On Certification

At CSUN 2012, the ATIA, Microsoft, and other companies laid forth a proposal plan to create a professional organization around the Accessibility profession. Among the topics of discussion on that day was certification. The next day I posed the question on this blog What does it take to call yourself an accessibility expert?. Cyndi Rowland of WebAIM posted an overview of concerns about a month later in an excellent post titled Accessibility Certification: The Devil is in the Details. In her post, Cyndi also references other blog postings by Sharron Rush and Léonie Watson. Since that time, the IAAP has plodded onward with its plans, including their plans to create a certification.

Do we need a certification?

Large companies and government agencies have a legal obligation to ensure ICT systems are accessible to employees, customers, and citizens. Meeting this obligation requires that the organization employ IT staff with extensive skills and knowledge in accessibility, but the requisite level of knowledge is rare. Validating experience level of employees/ potential employees is difficult when executives and HR personnel also don’t know much about accessibility. But is the answer to this question “an exam”?

On September 8, 2015, Glenda Sims of Deque will be presenting a talk during the Accessibility Summit titled “Accessibility Professional Certification”. In the description of her talk is this: “Is there a way to establish an exam that could reliably weed out impostors from experts?”. Is this the goal of a certification? To “weed out imposters”? This sounds a bit like Leave Accessibility to the Experts Please. Certainly there are a lot of cases where unqualified people are working in Accessibility. But am I crazy to be offended by the idea that they’d be called “imposters” who need to be “weeded out”? Or, perhaps that’s exactly what needs to happen.

We’re reaching a point in technology where it is evolving at a breakneck speed and that requires an accessibility professional to not only understand the special use cases of technology for people with disabilities but also requires them to understand the technologies themselves. Many people who had traditionally been able to work in this field are now faced with out-of-date knowledge, to say the least. You can no longer “fake it until you make it” without doing a severe disservice to your employers, customers, and end users. Instead of “weeding out” those who lack the advanced knowledge necessary in today’s tech industry, I vote that we seek to mentor and educate others. I think pushing a certification is a backwards approach at solving a much bigger problem than so-called “imposters”.

What is the worth of certification?

In order to have any worth, a certification must meet 4 criteria: Validity, Reliability, Fairness, and Defensibility.

  • Validity: Does the test measure what it is intended to measure?
  • Reliability: Will different test sessions against the same test-taker yield the same results?
  • Fairness: Is the test free from bias?
  • Defensibility: Have professionally recommended guidelines been used to create the exam?

The above topics are far more in-depth than is necessary here, but they are important to consider when determining if a certification is worth having. Frankly speaking, I don’t see anyone (other than possibly Paul Bohman) on IAAP’s Certification Committee who may have any experience in this area. There are additional names listed on the IPD Committee that provide hope, and I may just be ignorant of the existing skillsets behind these efforts. Regardless, there’s nothing on the IAAP’s site which indicates any effort at pursuing or documenting their approaches to address Validity, Reliability, Fairness, and Defensibility. During her presentation, Glenda will discuss IAAP’s future inclusion of Dr. Reed Castle, a specialist in Psychometrics, to assist the IAAP. It is unknown the extent to which Dr. Castle will be involved, but I hope the IAAP closely heeds his guidance because that will help considerably.

The IAAP Certification page states:

The IAAP proposes to align its requirements for CEUs with the standards created by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training.

“Aligning its requirements”, however, is not at all the same as becoming accredited as a CEU provider under IACET. Furthermore, there’s no discussion of becoming accredited as a certifying organization under an independent body such as ANSI.

As an “Accessibility Professional” myself, I would find holding a certification useful if it increased my ability to gain employment by virtue of having it. In other words, the certification has to be valuable to the potential employer. The potential employer must feel that the certification exam validly and reliably measures skills and competency in accessibility. The potential employer must believe that the exam itself was rigorous enough to truly prove that the certificate holder really knows what they’re doing. In other words, absent any other obvious differentiation between two applicants, the applicant with the certification should have an advantage over the non-certified applicant. Due to the current lack of publicly available information on the IAAP certifications, its hard to say whether this will be the case.

What about those “imposters”?

While I disagree with the language, I don’t disagree with the sentiment that accessibility has a pretty huge ignorance problem. There are people working in accessibility-related job roles who are seriously under-qualified for their jobs. There are so-called “thought leaders” in web accessibility who have never professionally designed or developed a website. But this isn’t unique to accessibility. It happens in virtually all professions that don’t require professional licensing.

The mission of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) is to define, promote and improve the accessibility profession globally through networking, education and certification in order to enable the creation of accessible products, content and services.

What the accessibility community needs isn’t a certification, but rather education, and IAAP’s messaging going all the way back to 2012 suggests to me that they’ve gotten this backwards. While some people may believe we should “weed out” those “imposters”, I’d rather see those “imposters” become educated. If there’s any value at all to IAAP’s efforts at creating a certification, it is that it should lead to the development of a body of knowledge that can help bridge the knowledge gaps that exist. The more rigorous the certification process, the more such a body of knowledge will be necessary.

At every accessibility consulting firm I’ve worked at, the ability to recruit quality staff was extremely difficult. I can guarantee that every accessibility firm in North America is hiring right now. The workload, when measured against available consultant time, is massive for all of these companies. The lack of available talent will not be addressed by a certification but must be addressed through mentorship and education opportunities similar to those seen among other professional organizations like PMI, SHRM, UXPA, or IAPP. While all of these organizations also offer certifications, they also offer a wide array of educational and mentorship opportunities. In other words, they seek to grow their profession, not “weed” people “out” of the profession.

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]

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