When Testing for Accessibility, Don’t Put the Burden on Employees with Disabilities

July 12, 2021

Testing is crucial to accessible design. A proper audit can identify issues that aren’t apparent to designers and developers, ensuring legal compliance and delivering a better overall experience to users with disabilities.

However, accessibility should be a company-wide initiative that is prioritized and funded in accordance with its importance to experience and compliance goals. Sometimes, the responsibility of testing is assigned to an individual or group of individuals who may not have formal training and expertise in accessibility, which can cause unintended problems. Yes, that is still true even for employees with disabilities who are chosen for the task simply because they use assistive technology, for example.

Employers often make this mistake for a good-faith reason: They understand that a person living with disabilities will have practical, useful insights. However, those insights may not qualify the employee as an expert, and giving them the responsibility can have unintended consequences.

An individual's experience is valuable, but ability is a spectrum

People interact with digital content in a variety of ways, which is why shared standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are so important. WCAG provides a framework for making a more accessible internet for all users, regardless of how they choose to access content.

Assigning accessibility testing to a single, potentially untrained employee can cause problems, since the employee may be unaware of these requirements. They may interpret the content through their own experience without taking other perspectives into consideration.

For example, asking an employee who is blind person to review a website with a screen reader may provide some insights, but they may not use their screen reader in the same way as other users. They may have a higher tolerance for certain accessibility issues, so they won’t identify them as problems. They may not identify the barriers that affect people with low vision, people with dyslexia, or people with color vision deficiencies, and they may miss issues that affect people with neurocognitive differences or auditory disabilities.

Every individual is an expert in their lived experiences and their preferences. However, a disability doesn’t automatically make someone an accessibility expert, and the employee might not want to become an expert — and accessibility is a specialized field. They may still offer important guidance, particularly if they have experience with development and design, but they shouldn’t feel compelled to take on the entire responsibility.

Assigning accessibility to a single team member makes efforts less sustainable

Certified accessibility experts develop a working knowledge of WCAG success criteria, Section 508 compliance requirements, and assistive technology capabilities. They must document their findings, record fixes, and keep excellent records in order to prove compliance.

In short, it’s a full-time job or the job of a qualified third-party. Asking an established employee to learn all of this information can be impractical and inefficient. Placing the single employee in an accessibility role can also create liabilities when they leave the organization; when they go, they’ll take their expertise with them. Conversely, when the knowledge (and responsibility) is shared, the loss of a single team member won’t derail the work. Sharing the knowledge and formalizing processes create a more sustainable infrastructure.

All employees should contribute to accessibility goals

Accessibility testing should involve soliciting feedback from employees, independent experts, and real-world users. A comprehensive approach establishes long-term results.

Of course, asking an employee for quick, 5-minute feedback can be a great way to find issues. However, asking an employee with a disability to become an expert may be seen as insensitive, and it forces them to take on a considerable amount of emotional work. Regularly discussing your disability with others can be exhausting, and some people might feel like their other contributions to the organization are minimized.

Some people with disabilities may embrace the opportunity to improve accessibility, and that enthusiasm should be encouraged — but every member of your team should share the same commitment to accessible practices. As explained in the Developing the Accessibility Mindset eBook, when an entire company treats accessibility as a priority, your content benefits.

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