The Accidental A11y Advocate

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This is another in our ongoing series of guest posts, this time from Rachel Comerford, co-chair of the EPUB 3 Community Group and a contributor to eprdctn. Her full bio is below.

I have a confession: I have never taken a class in accessibility; I have no professional certification for creating, remediating, or testing content; and I am not an expert in using assistive technology. Why would anyone ask me to write about being an accessibility advocate?

Because I am one. By accident.

Many years ago, I received a customer request to revise an activity and make it JAWS compatible. Here were my next steps:

  1. Search for “JAWS”
  2. Spend 20 minutes reading about Roy Scheider, star of the 1975 classic Jaws
  3. Remember I’m at work
  4. Search for “JAWS compatibility”
  5. Search for “Screen Reader”
  6. Ask a colleague how to make an activity accessible
  7. Have colleague tell me to add closed captioning
  8. Realize I might be missing something

After a career focusing on getting students better content and making sure that instructors get the best materials for their classrooms it was unnerving to discover that I was missing a large (and growing) portion of my audience. What was more unnerving was realizing how many of my peers and colleagues were also unaware.

We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Teaching myself how to approach accessibility was, and still is, challenging. The more I learn, the more I realize, to quote the other Jaws, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Accessibility is more than a checklist; as an advocate, I am responsible for embedding an understanding of accessibility into company culture, communicating clearly the needs of our whole audience, and generating enthusiasm for finding and implementing more accessible solutions. In working towards these goals, I have learned quite a bit but to get started, these are the 5 rules that I had accept and embrace.

  1. Acknowledge that accessibility isn’t an afterthought.
    Picking through design and code that has been developed with speed to market in mind in order to make it accessible isn’t impossible, but it is time consuming, expensive, and, honestly, really annoying. It’s like extricating pieces of onion from a salad… there is always another one in there waiting to ruin your breath for the rest of the day.Accessibility shouldn’t be addressed after a product has been built any more than it should be scheduled as the last sprint in order to reach MVP. It should be a part of the development plan from the beginning, starting with researching UX/UI for your product with assistive technology (AT) users.
  2. Educate yourself in order to educate others.
    This is obvious, right? Research the standards, familiarize yourself with the laws, and have (and be able to communicate with others) a basic definition of accessibility. As an advocate though, throwing around key terms is not enough. Accessibility is a conversation between learners, organizations that represent them, legal entities, software developers, and publishers among others. Advocates should be able to provide clarity where others might muddle ideas.For example, much like when my mother taught me about the difference between a coat and a jacket (which, to be honest, I still struggle with), I am going to ask you to stop using WCAG and 508 interchangeably. WCAG is a standard set by the World Wide Web Consortium. Section 508 is an element of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. There are more that you should familiarize yourself with both in the standards area (PDF/UA for example) and the legal area (such as IDEA). (As a side note: For legal updates in plain language, I’m a big fan of Lainey Feingold’s site.)
  3. Learn from mistakes that everyone, including you, has made.
    Don’t be that guy on Tinder who posts selfies with tigers and then wonders why no one swipes right. (Same goes for shirtless bathroom/gym selfies in case you’re working on that profile right now. Hard no.) Many other people have been down this road before, looking for love accessibility solutions in all the wrong places.
    If you’re looking for non-Tinder related examples:
    Some will argue that the population this impacts is too small. In 2016 there was a 55 percent increase in the number of digital accessibility complaints filed with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) from 2015. There were about 6,000 accessibility complaints overall in 2016. The impact you are making with accessible products is huge, from the number of people using the product to the money you are going to save on legal fees.
    Some will offer an accessible version/a tutor/an alternate product for students with disabilities. Ask them this: You’re teaching a class on the 5th floor of a walkup building. You have 1 student in a wheelchair. Do you send that student to a different classroom to just read the textbook? Ask them to sit on the lawn while you lecture really loudly near the window? There won’t always be a solution as simple as a ramp and an elevator (see number 5), but it’s your job as an advocate to push for a single, born-accessible solution whenever it is possible.I tested this on a screen reader with my eyes closed, so I know it’s accessible. To clarify, what you have done is helped get a little further down the accessible development path but what you have NOT done is tested the usability of a product for AT users.

Become an expert in saying “I don’t know.”

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
    Better yet, become an expert in saying “I don’t know.” There’s an art to being a beginner, and, when it comes to accessibility, expertise is hard-earned. You don’t need to have an immediate answer to every question, but what you do need is to build a network of relationships with other people asking the same questions. Check out the work that Benetech does, talk to PhET about STEM accessibility, and learn from real life experiences.
  2. Accept that there isn’t always a “right” answer.
    This is the hardest part, in my opinion. I like being right, and like it even more when there is a clearly defined “wrong,” but accessibility doesn’t work that way. AT works differently with different operating systems or browsers. Some problems don’t have a universal solution yet. Others have a solution for some audiences and not others. New solutions for one group of users may introduce new problems for other groups. It’s a frustrating process and your role is to help the team get to the best available answer and then try to solve for the outliers.

Accessibility advocacy is not about being the sole source of expert knowledge or achieving fame and fortune (although I continue to dream about the fortune part). What it really does is bring you back to the basics: don’t shrink away from a challenge, don’t fall back on old (often offensive) tropes, and stop telling everyone on Tinder that you’re looking for a “partner in crime.” Be an accessibility advocate because you care about other people. Succeed as an accessibility advocate because you want other people to be successful.


As the Director of Content Standards at Macmillan Learning, RACHEL COMERFORD helps to implement and maintain industry and internal standards in content, platforms, and processes. As the co-chair of the w3c Publishing Community Group and participant in accessibility working groups at IMS Global, BISG, and AMAC she asks lots of annoying questions, silently judges Tinder profiles, and is always looking for a bigger boat.

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3 Responses to “The Accidental A11y Advocate”

  1. Tim Ridgway says:

    Excellent article and well written Rachel! Yours is a path that I can also relate to… thanks for sharing this

  2. Rachel Comerford says:

    Thanks Tim!

  3. Shmuel says:

    Interesting article. But actually, according to my research, the Jaws quote is “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”