Getting started in Accessibility: A Philosophy

I wonder how many definitions there are for “web accessibility”—how many ways people describe what accessibility means for the web and for people. Web accessibility can be a measure of opportunity or a pursuit of equal access to information or resources. It can be a field of study or discipline of work. It can be a topic for discussion among developers, designers, and even writers.

Coming into the conversation with a content and communication background, I haven’t always understood where I fit in the landscape of web accessibility. I can tell you that I am driven to make things better for people who use the web and the people who build it. I can tell you that I think the web should work for everyone. But I’ve never really considered myself an advocate for accessibility.

For years I thought that speaking on behalf of “web accessibility” required programming knowledge or technical ability far beyond my own as a content strategist and marketer. I was apprehensive to carry the advocacy torch, for fear that I didn’t have what it takes.

A Shift in Perspective

But my perspective has changed over time. My relationship with accessibility has changed. I could point to any number of personal tipping points, but I credit three in particular for giving me a new vantage point.

  • Karen McGrane presented a “mobile content mandate” in her keynote at Confab Higher Ed 2013. It was the first time I’d heard anyone talk about the digital divide and the connection between mobile-ready content and accessibility for underserved populations. It was also the first time I’d thought about accessibility in terms beyond code.
  • Derek Featherstone, in a 2015 Confab Intensive workshop, explained that when something works for everyone, it works better for everyone. I hadn’t before considered things like readability to be “web accessibility,” and I was blown away by how simple (and important) it all seemed.
  • In her 2017 book “Accessibility for Everyone,” Laura Kalbag introduced the topic of web accessibility in terms of empathy and humanity. She urged readers to emphasize the concept of “universal design” (design that works for everyone) and stressed the importance of working collectively toward a “fairer” web. With this encouragement, the charge for accessibility and for universal design solidified itself as an imperative.

I’m going to be honest here. I’ve always believed that an accessible web is important. Yet somehow the work seemed so daunting that I was sure it should be left to “real” web professionals. The need seemed so deep that it felt like experts should be leading the way. I was sure I had no business throwing around concepts like “semantic markup” or “WCAG.” (Look, I still put quotes around them, lest you think me an imposter.)

It Takes a Village

Just recently, I was talking with a colleague about our organization’s programming for next year. We were brainstorming ideas for industry topics to introduce locally. When she suggested I consider leading a discussion about web accessibility for the business community, I scoffed. I reminded her that I’m no expert. She responded, “But, you’re the only one around here talking about it.”

That thing about the need for everyone to work toward an accessible web? That thing is hard to shake off. In fact, it seems that over time I’ve grown into something of a Lorax for accessibility in my community—and I didn’t even realize it was happening.

I work as a marketing director and digital strategy consultant in Flint, Michigan, where there is a big opportunity for impact when it comes to connecting people to the things they need. Service providers, nonprofits, and businesses alike have a wealth of resources to share with a community whose seen its fair share of challenges. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of great work being done, which requires a lot of time and energy. For those in the business of the helping people, things like websites often have to take a backseat to day-to-day operations.

From where I sit, I can’t help but think of that digital divide, about making things better for everyone, and about working collectively toward a fairer web. And I say so, over and over to anyone that will listen. When the web works the way that it should, we can begin to make connections between all points of the internet. If I can see that from where I sit, don’t I have an obligation to do something?

I want businesses, non-profits, service providers, and people to be equipped to make good digital decisions. I want the people in my (and every) community to get the information and resources they need.

I want to help.

I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about how.

I’ve wondered: When there are so many ways to tackle accessibility, where do I start? When it’s not just the code, but the content and the color contrast and the devices on which we access all of these things, where do I even begin?

I’ve Got My Philosophy

I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve decided to stop asking so many questions. I’ve come to accept that accessibility isn’t a thing to be accomplished, but a principle to live by. It is not a checkmark to be made on that proverbial to-do list, but a lens through which we do our best work. It is a pursuit.

When I began to define “web accessibility” as a philosophy instead of a skill to master or task to accomplish, suddenly that weight of inadequacy I’d been carrying was lifted. That imposter syndrome I’d been hiding behind started to feel like an excuse. I reflected on the conversations I’ve initiated in my organization and community and realized I have been advocating for accessibility for a very long time.

For years, I’ve been a broken record about the gap between resources and the people who need them, the need to consider all devices and connections, how to reflect an organization’s values in its use of technology, and the importance of federal guidelines and the right to information. All the while, qualifying every impassioned plea with the disclaimer that I was no expert on accessibility.

I’ve resolved to cut it out with the disclaimer.

I remind myself that accessibility is a pursuit, a philosophy. No one needs a certification to feel empathy or compassion. It doesn’t require expertise to understand that everyone should be able to use the internet to its potential.

There isn’t a finish line. There isn’t just one way toward an accessible, universal web. I’m no longer going to worry about where to start because making the web truly accessible is about refusing to stop.

Alaina Wiens

About Alaina Wiens

Alaina Wiens is a marketing director, content strategist, and digital strategy consultant. She currently leads the marketing team at the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce, while her passion for digital strategy keeps her actively engaged in web projects throughout her community in Flint, Michigan.

8 comments on “Getting started in Accessibility: A Philosophy”

  • Dominic Berry says:

    Great article, impressive way of framing the conversation, and your not the only one to feel this way. Keep up the conversations! 😉

    • Thanks so much for reading (and validating)! It can feel overwhelming, and it’s helpful to remember we’re all in this together.

  • Excellent and important article. Working in a small web development company that decided it wants to put accessibility at the heart of what it does, I’ve spent a lot of this year learning about web accessibility and, in some ways, feel I’ve barely dipped my toes into a very deep pool of knowledge on the subject. I’m not a Developer.
    One of the great things I have found on line are a lot of individuals and companies talking and sharing their knowledge about web accessibility but, most significantly, not judging each other. I have found this really refreshing – having worked in other areas where people seem very keen to ‘catch each other out’. So keep up the good work, keep talking and sharing and don’t apologise for yourself.

    • There’s a lot to learn, but I’ve met so many people willing to help and share. I’m glad you’ve had the same experience!

  • Alaina, this is beautifully and honestly written. Thank you so much for continuing this important discussion, and making the pursuit of accessibility more accessible for all of us trying to figure it out. Well done! (And I like the reference to the Lorax 🙂

  • This resonates with me – thank you!

    I appreciate the encouragement to cut out my own disclaimers. I’m an accessibility expert and frequently give my own disclaimer of “but I’m no technologist/developer/designer” even as I’ve been one of the most active voices advocating within my local tech community for increased understanding of a11y.

    It’s a principle.

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