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 leadership buy-in.

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

Short term

In the short term, leadership can break down barriers you’re facing right now.

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

Long term

Executive level participation (going beyond an occasional mass email) is required for the ongoing programmatic work of compliance.

As your program evolves, leaders and managers must be willing to review reports, enforce accessibility policy targets and support strategic goals. Teams will not change behavior when they don’t believe accessibility policy is a top-down enforceable initiative with consequences.

Align key groups

Don’t go it alone. Find 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. Be sensitive to groups that are protective of their parts of the company, and assure others you have the same goals.

Ideal partners

These groups are linchpins to your accessibility program. You may not be able to align every group, but it’s important to try.

Groups that are natural allies

Each of these teams will have overlapping and aligned interests within the organization.

  • Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
  • Legal counsel
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) analysts
  • Performance analysts

Groups that may be more challenging

  • Marketing
  • Design systems
  • Front end development managers
  • QA testers

Whether teams participate early or not, giving them the opportunity to be a part of the conversation will help gain their partnership, even if it comes later at the insistence of leadership..

How to prepare

You must be clear about what you need from leadership.

Respect their time

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.

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 their goals.

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 an activist. It’s much easier for leadership to listen when everyone’s emotions are regulated.

It’s also important to maintain a professional decorum when you are introducing accessibility compliance to leadership for the first time. Do not show up in your favorite tie-dye cat shirt. Meet them where they are. If your leadership wears suits and ties, do likewise. If they’re more casual, match their vibe.

What to present

Be seen as partners, not as activists or another tech fad.

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 enterprise to fulfill its existing mission.

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

Summarize assessment data

Be prepared to deliver some objective 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 you may have a full manual and automated assessment including a segmented and prioritized report.

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 manual testing is needed because automated tools can’t detect most accessibility defects.

Align with leadership’s strategic goals

Keep the emphasis on the vision and mission of your leadership. Any executive, vice president or director has a strategy for winning, and it’s crucial accessibility not be seen as an impediment to their success as a leader.

Find out what you can about their plans and goals for the future and illustrate how your goals align.

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 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 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 requiring 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

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 almost all organizations are going through this transition
  • Point out accessibility has only recently been a mainstream topic of discussion in tech
  • Explain 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

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

According to the CDC, 26% of the US population has a disability requiring 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 an initiative is building without collaboration because they want to avoid conflicts within the organization.

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 which parts of the organization 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 endorse 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 a consistent and ongoing personal endorsement beyond a mass email.

Visibly respond to accessibility compliance data

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

Recurring asks of leadership

Make it clear 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 or making exceptions and how those decision can be made using policy targets.

This is often answered by the question, “Who approves of legal risk when the business needs to launch something with known accessible issues?”

Review accessibility targets on a timely basis

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

When accessibility metrics and targets 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 by handing them content.

Write content focusing on the importance of accessibility and highlight what’s going right with products. (Some teams are motivated to be included in positive communications like this). This can be as simple as a paragraph highlighted in an email update or slides in a presentation. If leaders are active on social media, give them reasons to brag about their team’s successes in accessibility.

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

Be realistic about timeframes, budget and risk. It’s always impossible to eliminate 100% of legal risk. Any digital product, no matter how well managed, will have some accessibility flaws just like it has some design flaws.

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

Download checklist
Align key groups
How to prepare
What to present
Immediate term requests of leadership
Recurring requests of leadership
Pitfalls to avoid
Download checklist