How to bake diversity, equity and inclusion into your software

Man signing a document

Thirty years ago on July 26, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Not unlike the Civil Rights acts of the ‘60s, it was not without long, hard-fought battles, protests and changing of hearts and minds.

This was not the first civil rights law for people with disabilities, but it does set the standard for (and many times requires) much of the accessibility we see in our everyday lives: curb cuts, ramps, railings, automatic doors, handicapped parking, closed captioning and so forth.

Think about that: Things we take for granted such as curb cuts weren’t standard on sidewalks and in parking lots prior to 1990 (a curb cut acts as an exit/entrance ramp for a walkway). This is just an accommodation for people in wheelchairs, right?

Wrong. What about the mother pushing the stroller, the kid riding her bicycle or that guy who just broke his leg and now has to figure out the whole crutches thing?

They need access too. We all do.

As a society, we have come to understand that providing multiple forms of access is imperative when building a new physical space; however, if I were to ask any of you in the age of COVID-19 whether navigating a building or navigating a website is more important, I have a feeling most of you would tell me the latter is.

But the fact of the matter is we simply do not have the same standards for creating websites and software. Yes, there have been key lawsuits that are changing the landscape (e.g., Robles v. Domino’s Pizza LLC, where the U.S. Supreme Court declined to weigh in, affirming the lower court’s decision that a blind individual had the right to sue the pizza maker due to an inaccessible website), but there is still no clear legal standard for web accessibility, leaving many companies fearful, apathetic, bewildered or all of the above.

Accessibility as a core value

In my last blog post, I talked a lot about empathy and seizing the moment. I’m proud to say we’ve been on that path, and I’m optimistic we’ll continue.

Recently, Hyland’s accessABILITY employee resource group (ERG) invited members of the Workday product accessibility group to speak to us and tell us how they’ve grown their program. Ninety minutes later, we all left the presentation—besides thinking it could’ve easily been an all-day event—knowing we have a lot of work to do. But in a good way, building on the strong foundation we already have in place.

The underlying theme of the message was simple: Grow accessibility into one of your company’s core values, to the point where anyone in the company can be an advocate for it. So, how do we get there?

5 ways to embrace accessibility

ada accessible website

Here are a few things we have learned from our friends at Workday:

1. Build out the training program.

To date, we’ve delivered training and awareness to hundreds of employees in the form of courses and events. This is nothing to scoff at, especially in terms of growing the number of advocates at Hyland; however, we learned just how important it is to deliver regular, targeted training to certain groups, which will not only allow us to create more accessible products, but improve the culture as a whole.

2. Move beyond viewing accessibility as a compliance requirement.

As we’ve moved from a compliance-driven angle of accessibility to being more proactive—such as creating Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs), delivering external messaging and incorporating accessibility into development and the user experience—we’re on our way to accomplishing this goal. Workday’s message helped crystallize and reinforce those steps, while also challenging us to continue being proactive and take it to the next level. We know this needs to be “baked into” our design, development and testing processes, and that requires believing in what we’re doing beyond checking a box.

3. Recognize the long-term value beyond the deals.

One of the highlights of the presentation for me was when one of the members of the Workday team said creating accessible products might be a design or budget challenge internally, but for some people, the challenge “could be the difference between using your software or not—or the difference between being able to get a job or not.”

In the U.S., the unemployment rate for people with disabilities in 2019 was 7.3 percent (more than double the unemployment rate for people without disabilities). By creating more accessible software, we can do our part to enable companies to hire more people with disabilities, which in turn helps their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

4. Broaden the definition of “disabilities”… and repeat.

As soon as the Workday presentation was over, a developer I have sometimes worked with said something to the effect of, “That was interesting how they mentioned temporary and situational impairments; I never thought of that.”

This is something I try to state in every presentation I do, but it just goes to Workday’s point that you need to keep repeating the same story, because you don’t know who hasn’t heard it yet.

5. Use accessibility as a differentiator.

We know we have a lot of work to do. We truly care about accessibility. And we want to be the company that goes the extra mile to understand your concerns, fully demo accessible functionalities and demonstrate this is a value of ours.

Now is the time to do the right thing

I’m inspired by Workday and what it has accomplished. The encouraging people there are helping me tell the story that we don’t have to wait for the laws to change with the times before it’s time to do the right thing.

Joe Shearer

Joe Shearer

Joe Shearer is a graduate of Kent State University and a research analyst specializing in product accessibility and compliance.

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