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What Project Managers Need to Know About Accessibility

Jun 1, 2019

Project managers have a level of responsibility for and eyes into all the moving parts of a project. If those projects include websites, apps, or other digital tools, managing accessibility is also one of those responsibilities. Here's what you need to know.

15 things project managers should know about accessibility

1. You're critical to the process

As a project manager, you're on task for connecting the dots and keeping workstreams on track. Your ability and willingness to appropriately plan for accessibility, engage the right people at the right time, communicate the need and value of accessibility, and hold teams accountable for meeting accessibility requirements will ultimately play a major role in delivering accessible websites and apps.

2. Know what accessibility is and why it matters

It's unlikely that you'd be expected to know the ins and outs of all accessibility best practices if you aren't also playing a technical role in the project, but having a working knowledge is key. 

Digital accessibility is the practice of building and designing websites, apps, and other tools so that people with disabilities can use them. They must be able to navigate, consume, and contribute to web content, and content must be built in a way that is compatible with assistive technology like screen readers.

Here are some good resources to get you started:

3. Accessibility is a requirement

Accessibility is not a nice-to-have option if schedules and budgets allow for it. Rather, as the rise in digital accessibility lawsuits has consistently shown, websites are interpreted under the law as being places of public accommodation. As such, this means websites must be accessible to people with disabilities or they will be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). If websites are not accessible, people are within their rights afforded by the ADA to file a lawsuit.

To learn more about the increase in lawsuits, read: Over 2250 Web Accessibility Lawsuits Filed in 2018. Could They Triple in 2019?

4. There are established standards

Fortunately, there are well-accepted rules and technical requirements in place that most people consider the gold standard in digital and web accessibility: the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG is broken into four main principles, stating that content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. There are three levels of WCAG compliance (A, AA, AAA), and most organizations consider meeting A and AA requirements sufficient for providing reasonably accessible experiences.

WCAG has been around for twenty years. The latest version is WCAG 2.1, published in 2018. To learn more about WCAG, read:

5. Know your organization's accessibility policy

If your company is committed to accessibility, it is most likely using WCAG to measure compliance, but the specifics of how those standards are implemented will vary by organization. What does your organization's accessibility policy apply to? Are there any exceptions? What level of WCAG compliance is required (A, AA, AAA)? What types of accessibility violations would prevent a new site or piece of content from going live? Who gets to make those calls? Getting the answers to these questions before they come up will allow for a smoother and more compliant project.

6. Plan for accessibility from the beginning

To put it simply, it is much easier and cost-efficient to account for accessibility early on in the design or idea-development stage than to fix things after a website or app has already been created. Include accessibility experts early and often. Trained accessibility experts will be able to identify potential red flags before they happen, avoiding unnecessary re-work.

Related: When Is The Right Time To Plan for Digital Accessibility?

7. Make sure all content, design, and development teams are thinking about accessibility

If the creative team designs a beautiful and accessible web page, but the developer doesn't know how to build it to be accessible, the product will not be accessible. If the designers want to create an accessible web page, but the team in charge of identifying brand color palettes doesn't give them color choices with sufficient color contrast to work with, the product will not be accessible. Any number of these scenarios are possible and very common. To combat this, make sure everyone has at least a working knowledge of accessibility and make sure those teams whose decisions directly impact accessibility have the level of expertise they need to think about it and apply it throughout the whole process.

8. Prepare for questions and objections

Not everyone is familiar with accessibility and not everyone understands why it is important. While the principles of accessibility become known by more people every day, the concept is not on everyone's radar just yet. So, expect questions and even objections while partners and stakeholders try to understand. For help getting started, read How to Introduce People to Digital Accessibility: 7 Tips.

9. Build in time for testing, remediation, and re-testing

Just like QA testing and stakeholder reviews take time and need dedicated spots in a project timeline, so does accessibility. Testers will need sufficient time to perform (hopefully) manual and automated reviews and document their findings and recommendations. Developers, content teams, and others need time to make the necessary updates. Finally, accessibility testers will need time to validate any changes and make sure they meet the required level of accessibility.

Also keep in mind that the website or app should be in a stable environment for testing that is not in active development. If the code is being worked on at the same time testing is being performed, it becomes difficult to be confident that what was tested is what your customers will end up using.

10. Ensure you have the right accessibility expertise

Moving accessibility operations in-house is possible, but it usually depends on the structure, budget, expertise, and priorities of the organization. You can also choose to align your business with proven experts in the industry to help make sure you get it right and are doing everything you can to protect your business from accessibility complaints and lawsuits. Or, you may be able to find a balance between in-house and external talent. Whichever route works for you, make sure you have qualified experts in place who fully understand the technical requirements, know how to test thoroughly, know how to modify the content and code as needed, and know how to make sure future updates remain accessible.

Too often, organizations believe it's cheaper and easier to ask a developer, who might not have the full knowledge or context of accessibility best practices, to take over accessibility. If you question whether all aspects are being properly cared for, it will be better to identify and fill gaps early in the process.

Related: A Look at Our Four-Point Hybrid Testing

11. Assign clear roles in the process

For every step, identify exactly who is responsible. It sounds simple enough, but in practice there can be overlap or gaps that add time and confusion. Be as specific as you need to be to make sure everyone knows their part (and knows where their part ends).

12. Have a plan for accessibility challenges

Different content management systems, older pages or websites, complex or heavily-visual designs, or a number of other scenarios will mean your team is likely to face some degree of technical limitations or other accessibility challenges. While there may be surprises, plan for whatever you can. What's the process if a difficult or expensive issue is identified? According to your accessibility policy or those with the authority to make these decisions, what happens if a product is scheduled to go live but has a known accessibility issue? What additional resources or talent do you have available to tap into? Who makes the final calls?

13. Have a plan for any future enhancements

This is related to other points in this list but is distinct. If a website or app is launched but the project team knows there are improvements that can or should be made, what is the plan for taking care of those? Whether your organization implements enhancements in phases, sprints, waterfall, agile, or some other model, be sure you identify how and when accessibility improvements fit into the process.

14. Accessibility needs to be maintained

It's a common misconception that accessibility is a one-time fix. As new pages are developed, as navigation and functionality evolve, and simply as time passes, it's important to test and remediate for accessibility. Accessibility requires monitoring and maintenance, just like everything else.

Related: We Already Fixed Our Website for Accessibility - Are We Done?

15. Track and learn for future projects

Finally, remember it takes time and practice to build new steps into a project. Keep detailed notes of the timing and people involved, what worked well and what can be improved upon, and continue to fine-tune to make future projects running smoothly.

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