How to form an Accessibility Working Group
Why we created an Accessibility Working Group at Cloudburst and how you can start one, too
June marks the one-year anniversary of our Accessibility Working Group at Cloudburst SBC. Although every person’s and company’s journey into accessibility will be unique, here is an under-the-hood look at how we began to formalize our collective a11y practice over the past year.
How we started our Accessibility Working Group
Our accessibility journey began when several individuals at Cloudburst took interest in the topic after hearing about it through coworkers, on Twitter, and in industry articles and online classes. This interest soon grew to include many others at the company, which sparked the creation of our official Accessibility Working Group (AWG). As a whole, we have been inspired by the idea shared by experienced accessibility practitioners who make it clear that a product is not usable if it is not accessible.
What does UX have to do with accessibility?
A large percentage of digital experiences remain inaccessible by design. As a UX designer, I began to examine my role in maintaining this status quo and chose to make accessible design a core tenet of my professional development plan. Luckily, at Cloudburst, I am surrounded by knowledgeable coworkers excited to share what they know on the topic and they pointed me toward helpful resources.
Teaming up for better outcomes
As an organization, we wanted to know more about how we could bring accessibility into the fold of the day-to-day agile software development work we did. Answering that question felt like a monumental task beyond any individual role or skill set. It would require a team.
Around the same time, we discovered the Agile Accessibility Handbook, a free ebook by Dylan Barrell, CTO of Deque, which presents actionable steps toward organizational change. The first recommended step is to form a ‘Central Accessibility Team’. This provided the initial guidance we needed to justify adding the Accessibility Working Group meeting to the collective calendar.
Getting buy-in from leadership
We presented the idea to the Cloudburst leadership team and secured their support. Admittedly, this was not a very heavy lift since accessible design and development align directly with Cloudburst values, such as creating a more inclusive tech sector.
However, their support came with thoughts about how to approach the business case of accessibility and how to communicate this value to clients — questions we would begin to tackle in our working group.
From the beginning, participation in this was group voluntary. But to get the ball rolling for those interested, we scheduled a kick-off meeting and invited anyone who was interested to attend. We wanted this effort to remain organic and self-determined, but also knew that representation across the different departments was important for effective collaboration.
Kicking off our AWG
Ultimately, we ended up with a good mix of UX, QA, and engineering folks — some who had years of experience working on accessible development, while others were new to the topic. Overall, everyone who joined wanted to learn and hone their skills in an effort to create more inclusive digital products.
At the kick-off meeting, we decided on a one-hour team meeting every other week. This felt like a good place to start, where we could maintain momentum between meetings but not feel bogged down by them.
Strategizing for success
Next, we turned to the hard task of figuring out exactly what this working group should and could accomplish. We started with defining our ‘why’. Yes, it makes good business sense, it’s the right thing to do, and your future self will thank you. But at Cloudburst, it also aligns with our core values of Entrepreneurship, Partnership, Impact, and Craftsmanship.
Accessibility is undoubtedly an extensive topic. So how do we begin to break this down into bite-sized chunks? How do we begin to shift our practice and make an impact while also meeting stakeholder expectations?
For starters, we committed to incremental change and identified projects that would serve as a good jumping-off point. As an agency, we work with a diverse set of client projects and budgets so we had plenty to choose from. We started small, shared resources and ideas, and continued to meet as a group to unpack what we were encountering in our day-to-day.
Where we are today
During the last year of our Accessibility Working Group meetings, we've learned a lot. A portion of our meetings has now become dedicated workshopping time for problem-solving around active accessibility questions. And our knowledge on the topic has begun to expand outward beyond the bounds of the group, into other team meetings and channels. Our individual and collective skills have improved and so have our digital experiences.
And most importantly, we've done so as a group — supporting each other's curiosities and continuing to ladder up our work to the Cloudburst values. We've celebrated wins (discovering an inaccessible component during the design phase, before any development time had been spent!) and acknowledged challenges (color contrast ratios and branding style guides aren’t always happy companions). But overall, we've dedicated our time to continued learning and will continue to push our work to be more accessible (and therefore usable!) going forward.
Tips for starting your own Accessibility Working Group
1) Start small and casual. Your accessibility journey doesn’t need to start with a formal initiative at your organization. Let it grow organically by gathering like-minded people who are already interested in the topic. Chat about a11y over coffee with a few coworkers. You may want to formalize the effort eventually, but that’s not where you need to start.
2) Pick a format and cadence that suits your team. Figure out what works for your team’s unique setup and iterate as needed. No decision you make today needs to be set in stone for eternity.
3) Be realistic about what you can accomplish with your resources. Accessibility is not an item on your to-do list to mark complete. Rather, it is a way of approaching work, a paradigm shift. Lean on your team for support and encouragement when you experience setbacks.
4) This is a marathon; don't get overwhelmed. Pick one small thing to learn about and start there. Then pick another thing, and another. Mine the internet for clues from those who have gone before you. Treat every day like an exciting a11y expedition.
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Alex Betzler is a Senior UX Designer at Cloudburst who believes most user errors can be avoided with thoughtful design. She enjoys maps, books, bikes, and gardening when the rabbits don’t mow down her kale.