Accessibility Consulting is Broken

I’ve had an epiphany. Accessibility Consulting, that process where a client hires us to go through their system, test it for accessibility issues, and submit a report to them, is fundamentally broken. My personal interpretation of our goal, as professionals, is to make money doing Good. Our advanced level of knowledge, skills, and experience can and should drive higher amounts of money while allowing us to do a greater amount of good, like a snowball of awesomeness.

The client hires the consultant to help ease pain. That pain may have an array of causes and may have a varying degree of acuteness, but it always has the same root cause: ignorance. Organizationally there is systemic ignorance surrounding the topic of accessibility. The client neither understands what accessibility is or how to manage it and that results in a failure to effectively modify their ICT development or procurement processes to ensure an accessible outcome. Recognizing this, they turn to the services of a consultant. In all likelihood the resulting engagement involves an audit of the client’s problematic ICT system(s), the deliverable for which is a report outlining the findings of this audit process.

No matter how detailed and no matter how perfect the guidance, the delivery of the report fails to ease the customer’s pain. It does not directly address either the symptoms or the cause of the disease. In fact, the more extensive and greater scope of the testing, the higher likelihood that the client will be paralyzed by the magnitude of what they’ve been told. This paralysis is often made worse in cases where other technical debt has been incurred through bad architectural choices and longstanding legacy front-end code.

During in-person training, I use the following story to illustrate this paralysis:

Two years ago, my wife and I decided to make a large number of renovations to our house:

  • Paint all 3 bedrooms, including ceilings
  • Paint the great room
  • Create custom closet shelving
  • Replace badly stained wood floors in hallway
  • Sand, stain, and refinish wood floors in all 3 bedrooms
  • New chair molding, baseboard moldings, and wood trim throughout the house.
  • Replace wood floor in the great room.
  • New stairs

Excited by the new beauty I envisioned for our house, I dove right in and started doing the necessary demolition. I ripped out all of the carpet that was covering the wood floors, removed all the old molding, and skillfully removed the wood floor in the hallway. Removing the wood floor in the hallway was quite easy. I even skillfully staggered the removal of the boards so that the new boards would blend in without looking like they were replaced. Then the paralysis started.

Demolition complete, I was faced with the exact extent of what was ahead of me. Everywhere I went in the house I was reminded of everything I had to do to finish the house – some of which I really had no clue what to do. For instance, properly installing the new wood floor so it blended into the existing wood floor was far beyond my existing skill set. It scared me and, as a dependency for so many other things on the list, I knew I had to do it but had no idea where to start. So I didn’t start on it. I kept a long list of excuses prepared for why I couldn’t do it.

In hindsight, the real reason I didn’t dive right in to start the work was because I viewed the work ahead of me as a single massive job: Renovate the house. It wasn’t until I changed my outlook on the work as being a series of small distinct tasks I could tackle. This is the same type of overwhelmed feeling clients tend to get when they’re delivered a huge accessibility audit report. The lower their existing willingness to address accessibility and/ or the higher their level of pain & distress (such as threat of litigation), the more likely and more severely they’ll feel paralyzed by the bad news in the report.

Ideally, the client would take the report, read it in its entirety, absorb the excellent guidance contained therein, and jump in with both feet to start fixing their broken system. The consultant feels that report is more than a report. It is a learning document. When the final spelling and grammar check is run in Microsoft Word and saved to its final version, the consultant proudly ships it to the client. Idealistically, the consultant thinks their masterful wording, illustrative screenshots, and skillful code examples will trigger a revolution in the management and development of more accessible solutions by the client. Unfortunately the more likely outcome is confusion. None of the client’s pain is alleviated. Their long-term effectiveness and success with accessibility is not improved and, at best, the report becomes the basis for a series of new issues in the client’s issue tracking system. In practice, the issue reports created by the client are often lacking an acceptable level of detail for the issues to be properly and expeditiously repaired, further reducing the usefulness of the report.

How do we ease the client’s pain and ensure the client is successful in improving their system(s) and reducing their risk? If the delivery of the audit report doesn’t do it and the client’s repurposing of the report’s content doesn’t do it, where does this leave us? How can we more effectively help ensure client success? By becoming directly involved in alleviating their pain. By becoming the client. Remember, the root cause of the client’s pain is ignorance. The more closely the consultant works with the client as an internal stakeholder, a subject matter expert, and a mentor throughout the development lifecycle, the more directly involved the consultant is in ensuring the client’s success. Integrated into the process as a member of the team, the consultant has direct access to help steer better process and practices. This is the exact opposite of what happens when simply throwing the report over the fence, as it were. The days of the comprehensive audit cum mammoth report should come to an end, replaced with actual guidance.

This guidance can take the form of generating and delivering internal use assets for procuring, designing, developing, and maintaining ICT systems or it can take the form of direct involvement in the development and QA processes. Let’s take, for example, the QA process since it so closely resembles the audit report process in spirit.

A client with even marginally mature development processes has some system for keeping track of bugs and feature requests. This may be as simple as a spreadsheet or as complex as a standalone system which keeps track of not only the issues and feature requests but also various additional metadata related to the issues and feature requests which assist in managing, tracking, and reporting. In any case where such a system doesn’t exist, the consultant’s first order of business should be to assist the client in choosing and standing up such a system. In either case, the consultant needs to have direct access to this system equivalent to that of any other team member.

It is in this issue tracking system where the consultant must do their work, if they’re to be effective in facilitating actual improvement of the client’s systems. Working within a robust issue tracking system, the consultant can immediately log the issues they find. This is where the QA and development staff does their work and it is appropriate that, as a part of the team, so should the consultant. Here, the consultant can log the issues they find and take part in the ensuing discussion among development staff regarding the nature, severity, and priority of the issue. Will it take a long time to fix? Will it be difficult? What are the dependencies? How will the user benefit? How will the business logic or presentation logic be affected? How can the repair be verified? These are among the many questions that the development staff might ask that require the input and collaboration of the consultant. They also require a level of discussion not available in a long, one-sided report, no matter how detailed. Direct access to and use of the client’s issue tracking facilitates this seamless collaboration.

Merely replacing the mammoth report deliverable with direct issue logging obviously isn’t enough to address systemic ignorance of accessibility, but rather eliminates a significant roadblock to accessibility in current systems. In practice, this is particularly true because the issues are seen only as a series of issues and not a series of learning experiences. Testing of new work will show this to be true as the consultant is likely to discover issues identical in nature to those they had already reported in the earlier test effort(s). As mentioned in the second paragraph, the root cause of customer pain is ignorance and, while short-term pain is more effectively addressed with direct issue logging, the long-term plan must aggressively address ignorance. This is the domain of training. All persons involved in the management, design, development, and content of ICT systems should be trained to understand the need for accessibility, the specific challenges in a person with disability’s use of ICT products & services, and how that client staff person’s role impacts the deployment of accessible ICT. Through this role-based training the client staff person’s ignorance can be systematically eliminated. In the case of training, the more permanence the training materials have, the better – up to, and including, LMS and/ or video based materials that can be used as part of an onboarding process for new employees.

Last among the mechanisms which should be employed by the consultant to address ignorance is the generation of internal assets to be used in the procurement, design, and development if ICT systems. This should include things like policies and procedures, style guides, checklists, and other job aids to be used by management and staff. These assets should serve as guidance and reference materials, success criteria, and performance measures whenever new ICT work is undertaken or existing ICT systems are improved.

The days of the monolithic accessibility audit report are numbered, as it is an outdated medium that fails to directly address the actual problems faced by the consultant’s clients. Clients, often driven by pain based in ignorance, want and deserve a more direct and proactive approach to solving the root causes of their pain. The proscriptive nature of an audit report should give way to the close involvement and leadership of a skilled consultant.

If you are interested in learning about the next generation in Web Accessibility Testing, give Tenon.io a try.
If you or your organization need help with accessibility consulting, strategy, or accessible web development, email me directly at karl@karlgroves.com or call me at +1 443-875-7343. Download Resume [MS Word]

One Comment

  • Posted July 6, 2014 at 2:51 pm   Permalink

    Spot on !
    This totally resonates with what I preach, and have exposed at CSUN’12 (Get The Most Out of Your Accessibility Expert, on Slideshare). I agree too that the report is a non-sense if there hasn’t been any structured effort towards accessibility. Without visiting the URL, just by asking the right questions, I can tell the client that I’m about to uncover a shitload of nonconformities, which will make everybody unhappy, including me.
    That said, a shiny report is a reassuring item for many clients. They have the feeling they have had something achieved, which is materialized by a heavy heap of paper.
    To me, training is the only non negotiable item while counselling a client. If the said client has only, say, $2,000 to spend on the subject, then we lock their team in a room during two days and train them to test their own production against WCAG AA.
    Regarding being part of the client’s team: I agree, too, that it’s a pretty ideal way to go. Unfortunately, in practice it’s generally hard to put up the right kind of contract when you are hired as an external consultant, in most cases. You are supposed to provide a fixed number of days, or a set of deliverables corresponding to an agreed perimeter. But the kind of intervention you propose would require more flexible terms, including the ability to intervene as much as needed, while remaining fair to each part. So far I have not experienced it yet (at least not with the freedom of action I would require), but I’m deeply interested to know how others tackle this issue.

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