strong emotions tied up in these discussions, but it’s important to be seen as a change agent, not a complainer. It’s much easier for leadership to listen when emotions are regulated.

It’s also important to maintain a professional decorum when you are introducing accessibility compliance to leadership for the first time. This probably is not the time to show up in your favorite tie-dye cat shirt.

If your leadership wears suits and ties, do likewise. If they’re more casual, meet them where they are.

Initial meeting

Discuss company values first

It sounds counterintuitive, but this is really the best place to begin with leadership.

The values a company upholds are typically meaningful to leadership, and can provide moral and ethical leverage to make change happen.

Values are about people

Every organization has a set of values, often including core ethical tenets like treating people with respect or doing the right thing. Use these existing values to advocate for your organization to fulfill its existing mission. You’ll come across as partners, not as activists or as a tech fad.

Open your message by explaining how building accessibility fits into your organization’s values. Then show how ignoring people with disabilities breaches the values.

Review prioritized assessment data

Be prepared to deliver some data, though your ability for analysis may vary.

If you represent a funded official project

If your team is responding to a serious legal complaint or a mandate from leadership, there is probably some funding available for a full manual and automated assessment, which will deliver data that can be segmented and prioritized.

If you’re part of a grassroots movement

If this is a grassroots movement, there are other ways to collect useful data.

Even without an official budget to perform a sweeping manual assessment before your first leadership encounter, you can use automated tools to determine some measurable accessibility score.

Limit the scope to the top customer experiences. Then produce charts with defects by priority, severity or score to express the scope of the change required. But leave no doubt that manual testing is needed because automated tools can’t detect most accessibility defects.

Align to your company’s strategic goals

Keep the emphasis on the vision and mission of the company, and confirm it in multiple areas.

Avoiding risk

  • Accessibility complaints and ADA lawsuits are increasing every year
  • Excluding customers with disabilities is literally risky business
  • Reduce the exposure of lawsuits and complaints that your competitors will face
  • Reduce the possibility of bad press if a complaint becomes public

Market share and competitive advantage

Discussing market share is helpful. But it carries even more weight when combined with the realization that accessibility is a competitive advantage and a marketing opportunity.

  • Consumers consistently prefer to do business with ethical businesses
  • 26% of the US population has a disability that requires accommodation
  • People with disabilities are the largest minority in the country
  • This adds up to billions of dollars in combined purchasing power

Innovation

Focusing on accessibility in design and development makes better, more intuitive products for everyone.

Traits of accessible applications:

  • Faster and more responsive as a result of leaner code
  • Fewer defects/bugs because of more complete testing practices
  • Naturally optimized for search engines because of compliant/valid document structure and use of plain language
  • Simpler and more intuitive for all people

Be prepared to answer questions

How can I help?

This is a great moment, but you can’t just say, “Support us and tell everyone they need to do it.” You need specific asks for the short, medium and long term.

How many of our customers does this really affect?

Two points answer this question.

Emphasize accessibility isn’t just about some people

It affects all of your customers. When you design for people with disabilities, you create better products for everyone.

Emphasize the statistics

Acccording to the CDC, 26% of the US population has a disability that requires accommodation. This includes people who needs corrective lenses to others who need assistance moving. As the population ages, this number will grow.

What other groups are you collaborating with?

Leadership may quickly see connections and overlap within your organization.

They don’t like to hear that an initiative is building without collaboration because they want to avoid conflicts within the organization.

Help leadership manage their emotions

Leaders don’t want to feel like they’ve done anything wrong. Coming to them with this large problem in the organization may feel accusatory.

Give people an emotional “out” so their reaction doesn’t become defensive, but rather participatory, because they are now even more enlightened by understanding accessibility.

Managing reactions

  • Emphasize that almost all organizations are going through this transition
  • Point out that accessibility has only recently been a mainstream topic of discussion in tech
  • Explain that decisions about processes and infrastructure were made before legal precedent changed the landscape
  • Find ways for leadership to see an “opportunity” to be ahead of the curve by adopting accessibility as a strategic priority

Immediate term requests of leadership

It’s crucial to prepare specific requests for leadership. You need to identify their responsibility, and help them understand this will require continuing support.

Approve a budget for accessibility efforts

You’ll need money for more than a committee or workgroup. You will need a dedicated accessibility focused team with an operational budget.

Instruct key allies to collaborate

Identify parts of the organization that are resistant to change. You may need to ask leadership to remove those barriers to progress.

Visibly endorse accessibility policies

Make it clear accessibility compliance policies need to be backed by legitimate leadership. Teams will find ways to avoid changing if there’s a perception of no real consequences for non-compliance.

Visibly approve the strategies and priorities

The strategies you’ve put forth such as building a team, changing processes and prioritizing accessibility in product strategy all need approval that goes beyond a mass email.

Visibly respond to accessibility compliance data

Leadership needs to let teams know they’re paying attention to accessibility assessments and expect measurable change.

Recurring asks of leadership

Make it clear that accessibility is not a one and done initiative or project.

This will be an operational compliance effort requiring ongoing support from leadership.

Enforce accessibility policies

Be able to explain when and what levels of leadership need to be available for enforcing policies.

This is often answered by the question, “Who should approve an exception when the business needs to launch something that isn’t accessible?”

This could be a consultation with the product owner, senior level management and legal counsel. It’s also possible the answer is the accessibility team itself.

Review accessibility metrics on a timely basis

There will already be a cadence of meetings with leadership. Managers, directors and others meet regularly to deliver and review metrics.

When accessibility metrics are included in those meetings, teams will understand they are accountable for improving those results.

Visibly support accessibility team in communications

Leadership already schedules regular updates to the company. Make it easy for them to discuss accessibility.

Give them something to include that focuses on the importance of accessibility and highlights of what’s going right.

This can be as simple as a paragraph highlighted in an email update or slides in a presentation.

Pitfalls to avoid

Even if you’ve gotten to this point of meeting with leadership and getting what feels like buy in, don’t make these mistakes.

Don’t ask for things leadership can’t deliver

Base your specific asks on what a leader can actually make happen. Recognize the limits of their authority in the organization.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep

You can’t bear the burden or take responsibility for removing all legal complaints or the complete absence of accessibility issues.

Don’t leave it to leadership to write your messaging

Leadership can spread your message. If you expect leadership to endorse and enforce your policies and goals, write the messaging and provide materials to help them do that frequently.

Don’t expect them to write eloquent content for social posts, emails or presentations. Write suggested text, give suggested slides, and write the emails and social posts for them.

Don’t let next steps feel ambiguous

You will rarely come across a leader who will completely dismiss the need to accommodate people with disabilities, but do not mistake smiling and nodding for support.

Discuss next steps, ask for timelines and clarify specifics on who to follow up with and when.

Your checklist

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Align key groups
How to prepare
Initial meeting
Immediate term requests of leadership
Recurring asks of leadership
Pitfalls to avoid
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