Key stages covered
- Why this matters
- Align key groups
- How to prepare
- What to present
- Immediate term requests of leadership
- Recurring requests of leadership
- Pitfalls to avoid
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.
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.
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.
Locate 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
- 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
Accessibility isn’t a risk, it’s an opportunity. 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.
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
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
Some executives may be motivated by risk aversion, and those aspects should be included as well.
- 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
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.
- 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.
Take the initiative to write updates for leadership. Focus 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 company wide 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.
Don’t think you’ll only do this once
Even in healthy organizations, leadership changes, adjusts and reorganizes on a regular basis. Keep your presentations fresh and be prepared to make the same case with every new change in management.